Let None Tell Me the Past is Wholly Gone: Aborigines and Children’s Literature

The children’s publisher Puffin was, in the 1960s and 1970s, a fabulous success. Part of the reason for this success was its excellent marketing, which was aimed squarely at middle-class, white British children and their parents. The firm encouraged reading by having a book club, whose slogan was There’s Nuffin Like a Puffin (there is a song that goes with this; you can find versions of it on YouTube, but I warn you: you will have it in your head all day); they published a magazine and an annual that gathered together stories and artwork from some of the finest (mostly British) writers and illustrators of the time.

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Puffin reached its readers through books, magazines, annuals, and even songs and outings.

While paging through the 1975 Puffin Annual (part of Seven Stories’ Kaye Webb collection), I came across an unusual picture that made me pause. The picture is unusual because it is not of white people. There are very few non-whites in the Puffin Post or Annual, although the books published by Puffin do slightly better at producing visual diversity. The picture is a photograph (by Axel Poignant), not a drawing, and shows two naked children (from the back) walking on a beach. It is not immediately clear from the picture the ethnic origin of the children. The photograph is accompanied by a poem, “The Past” by Kath Walker. The poem’s speaker begins by saying, “Let no one say the past is dead” and then goes on to contrast “tribal memories” with an “easy chair before electric heater” in “suburbia”. Presumably the tribe of the poem is somehow connected with the photographed children, but there is no further explanatory information on the double-page spread. These children do not appear to have lives that suggest even a need for electric heaters, so the placement of photograph and poem side-by-side position them as the past that is not dead, but are they representations of a past that IS past, but remembered? Or a past way of existing that still carries on today?

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Whose past?  Whose present? Kath Walker’s poem next to Axel Poignant’s photo.

If one is a highly-skilled reader—which of course all Puffin Club Members were—it is possible to find a clue toward the answer to this question by turning the page. The next story (also with photographs by Axel Poignant, written by Roslyn Poignant) is “A Story of the First Australians.” This piece discusses the lives of contemporary Aborigines, and like many articles about non-Europeans, it walks the line between celebrating the culture and reinforcing imperial stereotypes about “natives” as something vaguely sub-human. For example, the encounter between Europeans and Aborigines is described like this: “When the Europeans first came, 200 years ago, they built their cities along the coasts, turned grasslands into sheep pastures and wheatfields, and scrublands into cattle runs, and they paid scant attention to the black people they found already living there, and so their numbers were greatly reduced” (61). Leaving aside the convoluted nature of this sentence (which seems to suggest that it is the Europeans whose numbers were greatly reduced), the sentence makes European colonization a benign event. It also implies that a lack of European attention will cause a group of people to begin to become extinct. If this were true, I would argue that only Europeans would be left on the planet today.

 

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The Poignants’ article ignores the brutality of colonialism on the Aborigines; the colonizers here are merely indifferent.

Reading through the article itself, you would discover that Kath Walker—the author of the poem that precedes the article—is an Aborigine herself. She was in fact, by the time of the annual’s publication, quite a well-known poet, but part of her poetic fame derived from the fact that she was Aboriginal. She was the first Aborigine to have her poetry published in book form in Australia, though many questioned whether an Aboriginal could write poetry and suggested it was ghostwritten. Walker not only faced her critics, she was crucial in lobbying for citizenship rights of Aboriginals. She also had an MBE, granted in 1970 (which she returned in 1987 in protest against the Australian bicentenary celebrations). None of this information is present in the article or accompanying the poem, and yet it is crucial for understanding how her political views came out in her poetry. Knowing these facts about Walker would, however, have made the Poignants’ article an entirely different animal, because it celebrates the primitiveness of the Aborigines and downplays the ways in which Aborigines interact with white society. Walker’s poem validates her Aboriginal history, but also explores the tension between the comfort of modern life and the way that modern life is devoid of spiritual meaning. The speaker wants to preserve the meaning of her past life while knowing that she will have to—and in the electric heater sort of way, wants to—accept some aspects of white society. The article fails to acknowledge this tension. Kath Walker fought for Aboriginal rights throughout her life but her activism could easily have been missed or mistaken by even the most careful Puffin reader.

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And what of the authors of the article itself? Again, the article gives no biographical information, and it is unlikely that the reader would (even if she thought to do so) be able to find anything out about the authors in a pre-internet age. But Roslyn Poignant,continued to have an interest in Aborigines throughout her life. In fact, she published a book about the history of Aboriginal society and its interactions with their Australian colonizers in 2004 entitled Professional Savages: Captive Lives and Western Spectacle. The book discusses the way that Aborigines in the 19th century were often displayed in circus acts, fairs, and museums, and were photographed by anthropologists as examples of human “types”. Let no one tell me the past is wholly gone, indeed.

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