To most people in the United States, the word “segregation” will conjure up images of whites-only drinking fountains or, if being optimistic, the late leader Nelson Mandela. But this abhorrent situation of separating the races was not wholly unique to South Africa or post-Civil War America. In Australia, Aboriginal peoples suffered apartheid-like conditions that prevented full freedom, happiness, and social mobility.
The Dying Days of Segregation in Australia wastes no time letting readers know about the recently removed, yet vastly underreported, institutional barriers to equality. One man’s anecdote tells of a childhood spent sitting in the hard, uncomfortable seats in the back of a movie theater, since the soft canvas chairs in the front were only for white patrons. As if that wasn’t upsetting enough, his story takes a dark turn — even in the hospital, all of the white patients had to be seen first. It is clear that racism, especially when endorsed by the government, is a matter of life or death.
Author Barbara Miller’s clear historical approach, peppered with deeply emotional stories of the best and worst of mankind, is sure to appeal to people who want to better understand the complex, disturbing nature of racial hierarchies.
Coming into this book, I knew very little about Australia. Other than a few sly jokes about penal colonies, the typical United States history curriculum doesn’t focus heavily on the Land Down Under. Despite this lack of general knowledge, I was sadly unsurprised at the blurb for The Dying Days of Segregation in Australia. Power dynamics across different societies tend to follow the same patterns, and segregation is one of the strongest ways to subordinate a group of people.
Although the topic interested me from the start, I was a little concerned when I noted that the author, Barbara Miller, was not Aboriginal herself. Even well-meaning historians can make painful errors when writing about a community that is not their own. But my fears were quickly assuaged when I realized how important the Yarrabah were to Miller. Not only does she have a host of professional experience, such as being the CEO of the Aboriginal Coordinating Council in the 1990s, but the pictures she includes in the book tell a story of deep involvement. There’s a picture of Miller beaming at the camera at Guyala lookout with Yarrabah houses in the background, but there’s also pictures of the Yarrabah that portray them with dignity. A quick scan of images of Aboriginal peoples on the internet shows that they, along with many other native peoples, show that fetishizing different, “exotic” cultures is more frequently the trend. Add to that the plethora of literary praise from qualified readers such as the former Chairman of Yarrabah Aboriginal Council, and Miller’s credibility is sound.
As a history major, I really appreciated all of the specific detail that Miller included. The personal anecdotes are important because they give a more human, emotionally gripping side to the story, but backing up the memories with dates, acts, and committees was very helpful. This is an essential tool in standing up to those who claim that racism isn’t an issue, or worse, never existed. Being able to point to campaigns like the 1963 Yirrkala bark petition or organizations like the North Queensland Land Rights Committee give social justice advocates direct points to reference when having a dialogue or debate.
The Dying Days of Segregation inspired me to look deeper into the history of Australia as a whole. Just by doing a few quick Google searches, I’ve been able to learn pieces of world history that my classes didn’t teach me. I’ll be heading to my campus library this weekend to pick up some promising volumes.