Stan Grant Asks After NT Abuse Scandal: Are We Still Trapped By The ‘White Gaze’?

By Melissa Davey | Grant, speaking at Byron Writers festival, tells how ‘screams of Aboriginal boys’ led him back to James Baldwin’s ‘searing meditations on race and history’.

Stan Grant has delivered the Thea Astley lecture about African-American writer James Baldwin. Photograph: Mike Bowers for the Guardian
Stan Grant has delivered the Thea Astley lecture about African-American writer James Baldwin.
Photograph: Mike Bowers for the Guardian

iradjuri man, author and journalist Stan Grant has spoken at Byron Writers festival about how “the screams of Aboriginal boys locked up and beaten in the Northern Territory” led him again to the work of the African-American writer James Baldwin.

Delivering the festival’s annual Thea Astley lecture on Saturday, Grant said his discovery of Baldwin in his youth “spoke very powerfully to me, to an Aboriginal boy moving on the margins of outback New South Wales, poor and itinerant but in love with books and words”.

And he said he found himself rereading to the US novelist and essayist when filled with rage at footage of abuses of teenage boys at the Don Dale youth detention centre aired by Four Corners two weeks ago.

“I turned again to Baldwin just these past weeks as we have heard the screams of Aboriginal boys locked up and beaten in the Northern Territory,” said Grant, who is Guardian Australia’s Indigenous Affairs editor.

“I turned again to the letter to his nephew, The Fire Next Time. ‘You were born into a society,’ he wrote, ‘which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways possible that you were a worthless human being’.

“Are we, too, in 2016 deemed worthless? My instinct is often to soften the blow. Even knowing what I know, I struggle to accept that this really is my country. That in 2016, this could be who we are. I think of my fellow Australians of goodwill, those who have loved and cried with us, and I say surely this is not the true measure of us.

“But then I think again. I think of how 97% of kids locked up in the Northern Territory are black kids. I think of their parents, too, likely behind bars. I think of their parents, their grandparents, likely gone too soon, dead before their time. I think of how suicide remains the single biggest cause of death for Indigenous people under the age of 35. I think of Aboriginal women 45 times more likely to suffer domestic violence than their white sisters.”


Grant said Baldwin, a black man confronting the racism of his country, the hypocrisy of his family, and his own sexuality with honesty and stirring writing, became a touchstone for his own life.

“Baldwin sounded like home,” he said. “We were living in a world that could not see us, and Baldwin made me visible. Here was a place for me. Here was writer of courage and truth. The people of his books arrived fully formed. They didn’t exist as a reflection of whiteness. This wasn’t blackness as imagined but real and flawed and courageous and pitiful. People who surprised and disappointed. These were people, black people, who were human.”

He said he often found himself returning to Baldwin when he felt anger at the way Indigenous Australians were still treated.

“His essays were searing meditations on race and history,” Grant said. “Each line quotable and a lesson in life. Words so brutally rendered that they make me wince even now. I have returned so often to Baldwin this past year. I have read again his words and felt their pull, and they guide me today as surely as they did when I first read them.

“What a world they speak to. The tragedy of so many lives lay waste. I turned to Baldwin when I heard another Indigenous child had taken her life. She was only 10 years old and living in a far north-west corner of Western Australia. Ten years old should be giggling at the back of the school bus. Ten years old should be swapping notes behind the teachers back in class. Ten years old should be singing into a hairbrush and dancing in front of a mirror. But 10 years old to this girl looked like hopelessness.”

Indigenous children under the age of 14 were almost 10 times more likely to take their own lives than non-Indigenous children, Grant told the audience.

Grant said he saw his own upbringing reflected in Baldwin’s 1953 semi-autobiographical novel Go Tell it to the Church, which depicts Baldwin’s relationship to Harlem, his family and the church. Grant spoke of his own childhood spent attending his local mission on the edge of Griffith in the sweltering heat, where his uncle was a pastor who gave sermons each Sunday.

As his uncle delivered thundering sermons from the pulpit, “a handkerchief mopping the sweat from his brow as he pointed at the congregation”, Grant said he would dream of fleeing.

“I remember my nausea … rising with the heat,” he said. “My neck would stiffen and my temples throbbed. It was all I could do as a young boy not to flee the church. I knew outside, the air was sweet and the smell of fruit from the nearby orchards that bordered the mission, the fast-running currents from the irrigation channel, promised relief from the swelter.

“Ours was the King James Bible, none of this standardised version. We wanted the sound of the word of God. We loved how those old words rolled around our mouths.

“These days of sermon and song prepared me for James Baldwin.”

Grant said Baldwin taught him to write about Indigenous Australians without softening the blow, and to write without fear of how his words would be interpreted. It was the only way to honour those who lives he wrote about, he said. This meant writing free from the “white gaze”, Grant said.

“The white gaze – it is a phrase that resonates in black American literature.

“Writers from WEB Du Bois to Ralph Ellison to James Baldwin and Toni Morrison have struggled with it and railed against it.

“As Morrison – a Nobel Laureate – once said: ‘Our lives have no meaning, no depth without the white gaze. And I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books’.

“The white gaze. It traps black people in white imaginations. It is the eyes of a white schoolteacher who sees a black student and lowers expectations. It is the eyes of a white cop who sees a black person and looks twice, or worse: reaches for a gun.”

Grant said that Baldwin’s essays helped him to realise he was not alone in navigating a world where he was “always understimated, trapped by the tyranny of low expectations”.

“Baldwin gave voice to what I knew, but could not say,” he said.

“James Baldwin, so unflinching, so unbowed, a man writing free of the white gaze.”



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