The Hate Race By Maxine Beneba Clarke: Book Review
Growing up in Australia, race relations were always too sensitive to talk about – so nobody did, until now.
The Hate Race is a searingly honest account of growing up black in the suburbs of Sydney.
Most of Maxine Clarke's childhood was familiar to me – the ice creams, the British parents and the sweltering heat all echo my own.
But there was one key difference: I grew up white and Maxine grew up black.
Her experiences of being told to go back to where she came from, and of being called derogatory names, made me wince.
The Hate Race focuses predominantly on everyday racism – the little incidents that pile on top of each other to form something larger and more vicious.
Written with honesty and humour, the messages from Maxine’s memoir can be translated to every society where race is still a sensitive subject.
The Hate Race By Maxine Beneba Clarke: Book Extract
Driving slowly along the artery of North Road, you can track the varied and changing demographics of Melbourne’s inner east. Palatial beachfront mansions and Art Deco apartments slowly give way to overlarge suburban houses. This is the east side of the city – where everything is two-point-five-kids-and-a-four-wheel-drive respectable, un-grungy all the way from Elwood to Huntingdale.
I’m walking along the short stretch of North Road that takes me from my own street in the white-picket-fence, increasingly gentrified suburb of East Bentleigh to my son’s primary school, one of three primary schools within walking distance of our home. I’m bloody tired. In fact, I’m probably looking forward to the school holidays even more than my son. He’s five and a half, and in his first year at primary school. For the last ten weeks, the poor little critter’s been absolutely smashed with tiredness come three-thirty pick-up. He shuffles out of school babbling and incoherent, offering nonsensical insights into various parts of his day: which kid fell over and skinned their knee during snack time, what flavour icy pole he chose at lunchtime with a full analysis of exactly why.
I’m wheeling my chubby five-month-old daughter along in her pram, looking forward to two weeks of pyjama-clad French toast mornings, museum trips and non-school-assigned reading.
‘Fuck off, bitch.’ The voice comes from behind me.
Exactly what I don’t need this afternoon is to be caught up in someone’s very public domestic.
‘Go on, fuck off.’
An uneasy feeling runs down my spine. This isn’t some domestic dispute: he’s talking to me. I’m unprepared, stop for a second, startled. It’s been about ten months since I was openly abused on the street by a total stranger. Since moving from Sydney to Melbourne four years back, it’s never happened so close to my home.
The white ute draws level with me, slows down. It’s around three and the traffic on North Road is almost bumper to bumper. The car behind the ute slams on its brakes.
‘Fuck off, you black bitch,’ the ute driver screams from the open window. ‘Go on, fuck off. You make me sick, you fucken black slut. Go drown your kid! You should go drown your fucken kid. Fuck off, will you!’
Suddenly, there’s that chest-tightening feeling. That heart-in-my-throat, pulse-in-my-temples fear. The dry tongue. The gasping for breath. The nakedness. The remembering how it can happen anywhere, at any time. That can’t-think freeze. I am four years old, on my first day of preschool, standing underneath the mulberry tree, watching another little girl’s lip curl up with disgust as she stares at me. I am slouched down on the high school bus, head bowed, pretending not to notice the spit-ball barrage, the whispered name-calling.
My baby daughter thinks it’s funny. She’s chuckling, kicking her fat legs in glee at the loud voice coming from the vehicle. My knuckles are gripping the pram so tightly that the fingertips on my right hand have started to go numb. I look straight ahead, trying not to pick up the pace too much. The turn-off for my son’s school is a few hundred metres away. Another horn beeps. It’s the motorist behind the ute. I know the ute driver’s a young bloke, but I don’t want to look any closer. That’s part of what he wants.
‘Fuck off, blackie! Why don’t you just piss off? Bitch! Go the fuck back to where you came from, back to your own fucken country, nigger!’ He puts his foot on the accelerator and the ute screeches away.
I round the corner. Off the main road, I stop the pram and sit down on somebody’s tan-brick front fence. I can’t breathe properly. Tears are streaming down my face. I’m heartbroken, but also angry – not at the young ute driver, at myself. For letting this upset me. I should be used to this. I should know better. I’m also thankful my daughter isn’t a few years older, old enough to understand. I’m thankful my five-year-old wasn’t walking with me. I’m also thankful the bloke in the ute couldn’t see the baby: her beautiful caramel skin, her to-die-for medium brown eyes, the light brown ringlet curls starting to dance their way across her little fat head. I know that this, too, might add fuel to the fire.
I compose myself, check my watch. The school bell rings in five minutes. I have to make up time. The mother of a boy in my son’s class falls into step with me.
‘How’s your day been?’
I’m still shaking, can’t answer her for a moment.
‘Um. Sorry ... I’m ... I’m a little bit uh ... Sorry. Some guy driving along the street just started yelling at me. I’m feeling a bit out of it, actually . . .’
‘Just now? What happened? What did he say?’
‘Go back to your own effing country. You know the drill.’
I can tell she doesn’t. She’s standing there with her mouth gaping open in shock. I feel embarrassed now, ashamed I even brought it up.
‘I’m okay. Don’t worry about it. It just hasn’t happened for a while, that’s all.’
She starts to stammer something, then looks away uncomfortably. ‘That’s horrible,’ she offers finally. ‘I’m so sorry. I don’t know what the hell gets into people. That’s just awful. I’m sorry you had to go through that.’
I don’t want sympathy. I want to un-hear what I just heard, un-experience what just happened. If racism is a shortcoming of the heart, then experiencing it is an assault on the mind. You should go drown your fucken kid! Go the fuck back to where you came from, nigger. The cumulative effect of these incidents is like a poison: it eats away the very essence of your being. Left unchecked, it can drive you to the unthinkable.
It’s day five of the school holidays and we’ve barely left the house. When we do go out, to the shops or park, I can feel all the white people looking at us. I don’t want to have to consider what they’re probably thinking.
I’m supposed to take my son to a theatre show tomorrow. He’s been looking forward to it for over a month: grins widely every time he remembers the upcoming excursion. The kids’ theatre show is, quite frankly, my idea of hell. My son knows that, which is why he takes so much pleasure in asking me if I’m excited about it.
‘Are you looking forward to the show tomorrow, Mum? I can’t wait!’
‘I’m so excited about it, I think I’m going to wet my pants,’ I respond, deadpan.
‘Why do I have to have such a silly mother?’ He falls over onto the carpet in hysterics, rolls his eyes.
I do feel like I’m going to wet my pants. It’s only been one term, but I don’t want my child to go back to school. I remember, my god, so well, the unforgiving playgrounds of my youth.
I don’t ever want to go out of our house. We might sit next to somebody who racially abuses us under their breath. The usher who tears the ticket might wipe their hands on their shirt in disgust after their fingers brush mine. The server at the snack bar might spit on our hot chips during interval. Somebody might tell me I should drown my own child.
Go back to your own fucking country.
This is my country, that much I am sure. I was born here, the child of Black British parents, in 1979, in a maternity ward of Sydney’s Ryde Hospital, on the stolen land of the Dharug people. My early ancestors were part of the Atlantic slave trade. They were dragged screaming from their homes in West Africa and chained by their necks and ankles, deep in the mouldy hulls of slave ships, destined to become free labour for the New World. If slaves were lucky, they died in transit to the Caribbean – bodies thrown overboard, washed clean of the blood, sweat and faeces in which they’d spent most of the harrowing journey. If they survived, they found themselves in a nightmare: put to work on the harshest plantations on earth, overseen by some of the cruellest masters in the history of the Atlantic slave trade. I am the descendant of those unbroken.
I carry proudly the burnished mahogany of my ancestors, though my Africa is four continents, four hundred years of slavery, one forced migration, two voluntary migrations and many lifetimes ago. So long ago, in fact, that Africa herself might not now recognise me. So long ago that when I die, the fierce, fertile continent of my origin might refuse my spirit entry: the wooden pombibele might refuse to drum out my funeral rites. Mwene Puto, the Lord of the Dead, with long thin fingers as blond as bone, might refuse to appear and claim me, and my soul will be spirited south, away from my first motherland, past the open corners of Yemen and Somalia and out into the Indian Ocean, sent packing back to Australia, the land of my birth: my country – my children’s country. The only home we know.
Photographs of the time show my father in flared cords and tightly fitted shirts, his oval-shaped afro rising high above his head. There’s my drama-school-graduate mother, dainty and petite in velour turtlenecks and large wooden earrings, sparkly eyed and beautiful. Both of them are Black Britain to a tee: full to bursting with seventies hippie hopefulness. And my god, their youth. Over the years, snippets of the journey, of how your father and I came to Australia, have been told and retold. The margins between events have blended and shifted in the tell of it. There’s that folklore way West Indians have, of weaving a tale: facts just so, gasps and guffaws in all the right places – because, after all, what else is a story for?
There are myriad ways of telling it. The young black wunderkind, the son of a cane-cutter with the god-knew-how-it-happened first-class degree in pure mathematics. Gough Whitlam, the sensible new Australian prime minister, dismantling the last vestiges of the White Australia Policy. That fool English politician Enoch Powell, and his rivers of blood anti-immigration nonsense. Two academics arranging to meet at London’s Victoria station. A Qantas jumbo jet. My parents’ unforgettable arrival in Sydney, at the Man Friday Hotel.
When I gather the threads in my fingers, this is how I’d have it weave.
It’s 1973. My father’s parents, Louella and Duncan Clarke, gaze across the hall of the local West Indian Club to where their first son holds court among the neighbourhood well-wishers. Louella clenches her eyelids tightly shut, feeling she might well cry with pride. Then, slowly opening her eyes, she grips her husband’s worn, tired hand in hers.
‘Lou, all de trouble. It wort it. It well wort it, woman.’ My grandad turns to his wife, a smile dancing in his bloodshot eyes. ‘What trouble ye talkin bout, Dun?’ she would have asked, in that cheeky tone she often used to rile him.
Duncan would have looked at Louella then, well shocked. Surely the woman wasn’t losing her mind just yet. Surely she hadn’t forgotten the battles of these last thirty years. The wretched three-week boat journey from Jamaica. Living in freezing English boarding houses. The riots. The early days with those fascists stirring up the streets so that no black person felt safe walking them day or night.
But then Duncan would have noticed, in the corner of Louella’s eye, the twinkle which had first drawn him to her, all those years ago back in Jamaica.
‘Ye never had any trouble wid dat chile yeself,’ Louella would’ve continued. ‘If mi do recall, was mi who, screamin an cussin so loud all-a Kingston musta heard, did squeeze de bwoy outta parts dat surely nat meant fe a likkle head wid a brain in it dat big te pass through!’
Duncan, he’d have laughed then. He’d have let echo one of those deep belly rumbles of his. Louella, she’d’ve joined him, chuckling away. They’d have sat together – I’m sure of it – side by side, watching the first of their four children celebrate his success.
My father, Bordeaux Mathias Nathanial Clarke, was the first-born son of two Jamaicans, and named with all the pomp and expectation that entailed. Born in the Jamaican capital of Kingston, Bordeaux migrated to London with his parents at nursery school age. At twenty-five, he’d just become one of the first in his community to secure a degree from a British university.
Thirty years since the first wave of mass migration to England from the Caribbean, Black London was finally coming into its own. The anticipation could be felt in the salons, pubs and jerk chicken take-outs of Tottenham, Seven Sisters, Brixton, Birmingham, Walthamstow.
If ever the loyalty of Britain’s far-flung Africa-descended subjects left scattered over the West Indian islands post-slavery was in question, the voluntary participation of tens of thousands of young black men and women in the Second World War effort had put paid to these misgivings. By 1945, officially at least, West Indians were seen as ‘true’ citizens, whose patriotism was no longer open to scrutiny: theirs was an allegiance which had been sworn in blood.
British immigration officers posted throughout the Caribbean to encourage migration to fill post-war employment shortages were very persuasive. My Jamaican paternal grandparents and Guyanese maternal grandparents lined up for passage to build a new life for themselves and their young families in a place where – they were assured – the streets were paved with gold.
Black people had lived in England, in sparse numbers, since slavery, but in 1945 the Empire Windrush ship pulled into the Tilbury docks carrying over four hundred and fifty Jamaicans. Those on board – mostly men – had braved the same Atlantic Ocean the British had used to forcibly transport their forebears to the plantations some hundred years back. They came brimming with hope; searching for work; thirsting for the better life Britain would surely offer.
So began the slow parade of ships from the islands to the British motherland. At the conclusion of each weeks-long voyage, hundreds of tired, hopeful passengers were unceremoniously dispersed into the grey ports of London. Often ostracised by their neighbours, belittled by their colleagues, short-changed by their employers and extorted by their landlords, the new arrivals moved from boarding house to boarding house, day labour job to day labour job, constantly on the move through the drab outer suburbs of the capital. The new West Indian arrivals desperately searched out their countrymen in the cold, lonely corners of a country which turned out to be nothing like they’d dared to dream.
But here, not thirty years later, Bordeaux Clarke had become living proof of the opportunities afforded by the struggles and sacrifice of his parents’ migration. Here was the accomplished young black man every West Indian father wanted their knock-kneed little brown boys to become.
This is how I’d have it sing. Next chapter
‘Ow, Dad. Ow!’ Dragged by the ear by his Jamaican father across the room to meet the new graduate, a small black boy pushed his lips out into a stubborn pout and scowled. Bordeaux stifled his amusement and tried to appear a suitably impressive role model for the poor kid.
‘See dis man?’ the boy’s father, a respected neighbourhood elder, asked.
‘’Course I see im, Dad – ’e’s standin right in fronta me!’ The boy squirmed out of his father’s grasp.
‘Chile, ye nyah know what’s good fe ye. Show de man some respect or me gwan give ye a lickin!’ The man cupped his hand under his ten-year-old’s chin, raising the boy’s face up towards the statuesque scholar standing in front of them. ‘Dis young man somebody ye should aspire te be, bwoy,’ he lectured. ‘Kiss de man’s feet. Go on – bend down right now, an kiss de man feet.’
This is a tale my Grandad Duncan once told me, to demonstrate how much respect my father’s education had commanded. That West Indian way, of spinning a tale. Bordeaux, if I know it right, would have shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, while the serious man pointed down towards his black Dr Marten boots. Bordeaux, he’d have laughed, patting the nervous kid on the shoulder and waving the pair away, the older man still looking respectfully back over his shoulder.
Since the Clarke family’s arrival in London from Jamaica some twenty-three years before, it had been Bordy this and Bordy that.
‘Bordy’s teacher, dem nyah like im. Dem give de bwoy grief jus cause de chile too gifted.’
‘Bordy, im so smart, im really gwan meyk sometin of imself, ye know.’
If they hadn’t heard enough praise about the boy from the very proud Louella and Duncan Clarke over the years, all of Tottenham now appeared to have concrete validation of what the couple had been preaching: that their first boy, Bordy, was nothing short of brilliant. That in England, if a black child worked hard enough, any dream was achievable.
Bordy had paper. This wasn’t just any old piece of paper Bordy held, but a PhD from an English university. A PhD in not just any old subject, but mathematics. Tssssk. Any old Montego Bay layabout knew that was a damn hard gig.
To boot, Bordy had also recently married Millie and Robert Critchlow’s middle daughter, Cleopatra, the young Guyanese actress who’d recently graduated from the National School of Speech and Drama. A beauty, she was, and Bordy, with his soundwaves and equations and geek-glasses, with his numbers and slightly abrasive manner, he’d somehow nabbed her. God only knew how.
There had always been problems in England for people like Bordy and Cleo. For West Indians, that is. In the summer of 1958, fours years after the arrival of the Empire Windrush, random violent attacks on black people on the streets of London escalated over the course of two weeks, culminating in race rioting on the streets of Notting Hill, in West London. Hundreds of white folk – many of them working-class teddy boys spurred on by involvement in fascist anti-immigration groups – stormed the streets, attacking the houses of black immigrants.
Ten years later, in 1968, around the time Bordy and Cleo were thinking about studying for their A levels, the world seemed to be in the midst of a race crisis. In the United States, civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated, leading to widespread race rioting across the country. In South Africa, the movement against the apartheid system of racial segregation had been temporarily stifled by political repression. At home in London, a politician named Enoch Powell gave a speech at the Conservative Association meeting in Birmingham. Hair slicked back, black jacket tightly buttoned, sparse moustache jumping over thin, pursed lips, he declared:
‘In this country, in fifteen or twenty years’ time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’ . . . It almost passes belief that at this moment twenty or thirty additional immigrant children are arriving from overseas in Wolverhampton alone every week . . . Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow . . .
Powell warned of English wives in childbirth turned away from overcrowded hospitals, of white children unable to obtain places in local schools, of neighbourhoods changed beyond recognition. In the general election of 1970, the centre-right Conservative Party of the United Kingdom won an unexpected victory.
Despite these racial tensions, migrants of colour and their British-born children had truly made London their home. In Tottenham, a few island grocery shops had sprung up: aisles stacked with jerk seasoning, tinned ackee, smoked salt fish and bruised plantains. The occasional black hair salon could be seen, with racks of multi-coloured hair-weave pieces, giant tubs of sticky dreadlock wax and netted sleeping caps spilling onto the footpaths. After twenty or so years, a strong black community was being forged.
Following his graduation, Bordeaux was offered a teaching post at Nottingham University. The post-war boom ground to a standstill. The economic climate in England started to falter. The country slid into recession. One of Bordeaux’s university colleagues was about to return home to Australia to take up a teaching post. The Australian man’s wife got on well with Cleopatra and the two couples had formed a solid friendship. The Australians advised Cleo and Bordy to consider moving to Australia.
‘Leave Great Britain,’ they urged. ‘Jump ship before it sinks.’
Bordy and Cleo knew Australia was a wealthy country colonised by the United Kingdom. They knew that Australia was a nation founded on the genocide, degradation and dispossession of black Indigenous inhabitants. They knew that, for many decades, Australians had lived under the White Australia Policy – which openly preferenced white migrants and excluded migrants of colour. The White Australia Policy was a system that, in 1919, Australian Prime Minister William Morris ‘Billy’ Hughes hailed as ‘the greatest thing we have achieved’. Decades later, after the outbreak of the Second World War, then Australian Prime Minister John Curtin had proclaimed: ‘This country shall remain forever the home of the descendants of those people who came here in peace in order to establish in the South Seas an outpost of the British race.’
But the young Australian couple assured Bordy and Cleo that things were changing. The White Australia Policy had been dismantled. The visionary new prime minister, Gough Whitlam, had been elected on a platform of increased immigration and land rights for Indigenous Australians. Excitement was in the air. Change was coming.
On their return to Australia, the young couple started posting job openings back to Bordeaux, for positions in New South Wales, where they would be within reach to help the young black couple settle in to their new country.
Months ticked by without news. Upheaval within the Whitlam government had caused a freeze on government job appointments. Cleo and Bordy could make neither head nor tail of the ruckus, but it appeared Gough Whitlam, the man their friends had championed as the mandated architect of the new Australia, was no longer the prime minister. The silence suddenly broke, and a reputable university in Sydney’s west contacted Bordeaux to let him know they were seriously considering him for a position. He was required to send further identification, including a photograph.
Aware of the lack of diversity in Australia, Bordy strategically declined to include a photograph with his documentation. Weeks later, my father received notification that a professor from the Australian university happened to be visiting London, and would like to meet up with him to discuss the job offer. The two academics decided Victoria station would make a good initial meeting point.
This is how my mother tells it. This is how the story hums.
‘How will I know who you are?’ the professor asked my father.
‘I’ll be wearing a pinstriped suit,’ Bordy replied carefully, ‘and carrying an umbrella.’
‘I’ll be carrying a red Qantas bag,’ the Australian professor said.
The day of the meeting, Bordeaux Clarke, dressed in his pinstriped suit, nervously kissed his young wife goodbye and headed to Victoria station. The train pulled in. Businessmen in dark suits, women pushing prams, groups of teenagers and families with suitcases filled the platform. The black man wearing his best pinstriped suit and carrying a large umbrella greeted the Chinese Australian professor carrying a red Qantas bag.
That folklore way of weaving the tale.
No-one was more surprised than Louella and Duncan Clarke when they found out that their brilliant young son had applied for a position at a university in Australia. As far as anyone knew, Australia was some bottom-of-the-earth island that had banned black folk from coming in for as long as possible, after shooting dead most of the ones they found there in the first place.
News of the newly married couple’s impending migration was the talk of black Tottenham.
‘Ye hear dat Bordy, Lou an Dun’s bwoy, im teykin im new wife Cleopatra to anudda country?’ one customer would remark to another down at the West Indian goods shop on the corner of West Green Road.
‘Nah, me nyah know dat. Ye serious? Where de two-a dem goin?’
‘Dem gwan Austreeyleea.’
‘Where dem gwan?’
‘Austreeyleea? Where de hell dat?’
‘Me nat sure. Somewhere at de bottom of de world. It British rule.’
‘Black folk dem live down dere?’
‘Is anyone guess!’
‘Why dem gwan dere?’
‘Bordy im get teachin job in de university dere.’
‘Me thought im already got teachin job up Nottingham?’
‘Well, im own fadda Duncan tell mi dat im leavin de country an goin dere.’
‘Lawd! Dat damn shame.’
I can see them now, the gossipmongers, shaking their heads in confusion as the shop attendant rang up their items.
This is how I tell it, or else what’s a story for. Next chapter
In 1976, after twenty-nine hours of travel, nine cardboard-consistency meals and two sleepless nights, racked with excitement, anxiety and anticipation, Bordeaux and Cleopatra Clarke arrived at Sydney International Airport. They disembarked wide-eyed from the enormous kangaroo-stamped jet, in the company of a hundred other tired travellers.
Their first impression of their new country was the sheer brightness: a luminous southern hemisphere sunlight they had never seen before in an impossibly clear blue sky. It was glorious, that light, as if they’d stepped suddenly out of grey, dreary Kansas into the motion-picture technicolour of Oz. Terra Australis. Endless possibility.
The ride out to Chatswood was longer than Bordy and Cleopatra had anticipated. The sparsely populated suburbs stretched as far as the eye could see. Large square houses stood on enormous blocks of clipped green grass, bordered by picket fences. The driver snuck curious glances at the well-dressed young black couple in his rear-view mirror as he drove to the North Shore address they’d given him.
The car eventually slowed to a halt outside the hotel where the university had booked a room for my parents until more-permanent accommodation could be found. The excited but jet-lagged couple stood in the driveway, looking up at the hotel. Cleopatra shook her head in disbelief, leaned over and checked the number on the hotel letterbox against the address they’d been given. The couple locked eyes, shocked. The sign above the entrance proclaimed: Man Friday Hotel. They both knew Man Friday well. Man Friday, the Carib cannibal turned loyal servant of Robinson Crusoe. Man Friday the faithful who, in Defoe’s novel, loved his master so fiercely that, after serving the shipwrecked man on the island, he followed Crusoe back to England for a lifetime of willing servitude.
Bordy reassured his wife, as they hauled their suitcases from the back of the vehicle and the taxi slowly pulled out of the driveway. I can hear them now, those bogongs of doubt beginning their dusty-winged beat beneath my mother’s rib cage. What kind of country is this? Cleo glanced quickly over to the street sign at the end of the road. Help Street it read, the white letters screaming out against the dark background.
Wishing to celebrate their arrival with the obligatory English wine and cheese before finally catching some sleep, Bordeaux and Cleopatra were directed to the local bottle shop by wary hotel management. The man behind the counter immediately directed the young black couple to the cask wine section. Bordeaux and Cleopatra, who had never seen cask wine before, peered through the holes in the cardboard casks to inspect the foil bags which appeared to contain the wine. Not realising they’d been directed towards the cheap, nasty booze assumed to be their consumption of choice, they selected one of the more expensive casks and headed back to the counter.
In the adjoining Franklins supermarket, wooden crates and cardboard boxes were stacked from floor to ceiling, creating makeshift aisles which rendered navigation of their trolley an Olympic feat. Ugly black block-writing screamed the names of smallgoods across white, plastic packages. Cleopatra reached instinctively for one of the few coloured packets in the cheese section of the refrigerator. Bordeaux caught his young wife’s hand mid-air, recoiling in shock. In giant blue lettering, the word coon leered at them.
Again, those beasts of doubt, waking and turning, deep in my mother’s gut. What have we done? What have we done?!
During Cleo and Bordy’s week-long stay at the Man Friday Hotel, there was no forgetting the ill-omened name. The distinctive hotel logo danced across pristine white towels, napkins, sheets and curtains: an embroidered trail of tiny black footprints, exploratory smudges on uncharted white territory.
In another sign the fates were stacked against them, the couple who had urged Cleo and Bordy to migrate to Australia made an unexpected move to rural South Australia to take over the family farm. Their time left in New South Wales overlapped just a few months with Bordy and Cleo’s arrival, and then the young black couple found themselves well and truly alone.
Eighteen months after their arrival in Australia, my parents settled in the small outer Sydney suburb of Kellyville. Located on the rural fringe, houses in the area were comparatively cheap, and the sleepy suburban village was within commuting distance of my father’s teaching job at the university. Then, too, it was the kind of place the young couple envisaged they might start and raise a family.
The suburb was named after Hugh Kelly, who’d arrived in New South Wales as a convict in the early 1800s. On his release, Kelly amassed land in the area along with a pub, the Bird in Hand, which had stood on the intersection of two main roads: Wrights and Windsor. When Kelly died, around 1884, the land of his estate was divided up into farmlets and the area became known as Kellyville. Kellyville had remained semi-rural until the mid-sixties, when roughly a thousand homes were developed in an area that became known as ‘the village’.
Kellyville village was a cluster of mostly brick houses in the style of classic seventies suburbia. Three bedrooms. One bathroom. Carport or single garage. Concrete driveway. Carefully edged yard. In summer, lawn sprinklers were on constant rotation. On winter mornings, white frost sheeted the buffalo grass. The village was largely populated with young single-income families, or older empty nesters whose families had lived in the area for generations. On the village outskirts lived an assortment of city dropouts in caravans or small fibro houses backing directly onto bushland. Then there were the market gardeners, who largely kept to themselves, including a small number of Maltese, Italian and Chinese immigrants who’d brought one or two acres of cheap land and worked it for their living.
In Kellyville village everybody knew everybody. Bordeaux and Cleopatra Clarke, the young black couple who’d purchased the little blonde-brick house next to old Betty and Jack’s place on Hectare Street, were the most bizarre of blow-ins. They weren’t like the market gardener migrants; they’d bought inside the village, right in the thick of things. Bordy could be seen mowing the lawn of a Saturday morning, thick glasses fogged up with perspiration, black muscles shining from underneath his dark blue Bonds singlet, striped terry-towelling sweatband circling his afro. His tight denim shorts raised the eyebrows of many a passer-by. Then there was Cleopatra, ever-stylish in her head wraps, earrings and boots. ‘An actress,’ people whispered to each other. ‘That’s what old Betty heard her say.’ And their English, that was perhaps the biggest oddity of all: so perfectly spoken. That was not how the locals expected black folk to talk. Heads were scratched. Fences were stared over. Gossip was spread.
There was history in it, though, this Africa-descended migration, if the new arrivals or their neighbours had only known. Among the convicts brought on the First Fleet to help build the new colony were several men of African descent, some likely hailing from the West Indies. On their release, these settlers of colour bought land, and brought up families, in Pennant Hills, not far from Kellyville. Over time, because of its inhabitants of colour, the area became known as Dixieland – named thus by white settlers after the region in America’s Deep South which incorporated Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and the eight other states of the slave belt which made up the Confederate States of America from 1861 to 1865. At the time of Bordy and Cleo’s arrival in Kellyville, though, the locals were likely unaware of this history. For many of them, Bordeaux and Cleopatra Clarke were the first black people they’d ever seen up close.
In these improbable surroundings, Bordy and Cleo’s family grew. First came a daughter, Cecelia, in 1978. Eighteen months later came their middle child – me. And in 1982 a boy was born, Bronson. Their family was now complete.
By the early 1980s, race riots had again erupted across the UK, as a result of British police officers abusing stop and search laws to racially profile and unfairly target ethnic minorities – namely, young black men. Race relations, under the United Kingdom’s new conservative prime minister, continued to be fraught. But none of this mess touched the little brick house on Hectare Street. The home Bordeaux and Cleopatra had made was packed with love, laughter, playdough and pride.
So went my early childhood. This is how it sang.
Hectare Street sat at the very edge of Kellyville village. Down the end of our road, some eight hundred metres or so from our front door, was a small creek. The rickety bridge that crossed it served as the border between the village and the small acreage properties beyond.
In summer, us children would troop denim-shorted and hypercolour t-shirted with Mum or Dad down to the creek, clutching glass jars or empty ice-cream containers. We’d scoop up the clear, shallow water until we had a sufficient number of wriggling black tadpoles. The tadpoles were then kept on the back veranda of our house. Sometimes we’d rear them long enough for their heads to fatten and their two back legs to develop. Inevitably, though, there would be some kind of mishap. The bucket would be accidentally kicked over, or an unexpected downpour would cause the containers to overflow, and that would be the end of our endeavour to hand-rear frogs.
On weekends, we would drive down the back of Kellyville and buy fruit and vegetables from the market gardeners. Out in the small fields, workers would be stooped low to the ground, triangular straw hats or water-soaked head wraps protecting them from the unforgiving sun. Out front of each small allotment was a makeshift stand – often just a few plastic milk crates stacked together – loaded up with freshly picked tomatoes or strawberries. Each had a cardboard sign with the price and a tin honesty box.
To add to the eccentric mix of the outer margin of the city, peppered among the standard three-bedroom blonde-bricks were Federation-style houses, all complete with chimneys but missing television aerials. These were the houses of the Exclusive Brethren, a fringe religious group whose Australian headquarters happened to be in the village. Their windowless church hall was perched righteously on the hill next to the local Catholic primary school on Hectare Street, while our unwaveringly atheist family lived at the bottom of the hill. Fitting, if amusing, geography.
Though our lives were worlds apart, I empathised with the Brethren children from an early age. They, too, had been thrust unexpectedly into this close-knit village, and were highly visible due to their different behaviour and old-fashioned attire. On Friday nights, the Brethren were duty-bound to proselytise, the head preacher (inevitably a tubby-around-the-middle ageing male) ranting about hellfire and damnation to bemused families queuing for fish and chips outside Nick’s Milk Bar on the Windsor Road shopping strip. Young Brethren women, skirts down to their ankles, cream blouses buttoned tightly at their wrists and necks, hair in rag curlers underneath their compulsory scarfs in preparation for the gathering later that night, provided a chorus of amens and praise the Lords.
‘The Lord can see everything, sinners.’ The preacher would point an accusing finger at a King Gee–clad man ferrying newspaper-wrapped hamburgers home to his young family.
‘Amen, the Lord sees all!’ the Brethren women would murmur in agreement.
‘The Lord hears everything, sinners!’
‘Oh yes, the Lord, he surely hears!’
My toddler brother, Bronson, my already-at-school older sister, Cecelia, and I would listen to the dire warnings drifting in through the open window of our family’s white Ford Falcon as we waited for Mum to hurry back from the milk bar with our fish and chips.
‘Everything! The Lord hears. Everything!’
What the Lord was supposed to have heard and disapproved of in the ultra-conservative bible belt of Kellyville was anyone’s guess. Next chapter
In 1983, at the age of four, I started at the local preschool. Kids attended for several half-days a week. Clag glue, poster paint, nap-time mats and morning-tea fruit were the order of the day. The play yard was lush and green, and contained play equipment fashioned out of wooden logs and old car tyres. I’d suffered tantrum-prompting envy at my older sister Cecelia’s entry into ‘big school’ the previous year, and had been eagerly looking forward to a kingdom of my own. I was also happy to escape temporarily the curious crawling expeditions of my one-year-old brother.
But in every Eden lurks a serpent, and in this paradise, the joy-killer came in the form of a little girl named Carlita Allen. Tiny, freckle-faced, ash-blonde, rough-around-the-edges Carlita looked like she’d just stepped out of a glossy illustrated copy of Seven Little Australians. She was a Judy type: hardy, resolute, bold. The youngest in a family of three girls, she lived on one of Kellyville’s bush properties. Carlita was talkative and ballsy. By all accounts, we should have fast become friends. But from the moment she laid eyes on me, Carlita Allen decided she didn’t like me, and Carlita Allen made it known.
As the excited gaggle of four-year-olds lined up near the mulberry tree for our first day at preschool, Carlita Allen looked me up and down. Hand still clutching her mother’s, she examined me from head to toe. I stared back hopefully, waiting for a verdict to register on her face. Her right eyebrow slowly levitated into her forehead. She raised her right hand to her hip. Finally, a haughty sneer inched its way across the upper left corner of her mouth.
Carlita Allen leaned towards me. ‘You,’ she whispered loudly, ‘are brown.’
It wasn’t as if I hadn’t realised this very obvious difference between our family and almost all of the other people we knew. My skin colour was simply a concrete matter of fact, much like the sky was blue. Carlita was right: I was brown. But until that very moment, holding my mother’s hand under the mulberry tree’s enormous fan-like leaves, it never occurred to me that being brown, rather than the pale pinkish of most of my friends and neighbours, was in any way relevant to anything.
There lurked, in this small girl’s declaration, an implied deficiency. I was in no doubt that there was something wrong with being brown, that being brown was not a very desirable thing at all. I craned my neck to look up at my mother, who in turn looked over at Carlita’s mother. Mrs Allen shrugged and smiled. She picked a cotton thread from her peach-coloured blouse. She held the thread out between thumb and forefinger.
‘Children are so honest, aren’t they?’ The thin cotton wisp floated slowly down to the ground.
Tension crept into my mother’s body. She turned her head and started chatting to the mother on the other side of her. I turned the comment over in my head. On the one hand, Carlita had simply stated a fact. On the other, the way in which she’d stated it had raised a whole lot of questions I really didn’t understand or know how to go about constructing answers to.
Despite the palpable visual differences of our family, my mother did everything she could to integrate us into our surroundings. Our entire neighbourhood seemed to orbit around my Mum: the school canteen worker, the infants school gross motor volunteer, local fete organiser and office holder for the Kellyville Reciprocal Babysitting Club. The front room in our house seemed a hub for neighbourhood gossip and gatherings.
On rare occasions, though, I would see another side of my mother. We’d be somewhere local – in the Castle Hill shopping mall searching for winter pyjamas, or piling into the car one Saturday after Little Athletics, and suddenly Mum would freeze and her eyes would widen. Then all three of us kids would suddenly be unbuckled at the speed of light and bustled across the road, or shovelled into a shopping trolley and wheeled at great haste over to the other side of Kmart. We came to recognise the cause of these urgent movements: my mother had spied, lurking conspicuously on the periphery of our whitewashed lives, another black woman.
My mother’s excitement at the prospect of a kindred spirit wasn’t surprising, given the vibrant black community from which she and my father had come. Here, in these rare encounters, was a glimpse of that other world she’d left behind. My brother, sister and I would hang around, bored, through exclamations and interrogations, as details were swapped, future visits arranged. My mother was always uncharacteristically quiet after chance meetings of this kind; she’d be absent-minded and aloof, as if her thoughts had wandered elsewhere. Cleo had agreed to move to the other side of the world so that my father could take up a lectureship at an Australian university. Mostly, she seemed at peace with the decision, but if ever she questioned her contentment with her new life, it would be in the days after her encounter with another black woman.
A visit would usually follow. Inevitably there’d be other black children present. Directed by the adults to go play outside, we’d stand gaping at each other: them and us – total strangers somehow expected to instantaneously bond as kin. As with any family gatherings of this kind, there were sometimes connections: firm friendships forged which continued into adulthood. Then there were those other encounters – in which, despite our mirrored knotty afros, confrontational pouts and way-too-smart-for-Aussie-children special-occasion attire, the children we visited with were as unlike us as the local louts who threw stones at us down at the BMX track around the corner from our house. It made no sense to me to equate brown with kinship, but nor did I expect being brown to disqualify me from friendship with those who weren’t – those like Carlita Allen.
The two preschool teachers walked along the row of variously excited and woeful new arrivals, introducing themselves cheerily, gently prying chubby fingers from parents’ legs and waving away tearful mothers. As they did, I tallied up the other brown people I saw on a daily basis. There were a few family friends of varying shades, perhaps ten or so. I saw people on the telly sometimes, on the news, or in the running races my father liked to watch. The telly was black and white though, so I could never really be sure. I saw brown folks in the newspapers some mornings, little kids even. But they were mostly so swollen-bellied and sad-looking that I didn’t feel I was anything like them at all. The fact remained though: I was brown. And most of my world wasn’t.
Carlita Allen’s declaration wasn’t just a passing observation. It was the source of all she disliked about me. Our first meal at preschool consisted of fruit and raisin toast, arranged on two large platters and placed in the centre of a long table made up of smaller, pushed-together kiddie tables. Our initial nervousness mostly forgotten, little hands flew quickly from platter to mouth and back again, until there was only one lonely piece of fruit left on the platter directly in front of me. Never one to turn down the opportunity for a feed, I closed my fingers around the ripe piece of pear and hustled it into my mouth. Carlita, seated diagonally across the table from me, rose to her feet so quickly that the chair behind her toppled over.
‘You,’ she said, pointing a finger accusingly, ‘are greedy and brown.’
Later in the day, as we sat cross-legged in a circle, our beaming teachers invited us to recount to the group nice things we’d discovered about each other during our first day of preschool.
‘Macthine hath lovely curly hair,’ offered a girl named Bella. ‘And thee ith very friendly.’
‘She does, doesn’t she? I’ve always wanted curly hair too,’ one of the teachers responded.
‘Yes, and being friendly is great!’ the other enthused.
‘She only has curly hair because she’s brown.’ Carlita sulkily twirled a strand of her own blonde mop around her finger.
The teachers fell silent for a moment, their eyes locking across the circle.
Little rosy-cheeked, ringlet-haired, lisping Bella, who would become one of my closest preschool allies, became a regular target for Carlita Allen.
‘You can’t even talk properly,’ Carlita Allen informed her in the second week of preschool. By this stage, I had become partially immune to Carlita’s brown-frowns, employing the sticks and stones mantra my mother had the foresight to revisit with me at home. Bella, though, was a timid girl. In the face of Carlita Allen’s disdain, she came to dread preschool.
I would watch in the mornings as my friend’s mother prised the screaming girl from her legs and hurried off, teary-eyed, struggling to shut out her daughter’s broken-hearted howl. After several weeks of this, I decided to put my sandal-clad foot down, heading for the place I knew was the primary source of all knowledge and truth-telling.
‘Carlita Allen at preschool is nasty to everyone,’ I complained, standing barefoot in my frilly red-and-white shortie pyjamas on the flower-shaped tiles of our lime-green kitchen.
My mother opened a tin of apricot nectar; started browning chicken in a saucepan.
‘She’s always saying I’m brown and telling Bella she can’t talk properly. She’s nasty. None of us want to play with her anymore.’
‘I’m not surprised,’ Mum said offhandedly, turning the heat down under the sweet-smelling sauce, as she gently nudged my brother from around her leg. ‘That sounds perfectly reasonable. It sounds like Carlita Allen is a big bully, and nobody wants to spend time with a bully.’
I wandered into the lounge room to mull the conversation over while I watched Inspector Gadget. As usual, my mother was absolutely right.
The next day, when I arrived at preschool, Bella was already in the classroom tucking into a piece of raisin bread. She was sitting underneath the hanging row of pegged-up finger-paintings we’d done of ourselves the day before. My smiling mud-brown face stared out at me from among the other light-pink-painted faces.
‘Carlita ithn’t here yet,’ Bella stated firmly. Her fingers were shiny with melted butter. ‘I hope thee doethn’t come today.’
‘That’s perfectly reasonable,’ I reassured my friend. ‘Carlita Allen is a big bully. And nobody –’ I emphasised the word the way I’d heard my mother’s intonation change the evening before ‘– wants to play with a bully.’
One of the preschool teachers came over to ask whether I wanted some fruit bread too. I declined, and took myself off to stand just inside the front gate. Several of the other children arrived, their parents looking at me curiously as I stood determinedly at my post. I’d put on my bright red Minnie Mouse t-shirt that morning, which always made me feel extra gutsy.
Eventually, Mrs Allen’s white car pulled into the car park. She opened the driver-side door and swung her stockinged legs and strappy gold shoes out onto the gravel. I watched nervously as she opened the back door for her daughter, grabbing Carlita’s pink backpack from the back seat and handing it to her as she climbed out of the car.
‘Hello,’ she greeted me as she unlatched the gate. ‘Are you waiting for somebody?’
‘Yes,’ I replied hesitantly. ‘I’m waiting for Carlita.’
‘Oh.’ The woman looked down at her daughter, bemused. ‘That’s . . . nice.’
‘Why is she waiting for me?’ Carlita rolled her eyes in my direction. ‘I don’t like her. She’s brown.’
‘Carlita . . .’ her mother reprimanded her vaguely, primping her fringe.
‘That’s okay,’ I replied. ‘I am brown. And I don’t care if you don’t like me, because I don’t like you either. Neither does Bella. Neither do most of the other kids. And we don’t want to play with you anymore. You’re nasty. Don’t come near us today. Play by yourself.’
‘I beg your pardon?’ Mrs Allen glared at me.
I was a little scared now, but I wasn’t going to walk away before I’d said my piece.
‘That’s not very nice.’ Mrs Allen raised her voice indignantly. ‘How dare you say something like that to Carlita? Maxine, you are a very, very nasty little ... little ... black ... girl.’
It wasn’t just a how-dare-you, it was a how-dare-you? Her lips curled when she said that you, the same way Carlita’s did when she said brown. I knew I wasn’t nasty, and I didn’t care if stuffy old Carlita Allen’s mother, who wore ridiculous high-heeled shoes and had an even more ridiculous fanned-out fringe, thought I was.
‘I’m not nasty,’ I clarified. ‘We just don’t like Carlita. And that’s perfectly reasonable. Because Carlita is a big bully, and no-one likes to play with bullies.’
‘You horrible, horrible little girl,’ Mrs Allen hissed down at me. ‘You little . . . you little black . . . you apologise to Carlita right this minute.’
I was floored. I didn’t feel I had anything to apologise for. But when a grown-up yelled at me like that, which wasn’t very often, I was programmed to recant. Carlita stood there, just inside the fence, her Strawberry Shortcake bag on her back, smirking at me from behind her mother. I took a deep breath, looked down at my feet. ‘Sorry.’
‘You look at Carlita when you’re speaking to her. And speak up so she can hear you properly!’ Carlita’s mother was yelling now, her face red with anger. There was a curtness in her voice which stung the same way the back of my thighs felt when Dad curtailed my cheekiness with a sudden slap.
‘Sorry, Carlita.’ I looked up, my right hand involuntarily flexing into a fist by my side.
‘That’s okay,’ Carlita allowed smugly.
‘Now you hold hands and walk her into class, and you make sure you play with her today and don’t say anything else nasty.’ Mrs Allen shook her head from side to side, still glaring at me.
My hand grew sweaty in Carlita’s as we walked side by side up the path towards the preschool buildings. I felt like I would burst with the unfairness of it – as if the air around me was pushing hard into my skin, bearing down. When we reached the classroom door, I dropped Carlita’s hand and looked back at her mother. Mrs Allen was still standing halfway up the front path, staring in our direction.
Sometimes, when we were at the grocery store, or somewhere else we needed to shop, me and Mum and Bronson and Cecelia would be waiting in a line for what seemed like hours. Other customers would come and go. Even those behind us would be served. It was as if the shopkeeper couldn’t see us. It didn’t happen often, but when it did, my mother would stand there quietly, her breath heaving in and out as if she was struggling to keep calm.
‘That’s not fair, Mum,’ one of us would occasionally pipe up. Or perhaps, ‘That lady pushed in front of us!’ It was as if my mother didn’t notice the rudeness, though. Even when she was finally served, she would just smile politely and we’d be on our way. I wondered, suddenly, if this was what she felt like all those times, this smouldering stifled rage. Anger burned in my throat. Next chapter
The local primary school had been established way back in 1849. I started there as a student some hundred and thirty-six years later, in 1985. The school block sloped gradually downwards from the front entrance on Windsor Road – the main arterial road which runs all the way from the closest city of Parramatta, through North Rocks and Baulkham Hills, right through Kellyville and out the other side to the rural properties of Windsor and Rouse Hill.
Also on Windsor Road, not two hundred metres from the school’s front gate, was Kellyville’s main shopping strip: a small cluster of shops, including a milk bar, newsagency, chemist, bakery, deli, hardware shop and several eateries. The morning bus to the local high school left from outside the Kellyville shops. When we walked to school, we would wind through the suburban streets till we reached the back gate, but on the odd occasion us kids scored a lift from Mum, she would drop us at the front gate. We would stare curiously at the high school students. They milled around in their light blue collared shirts and dark blue skirts and shorts, their bags hanging casually off their shoulders. Their language was peppered with profanities. They laughed and shrieked, and sometimes even smooched or held hands. Some of them munched on hot newspaper-wrapped potato scallops from Nick’s, even though it was eighty-thirty in the morning.
The upper primary section of my school, which housed grades three to six, was a double-storey brick and concrete L-shaped building. A square concrete-paved courtyard was nestled into the inside of the L. This was where the primary students would line up every morning to file into class, and where weekly assemblies were held in the warmer months.
‘This is our school,’ we would chorus, as we recited the Monday morning creed, a fidgeting mass of red-and-white-checked tunics, nose-picking, scab-scratching, grey shorts, bandaids-on-knees and freckled faces huddled together on the hot concrete. ‘Let peace dwell here. Let the room be full of happiness. Let love abide here: love of God, love of one another, and love of life itself . . .’
Around the edges of the courtyard were wooden seats, overhung by majestic clusters of gum trees. This was where the students would sit to eat lunch before running off to play skipping or handball or heading down the back of the school block to play chasings or weave daisy chains.
The infants section of the school, which housed kindergarten and grades one and two, was a cluster of three separate buildings further down the school grounds, each containing two classrooms, surrounded by similar seat-and-gum-tree clusters. There was a grass play area and wooden playground equipment. Cement toilet blocks and bubbler huts accompanied both the upper and lower primary school playgrounds.
On most weekday mornings, Dad would rise early for work, and Mum would get Cecelia and me ready for school. Then my sister and I would walk to school past neat brick and fibro houses, their closely clipped lawns planted with bright red bottlebrushes and hot pink busy lizzies. Past classmates, also walking. Past safety house signs on letterboxes, and mighty come-climb-me oaks, gnarled arms heavy with acorns. Cecelia and I were like chalk and cheese, despite there being only an eighteen-month age gap. Once we entered the school gate, we’d go our separate ways. There was a silent solidarity in our approach, though: a mutual bracing against the day ahead.
It had taken just a few months at preschool, up against the constant jeers of Carlita Allen and any other kids she managed to co-opt in her anti-brown crusade, to wise up to the perils of exclusion. I knew before I started big school that, for me, the playground would be a battlefield: a world divided into allies and enemies. At five and a half, racism had already changed me.
After a while, you start to breathe it. Another kid’s parents stare over at your family on the first day of school with that look on their faces. You make a mental note to stay away from that kid. When you have to choose working partners in numbers, you discreetly shuffle over to the opposite side of the room. You tell a teacher someone is calling you names. Blackie. Monkey girl. Golliwog. The teacher stares at you, exasperated, as if to say: Do you really expect me to do something about it? The next time you have a grievance, you look for a different teacher. This is how it changes us. This is how we’re altered.
The way my mother tells it, I was always the easy middle child: no-nonsense, happy-go-lucky, low maintenance, cheery and friendly. Back then though, even in early primary school, I was intrinsically aware that the more invisible I was, the easier my life would become.
Despite the name-calling, and being picked last for most activities, I loved kindergarten. I had arrived at school already reading. Learning things excited me. The brightly stained counting blocks, letter tracing sheets and sentence-maker boards in my first classroom were like some kind of heaven. Yet the quiet longing for acceptance that had been seeded the moment Carlita Allen had told me I was brown and she didn’t like it had taken root.
In grade one, I was really looking forward to being Student of the Week. Each Monday, Mrs Kingsley would pull one of our names out of a glass jar on her desk and write it on the board, and the kid whose name was drawn would become Student of the Week. The Student of the Week got special privileges, like being able to pick their working partner, and being called on first to choose art materials or reading books. The Student of the Week would stand out the front of the class, and the teachers would ask them to please tell the class a little bit about yourself. Then the whole class got to ask questions, like what kind of pet they had at home and what their favourite colour was.
Finally, in the middle of second term, my name was pulled out of the jar.
‘Maxine Clarke!’ The teacher beamed across the room at me as I stood up from my yellow plastic chair and made my way to the front of the room. I turned to face the class. My best friend Jennifer, who sat next to me in class, was smiling encouragingly at me from our shared desk.
Mrs Kingsley adjusted her glasses. ‘Do you want to start by telling us about yourself?’ she asked.
‘My favourite colour is yellow,’ I declared. ‘I have one sister and one brother. And my favourite food is chocolate. And I have two pet guinea pigs. And I live in Kellyville.’ I took a deep breath. ‘I started a dance class last week, but I don’t like it very much. Jennifer is my best friend. I do piano lessons but I don’t like them very much either. I really like the grape flavour of Hubba-Bubba bubble gum. It’s my favourite.’ I stopped for a few seconds to think. ‘My best season that I like is spring because my birthday is in spring. My best fruit that I like is watermelon. My mum is an actress, and my dad is a mathematician. He does very hard things with very difficult numbers. One time a man at his work where he does numbers told me he has an amazing mind. He came up to me and said, Your dad has an AMAZING mind! like that. My little brother is sometimes very naughty. Whenever we go to visit my dad at his work where he does maths, he—’
‘Okay, thanks, Maxine!’ Mrs Kingsley cut me off.
I glared at her angrily. I wanted the other kids to know everything about me – all of the things they hadn’t asked because I was just the brown kid. Today was my one opportunity to let everyone know I wasn’t just that.
‘I wasn’t finished!’ I pouted, crossing my arms.
‘Well, I have a few questions already!’ Mrs Kingsley said brightly.
I stared at her, waiting.
‘Is your mum really an actress, darling?’ she asked in a gentle voice.
‘Yes. I went to a play that she did once in a big theatre. There were chickens onstage, in a cage.’ I could still remember how strange it had been, to see my mum pretending to be somebody else, in front of all of those people; I could remember the plush red seats at the theatre in the city; the bags of red Jaffas my dad had let us buy.
‘I think you have a very vivid imagination. And what does your father really do for a job?’
‘He’s a mathematician.’ Maybe I’d got the word wrong. It was a very hard word. Perhaps I wasn’t saying it right. ‘He does maths, like when we do numbers in class. Only much harder. At a university.’ Sometimes, in the school holidays, Cecelia and I had to go in to work with Dad. He’d sit us up the back of the enormous lecture theatre, with lollies and colouring books, and we’d have to be very quiet while he talked loudly and scrawled dots and numbers and strange-looking symbols across the blackboard with white chalk for the hundreds of adult students who had come to hear him speak.
Mrs Kingsley smiled and shook her head slightly from side to side, as if she didn’t quite know what to do with me. ‘I think we’ll have to get your parents in here on Careers Day, to talk about what they actually do. Your mum stays home and minds your little brother, doesn’t she? So, does anyone else want to ask Maxine a question?’ Mrs Kingsley had now moved to the back of the classroom.
‘I wasn’t finished, Mrs Kingsley. I have more to tell about myself!’
Ignoring my protests, the teacher looked around the class. Lewis Stevens was staring out the window. Carlita Allen was whispering to the girl next to her. A boy in the front row was digging his finger deep into his nostril.
‘I shall ask another question then!’ Mrs Kingsley said. Mrs Kingsley was old. Really old. Older than my nannas even, I reckoned. She walked slowly, had a silver-blue shine to her roller-set hair, and always used words like shall, and may and jolly and rather, like in Enid Blyton books.
‘Where are you from?’ my teacher asked brightly.
‘Pardon, Mrs Kingsley?’
‘Where are you from?’
Unsure of the answer she wanted, I stared at her for a moment.
‘From my mum’s tummy,’ I replied matter-of-factly.
A faint titter of amusement ran around the room. The class was suddenly extremely attentive.
‘That’s not what I meant, Maxine,’ said my teacher curtly.
I stared at her, confused.
‘The class is interested in where you’re from, Maxine,’ she said insistently.
I racked my brain, staring at the clear plastic boxes of counting blocks stacked up on the bookshelf behind Mrs Kingsley. I imagined myself tipping them all out, fashioning them into a Lego-like ladder and climbing away out of the classroom window.
‘From my mum’s . . . vagina?’ I said tentatively.
The class erupted into giggles.
‘You rude girl!’ Mrs Kingsley looked furious. ‘You know what I am asking. Why are you being so insolent? What country were you born in?’
‘This one.’ My head was hurting now.
‘Oh,’ said Mrs Kingsley ‘Well . . . where are your parents from?’
‘They came here from England.’
Mrs Kingsley was glaring at me again. A boy called Matthew, who was sitting at the back of the room, right next to where our teacher was standing, started laughing.
‘They’re not from England!’ he said scathingly. ‘My nanna’s from England and your parents are not like her. They’re not English, Mrs Kingsley!’
I knew my parents had come to Australia from England. I had even been back there when I was smaller, to visit my grandparents and cousins. I remembered a bit of it. There were photos of me and Cecelia and Bronson on a sled in the snow with our gumboots and parkas on.
‘I want you to go home and ask your parents where they’re from,’ said my teacher. ‘And you can come back and tell us properly tomorrow. Does anyone have any other questions?’
Rebecca, a sweet pale-faced girl with red hair, raised her arm.
‘Yes, Rebecca?’ My teacher seemed relieved that the conversation was moving along.
‘What do . . . people like you . . . feel like?’
‘What do you mean, Rebecca?’ Mrs Kingsley asked, exasperated. ‘You’ll have to explain the question to her a little better than that, darling.’
‘I mean, do you have normal feelings . . . like normal people do?’
Silence fell over the classroom as all of the other six-year-olds waited eagerly for my answer. Outside the classroom window, a pack of galahs was tearing apart one of the gum trees, shrieking and squawking as they tore the nuts from the branches and dropped them onto the wooden seats below. I looked over at them for a moment, then back into the classroom. The three ceiling fans hummed as they whirred lopsidedly around.
‘I don’t know,’ I said quietly. ‘I don’t know if I have normal feelings like normal people do.’
When my Student of the Week question time had finished, Mrs Kingsley asked me to choose a piece of A4 cardboard to use for my Student of the Week album. I chose a sunflower-yellow piece of card, and walked slowly back to my seat. The cardboard would be passed around the class that day, with each student writing down something nice about me in brightly coloured pencil. At the end of the day, the poster would be pinned to the noticeboard, and at the end of the week, I’d get to take it home.
I watched, throughout the day, as the brightly coloured rectangle moved from desk to desk. Eventually, it landed on the desk next to mine. My best friend Jennifer slowly read down the page, looked over at me, picked up her pink pencil and began to write. She worked away for about ten minutes, stopping every now and then to think.
Jennifer was a shy girl with thin brown-blonde hair and a delicate sparrow-like face. Her family, the McGuires, had been one of the few that had welcomed my parents on their arrival in Kellyville, and us kids were frequently at their house playing with Jen and her brother and sister. Jen had been at preschool with me, and we started school at the same time. We never spoke about the differences between us, or about the indignities I suffered on account of them, but in my memories of early primary school Jen is always there, standing next to me, unmoving.
‘Once you’ve finished, hand the album over to Maxine, please, dear,’ Mrs Kingsley instructed. ‘Then she can read it out and we can pin it up.’
Reluctantly, Jennifer handed me the piece of card. I ran my eyes down the misspelled comments.
Maxine is brown.
Maxine has brown skin.
Maxine has funny curly hair.
Maxine thinks her family is from England.
Maxine has dark brown skin.
Maxine is nice and Maxine is black.
Maxine is friendly.
Maxine is not Australian.
Maxine is brown and she does dancing.
Maxine has a black family and a little brother.
Maxine doesn’t know about her feelings.
Maxine is brown.
She is brown.
She has brown skin.
At the bottom of the list was a whole paragraph written neatly in bright pink pencil.
‘Stand up and read out your album, Maxine!’ Mrs Kingsley said. ‘I’m sure the class had some lovely things to write about you.’
I stood up, pushing my chair back away from the desk, and read out the one pink paragraph at the bottom, written by my friend Jennifer. ‘Maxine is friendly and smart. She is a good reader. She plays the piano. She has a brother and a sister. She is very good at spelling. She is a happy girl, and I like to play with her. She is my friend.’
‘Well, isn’t that nice?’ said Mrs Kingsley. ‘Would you like to pin the album up to remind us what a special student we have in our class this week?’
I paused for a moment. ‘Can I please go to the toilet, Mrs Kingsley?’
‘Okay . . . but you must be quick, dear. Pin the album up on the wall on your way out, please.’
I picked up the piece of cardboard, clutching it with both hands, and moved towards the door. Inside the empty girl’s toilet block, I re-read my Student of the Week album then tore a jagged line between Jennifer’s words and the other comments. I read Jennifer’s words out loud to myself once, then twice, then four more times. I had never had anything written about me before, except for my kindergarten school reports and things the doctor wrote down in her folder when I was sick. The things Jennifer wrote were solid things now. She had grabbed them from the air when I spoke to the class, and listened to them. She had made them real. I didn’t even care about the rest of the comments. I folded up the jagged bit of cardboard containing Jennifer’s words, and zipped the small rectangle into my tunic pocket. I tore the rest of the page up into tiny pieces, opened the door to one of the toilet cubicles, and watched as the yellow flakes slowly turned to sog inside the toilet bowl.
I wanted people to write down more true things about me – wanted to start writing down stories about myself, making myself real: making other people see me. There was a rhyme my mother had told me at home which always confused me: sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me. Names did hurt though. The words did hurt. They hurt deep inside my chest. They hurt inside my head. They hurt inside my heart.
I loved words, and I loved stories, but mostly the books in the school library were about princesses and princes and Spot the Dog. I loved them anyway, because they contained combinations of words that took me into other worlds, allowed me to escape for that brief moment of relief. But most of them weren’t about people like me.
For our school’s Book Week dress-up parade, my mother had encouraged us to go as characters that were the most like us. But Cecelia and I didn’t want to go dressed as one of the characters from the few children’s books we owned that had black kids in them. Nobody knew who Kojo from Oh Kojo! How Could You? was, in his brightly coloured African tunic top. Nobody knew who Liza Lou was, in her short, tattered sundress, ferrying Sunday-go-to-meeting-finery across the haunted yeller belly swamp. I had gone dressed as Pocahontas the first year, while Cecelia was Hiawatha: characters of colour the other kids might at least know.
Words had never before been about me, had never before made me feel as good as Jennifer’s words on my Student of the Week album had made me feel. They had never before made me see that I existed; had never been so overtly and unashamedly on my side. Jennifer’s words seemed powerful now that they were written down. Magical. Like they were forever.