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Standing on the Shoulders of My Ancestors by AAA-Nomad Two Worlds Indigenous Arts Scholar Graham Akhurst

It was August 2019, and the bright sun pulled steam off the Brisbane International Airport tarmac after a shower that morning. The scholarships and grants I’d hoped for had come through. My wife, Jordan and I were married in a small and beautiful ceremony at Maleny in May. Our house was emptied, all our possessions (bar a few boxes) were given to charity. My wisdom teeth were pulled out. The trip to Sydney for the visa’s was done. I had handed in my master’s thesis. My wife had taken unpaid leave from the job that had kept us afloat for the last couple of years. We were ready.

Sitting in the terminal waiting for our flight to board, with my hand in Jordan’s, I thought about my family. My mother was very proud, but it was my grandparents that I thought of. Nan, who died when my mother was young, that matriarch who was taken as a child and moved to Mornington Island, and my Poppy who I met once as a toddler. My grandparents had met near Cloncurry on a cattle station where they worked for no wage and had no access to education. I hoped that I could do them proud. I was leaving home to continue my studies in the US as part of the Hunter Master of Fine Arts (MFA) fiction program with some of the greatest teachers I could possibly imagine, including Australia’s own Peter Carey. I hoped I could learn and eventually write something that had meaning for the sacrifices my grandparents made.

America offered its cultural spoils to us in the first six months. Not only was I learning from conferred masters of craft, but I saw as many plays and exhibitions as my schedule allowed. We also took a trip to Washington for the National Book Festival where we lunched with three heroes of mine; Indigenous Australian writers Jeanine Leane, Kim Scott, and Aussie YA legend Markus Zusak. We went to Phoenix where I gave a talk at Arizona State University on Indigenous Australian literature. We were also dazzled by the turnout at the American Australian Associations Arts Awards gala where Peter Carey and Kylie Minogue were honoured, and in front of other creators and established artists I was humbled to give a speech and offer up a poem for the silent auction being held to raise money for the Australian bushfires.

A few weeks into Spring semester the world changed. I remember my last on campus class and the worried faces around me. Looking at the news became anxiety inducing and it was announced we were going to do our classes online. Within days we were in total lockdown. The death toll rose to apocalyptic proportions. We didn’t leave our apartment except to get groceries, and in those first couple of weeks there wasn’t much on the shelves. Worried friends and family started to call frequently. My brother lost his job. My friends lost family members. We opened our window every night at seven pm and banged on a tin pot as part of a city-wide chorus to honour essential workers. I worried about the future. Every online class had an undercurrent of uncertainty. Many of my Australian Fulbright peers went home. Jordan and I discussed if we should return. I am a cancer survivor and have a compromised immune system, but we decided to stay to avoid the flight and the possibility of contracting the virus. The New York Governor talked and we listened trying to get some bearing on the outside world. We watched too much news and tapped our fingers. As the weather warmed and the virus loosened its grip we ventured out a little more taking a daily stroll around the block. I noticed more people outside and then George Floyd was murdered and the nation rose up.

The murder of George Floyd was a horrific act of violence but not a unique one. If you take the time to speak to a Black, Indigenous, or Person of Colour, more often than not you will hear a familiar tale, one of harassment and abuse by those who are there to protect societies interest, but not ours.

When I was fifteen my uncle drank himself to death. At the funeral, as another uncle played church songs on the organ, a cop car pulled up. One of my cousins was brought in shackled and accompanied by two white policemen. My cousin cried and raised his cuffed hands to the celling as he looked at the open casket and the brown face of my uncle. My uncles’ lifeless body in a suit he never would have worn in life. I’ve been to too many funerals since then, uncles, aunties, and cousins gone to soon. Each one of them with a troubled history with police. A friend told me of a time he was walking home from the pub and was forced into the back of a paddy wagon in the late nineties and was beaten relentlessly with phone books and dumped in Logan on the outskirts of Brisbane. There are many stories like this. Since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody there have been no less than 425 deaths in custody and no convictions for those responsible.

Police violence is the reality of many Black, Indigenous, and People of colour, and while the protests and resistance we are witnessing are not new, it occurs at a time when the world has slowed and we reflect on the institutions that run our lives. In that reflection an anger has surfaced that has been growing since colonisation began, and now the people have acted. It’s what happens next that matters most. In Australia, the Royal Commission has done little to stop the deaths and incarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We have spoken out, rallied, and marched for generations. Our voices were lost in the wash and speed of settler colonialism, however in this new-found stillness perhaps the conditions for real change have risen in reflection and action. My grandparents were stripped of their land, language, and identities, but they resisted and survived. It is via the resistance of our Ancestors that we can protest today and I think they would be proud that we continue the fight. We just need you to listen to us and fight with us to create change.

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