The white slavers stole from blacks what was lowest in them, their physical labor. The black liberators stole from whites what was highest in them, their religious and political ideals, and used these with energy and with perfect legitimacy to their own purposes. "Let my people go!" is a stolen phrase. "All men are created equal" is a stolen phrase. Courage, intelligence, humor--these did not have to be stolen. These were the hands into which the stolen weapons were placed. But over time, such weapons in such hands became a potent combination, first humbling the white oppressor--the humiliation was an essential stage--and then turning him into a friend.
Australians, I suspect, do not like to think of their origins as comparable to those of black Americans. In some respects, obviously, theirs was a different and an easier lot. Their children were not born into slavery. They themselves, once released, shared culture as much as complexion with their erstwhile masters. The difference between Australian master and Australian servant could blur in a generation or less.
And yet black Americans had at least one enormous advantage over white Australians: They had the dignity of innocence. Whatever white American racism claimed about blacks, it never claimed that they had been enslaved for their crimes in Africa. By contrast, some of those "transported" to Australia had indeed been real criminals. By mutual consent, individual Australians tended to pass over one another's history in silence, but this conspiracy of silence became a kind of group neurosis. The individual might assert that he had nothing to be ashamed of. The group could not make the same claim.
And so it is no surprise to learn that a century after the abolition of "assignment," which was abolished roughly when black slavery was abolished in the United States, Australians remained invisible to themselves in the sense in which Ralph Ellison used that word of black Americans. They were for long decades, as Australian writers have pointed out again and again, unable to think of themselves as anything but defective Englishmen. In this, they were like those black Americans who were, for so long, unable to think of themselves as anything but defective white Americans.
And in the Australian as in the black American case, liberation came not just by courage, intelligence and humor but also by strategic ideological theft. Englishmen, by and large, respect authority. (The Irish lags, Hughes reports, were always more troublesome than the English.) And yet there is also an anarchic tradition in England, a tradition of regicide and revolution that, precisely because of the abuse of authority in Australian history, Australians have seized and developed. "A dog's obeyed in office," Shakespeare wrote, putting the line in the mouth of a king. Australians, by all accounts, have an unmatched ability to see the dog in every king. (Americans, having passed too cleanly from one George to the next, are far more deferential.) Australian liberty--like the Australian sense of self, however inchoate Terrill may find it still--seems to have been won by joining that salutary and resourceful cynicism to the historically English sense of rights inalienable, rights not even a convict could lose.
It is a risky business to imagine what an Australian might discover by imagining himself into the black American experience, and equally such to imagine what a black American might discover by imagining himself into the Australian experience. But where risk and imagination are, there also is excitement. Is the prospect of a truly multiracial society depressing, or is it exciting? I think that for at least some of the Americans who gathered last Sunday to watch Debi Thomas skate, that prospect is exciting. We were watching, and we knew it, the great American hope.
"I myself have stiffened upon seeing a large group of Asians happily treating Australia as home, as if this native land of mine were their kitchen table. Given a majority, I say to myself, with a certain sadness, they will naturally and rightfully take over the direction of the country. In America I never experience such racist pangs. In America the immigrant comes to a society that is sure of itself (at times perhaps too sure), and possessed of a tradition of independence and liberty that gives Americans a definition of themselves. In Australia the Asian immigrant enters a more inchoate realm.
"The American takes it for granted that the immigrant will become Americanized; many Australians in the late 1980s are not sure that the immigrant to Australia will--or even ought to--become Australianized. To an Australian, the sight of a black American athlete standing with his gold medal on a dais at the Olympic Games, his face shining with pride as "The Star-Spangled Banner" is played, is a remarkable one. The strong, open love of country, even on the part of groups not always well treated in America, is a thing of awe to a traditional Australian."
--From The Australians