I was born in spring in 1940, given my mother’s name ‘Lilla’. My grandmother died before we met, but I know her through my mother. As a small child I grew up secure in my family. I knew my father, I knew my mother, I knew my sisters and brothers. It wasn’t until I began school that I was brought to a rude awakening. There was a black world and a white world. In the black world I was safe; in the white world I was unsafe.
It was obvious to me from my first school days that white people were unpredictable. This understanding of unpredictability came when my big sister took me to school for the first time and introduced me to her girlfriend’s little sister (who was starting school that day too). I thought I had made a friend for life. However that was not to be. Most white kids I met at school did not or would not play with me. Sometimes (rarely) they did. This is where the unpredictability came in. I was never sure when or if they would play with me. Eventually I worked out that they only ever spoke or played with me if there were no other (white) kids around.
Once, my middle brother was invited by a white boy in his class to a birthday party. When he came home and told us, we were excited for him. It was the very first time any of us had been invited to a birthday party. Mum washed his best shirt, pressed his best serge (short) pants, and sent him off all shining clean. Years later my brother told us that when he turned up at the party he wasn’t allowed in the door: the child’s mother had come to the door and, seeing who it was, demanded ‘What do you want?’ When he said he had come for the birthday party she sent her child out to say to my brother, ‘Sorry but you can’t come to my party because you’re black.’ That same brother was made to stand up in front of his class and empty his pockets whenever any money or a rubber or pencil was reported missing.
a bad dream
filled with nightmares
I never screamed
it’s frozen inside
can’t see …
I actually went to school wanting to learn, wanting to get to know other kids and to be part of everything at school.
I did most of my growing up in a small country town. One vivid memory is of going to school one morning when the whole school was buzzing with talk about how a family had been forced to move from their house into a disused dairy shed. The white children said it was dreadful that the family had to live in such terrible conditions. I couldn’t understand why they thought a disused dairy was a terrible place. We lived in a bag hut with a dirt floor and scraps of ironbark from trees straightened out by my dad for a roof. The diary was a well-constructed building with good solid walls and concrete floor. No one had offered us a dairy to live in.
went to school
to my awaited fate
how my head
like being squeezed
in a vice
and always, always
I was late
dragging my feet
in the dust
head bowed low
trying to think
of some excuse
to allow me
to go home
How I hated
‘education’s the thing’
I ‘d sit at my desk
and not learn a thing
and wish to hell
it had never
In my first year of primary school, I remember walking home one day with a group of white children ahead of me. They were calling a well-known Aboriginal couple awful names, throwing stones at them as they sat in the gutter in the street. I was shocked that children could be so disrespectful of grown-ups. As I walked past the couple sitting at the kerbside, their backs were towards me, so they could not see me. I walked about 50 yards down the road when I had a strong compulsion to go back, to acknowledge them.
My parents had taught us to respect elders. I could not ignore the Aboriginal couple in the gutter. I so I returned, walked out onto the road, and stood in front of them: ‘Hello Mrs Fuller!’ Hello, Mr Fuller!‘ They looked at me smiling. The man said: ‘Hello, little girl. You run along home now before it gets too late.’
I remember mum taking my two older sisters down to the local dances. She and I would stand on the verandah, looking through the doorway at my sisters dancing inside. They never danced with men; only with each other; except there was one fellow who they danced with occasionally and he was considered an outcast because he had been born out of wedlock. But he was the only man I ever saw them dance with in that small country town, and of course they were the only black people who ever went to those dances.
We lived in the bush during my middle primary school years. On Sundays my dad taught us to box. We drew a square in the dirt with a stick. That was the boxing ring. Those nearest each other in weight would be opponents. It did not matter that the boys boxed with the girls. Even weight was fairly unimportant; the serious matter was that we learned how to fight and how to defend ourselves.
My dad was a learned man. He taught us much, never differentiating between males or females in our family. When a job required doing, whoever was there did it regardless of whether they were female or male: tractor driving, truck driving, droving cattle, sewing bags of wheat, ring-barking trees, cotton picking, and on, and on.
My mum was an educated person in our terms. She had gone to third grade in primary school, but there wasn’t a word she couldn’t spell, not always correctly, but she never failed to spell a word. She knew the meaning of so many words. She was my dictionary in my growing years. Mum encouraged us to read as widely as possible and never once attempted to censor our reading. Our white counterparts at school were never, never allowed to read the newspaper the Truth . Of course it was old hat to us, the sex scandals, the murders, robbery with violence and so on. Our mum let us read it all. We were made to feel ashamed that our parents were so lax in allowing us to read anything, so we were never game to tell the white kids at school that we read that ‘awful’ paper.
Lilla Watson (c) 1987
Lilla Watson was born in Queensland, Australia, and lived in various country towns and in the capital, Brisbane, thenceforth. In 1979 she was appointed tutor in the Department of Social Work in the University of Queensland, the first Aboriginal to be appointed by that university. She conducted research and fieldwork in relation to problems faced by Aboriginal people in Queensland, and in 1980 was invited as an ‘Australian leader’ to attend the Australia’s Future conference hosted in Melbourne by Australian Frontiers.
This is an extract from ‘Sister, Black is the Colour of My Soul’ published in Different Lives – Reflections of the Women’s Movement and Visions of Its Future published by Penguin Books Australia, Melbourne, Australia, in 1987, Jocelynne A. Scutt, ed.