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Bla(c)kness in Australia: Launch of Transition magazine

by Sujatha Fernandes on September 5, 2018

On Tuesday August 7, Sydney Ideas at the University of Sydney hosted a launch for the special issue of Transition magazine on Bla(c)kness in Australia. The collection was edited by myself and Jared Thomas, bringing together the voices and artwork of diverse Bla(c)k writers, artists, poets, and scholars in Australia. We use the particular spelling of Bla(c)k to be inclusive of the distinct experiences and histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and Afro-descendant peoples. During a period of heightened political struggle in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Aboriginal people of Australia began to refer to themselves as Black. Other groups in Australia have also identified as Black, including African-Australians, African migrants and refugees, South Sea Islanders, Pacific Islanders, and many Afro-diasporic groups. Since the early 1990’s, the alternative term Blak has been used by Aboriginal people to claim their own unique histories and identities independent of limiting phenotypical and romanticized conceptions of Blackness.

The launch began with a Welcome to Country, acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora Nations, the traditional and sovereign owners of the land where the event was held.

Four contributors were present at the launch to read from their pieces while artwork from the issue was shown on a screen. Jeanine Leane, a Wiradjuri writer, poet and academic from southwest New South Wales, read several poems, including her contribution “Yulany dhabal” where she asserts that the story of Aboriginal people and place creates an inseparable connection between Aboriginal people and the land. Kaiya Aboagye, a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney, looked at how Afro-Indigenous encounters have been told and misconstrued in the anti-black, settler colonial record. The next speaker, Yadira Perez Hazel, a cultural anthropologist raised in the South Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, and an Honorary Fellow at Melbourne University, read from her piece on Black Lives Matter in Australia. And Omid Tofighian, a lecturer, researcher and community advocate, read from his piece on Black refugee bodies and political profit. He also read out several poems by Sudanese refugees imprisoned on Manus Island.

The event was attended by over 200 people from the university and the local community.  There was a lively Q & A session following the readings, with a number of important questions asked. The question was raised of whether including Black and Blak voices together was productive, since they often have such different experiences, as one young woman of African descent pointed to her own privilege compared to many Aboriginal peoples. Another man of African descent suggested that Aboriginal and African people should come together to celebrate their Blackness, to which audience member Wilo Muwauda from the Kalkatunga Nation responded, “What is there to celebrate when one hundred percent of all children in detention in the Northern Territory are Aboriginal?” Panel members spoke about the need to interrogate the meanings and nuances of Bla(c)kness, centering the voices and experiences of First Nations peoples, and not to buy into a politics of victimhood or hierarchies of oppression.

Here is a link to the podcast of the event:

Other links:

Sujatha Fernandes
Sujatha Fernandes is Professor of Political Economy and Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney.

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