Why 'growing up Aboriginal' isn't something I can define

Why ‘growing up Aboriginal’ isn’t something I can define

Bronte Charles

I always wished you could tell the sun touched my skin like you can my Mother’s. I have her nose though, my Mum’s. And when I smile, it takes up my whole face, just like hers does. Like my Father, my eyes crease when I laugh. I have his milky complexion, his freckles and we both get sunburnt at the beach no matter how much sunscreen we put on. I have my Mothers’ mind – she’s a smart lady, but I’ve have had more opportunity than her.

Like Alice Spring’s February heat, she and I are both fiery (even when we try not to be). I have her resilience – a quality passed down from our ancestors. Sometimes I can be distant like my Father, and a little stubborn like him too. But I share his zest for life.

My Mother’s a proud Bundjalung woman from a small town in Southern Queensland called Beaudesert; my Father, a Scotsman. They split when I was young, and it was definitely for the best. There were times when Dad and I were apart and times when Mum and I were apart, but I was always a part of them no matter how much time had passed.

I have one black Grandma and one white Grandma. My black Grandma would take me to feed the ducks at Seven Hills duck pond and scratch her long nails (which were usually painted a deep red) up and down my back until I fell asleep. My white grandma and I would catch the courtesy bus to Erskineville bowling club for Chinese food, but I’d always end up getting a burger with no tomato and a pink lemonade.

I loved going to my white Grandma’s house, because even though she lived in Redfern housing commission, she had Foxtel and I loved watching SpongeBob SquarePants on a Saturday morning. Saturdays were always the day I looked forward to. My pop would cook bacon and hash-browns on the barbecue and my Grandma would cut it into squares for me. I liked that breakfast was a two-person job; It made me feel special, even if the balcony I was eating it on overlooked Pitt Street, Waterloo.

I remember the spooky stories my Black Grandma would tell – I’m still scared of the Tall man. I hated the nightmares, but I loved that I got to sleep next to her because I was scared, and she felt responsible. When my eight cousins and I would visit, we’d climb her mulberry tree and when we’d finally tire ourselves out, there’d be Zooper Doopers waiting on the kitchen table for us.

I wasn’t the greatest tree-climber and my cousins would attribute this to my fair skin. Personally, I don’t see the connection and I’d always get teased for being fair – the white sheep of the family they’d call me. Nan would get up them though. I miss having her on my side. Seemingly, the black and white thing didn’t always make sense to others. When I started my 6th new primary school in year five, my Mum came and picked me up one day and one of the boys in my class asked why she was brown and if I was adopted.  

I never understood why my uncle told me I was lucky to have fair skin until I saw someone refuse to serve him at the shops because he was Aboriginal. Although, growing up, it was hard to feel lucky when all I wanted to feel was accepted. I didn’t feel like I was lucky to be fair when a girl in my class told me I was a ‘fake Aborigine’ because I didn’t have dark skin. And I didn’t feel lucky when I ticked the box that said I identify as Aboriginal at the Doctors and the receptionist told me I’d made a mistake on my form.

Growing up Aboriginal is something I can’t really define. It’s a horizon of experiences – good and bad. It was being the only Indigenous girl in your grade at a private school – sometimes it meant sitting alone in the library at recess and lunchtimes. It was bringing your Aunty a warm glass of milk in the middle of the night because she’s had another nightmare about Cootamundra girls’ home. For me, being Aboriginal meant longing for identity, and sometimes, a place to call home.

Other times it was bumping into a cousin, or an Aunty, or an Uncle, at the corner shop in Beaudesert and having them ask you to “come round for a feed”. It’s being too scared to whistle at night and sharing a double bed with six of your cousins to fend off the nightmares. It’s Keens curried sausages and full tummies. It’s a flat can of kirks lemonade when you’re sick and catching mud-crabs barefoot. It’s that feeling you get when you’re living on country and you know that your ancestors are watching over you.

I had spent a lot of my upbringing with my white Dad. I mentioned my Mum was a smart lady, but she didn’t always make smart choices. I felt like I was robbed of culture growing up because she wasn’t there and it’s an abstract relationship – a white Father and an Aboriginal daughter. Sometimes he’d go on my cultural journey with me, sometimes I’d walk it alone. It was nice knowing that if I reached out my hand, he’d be there to hold it.

He taught me to use culture as a superpower, to put my hand up in class and to never forget where I came from. We lived in Redfern, with my Nan. I grew up around blackfullas, some of them my mob but no one knew because I never spoke up. My Dad did though, I’m grateful he introduced me as his Aboriginal daughter, and he introduced me proudly. We’re both still learning about culture and that’s the beauty of it, it’s a culture that never sleeps.

I was seven years old when Black Nan died, when a beeping symphony lost itself inside a hum of a hospital hallway and she finally found peace. When she died, so did a connection to culture, to family, to a dreaming I had always dreamt of.

I felt guilty knowing that I was the grandkid who had spent the most time with her, but Mum said it was time that I needed – I say it was time well-spent. I wish she was there on my first day of university, it’s what she wanted for Mum and I hope she knows that I got to do what they both couldn’t. I also wish Nan was there when it was hard, when I’d get my culture questioned and I didn’t feel good enough. I hope she knows I got to live on Country with uncle George and that I love to paint.

I hope she can see me wearing red, black and yellow and wearing those colours with pride. I hope she knows that the thing I love most about myself now is being Aboriginal.

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