History in Black and White: A Critical Analysis of the Black Armband Debate.(pros and Cons of Sympathic Gestures towards Australian Aborigines)

Article excerpt

In December 1998, a letter from B J Wright of Glenelg East, South Australia, was published in Quadrant, a conservative Australian literary journal. Wright complained that the recent widespread commemoration of Aboriginal history was endangering the country:

   Sorry Day was nothing less than an emotion-driven exercise in 
   Black-armbandism for the moral uplift of middle class non-natives. 
   The result of all this may well be the unintended adoption of very 
   opposite attitudes by the manipulable young. (1) 

`Black armband' history came to define a growing reappraisal of Australia's past, demonstrated through public remembrances like Sorry Day. It was a label of derision, a blanket term designed to dismiss increasingly critical approaches to Australian history as unnecessarily bleak and overly `emotional'. This `black armband' tag was a strategic conservative swipe at histories that revealed Australia's past as racist and violent. Its application served to present critical history as unbalanced, a misrepresentation of our national heritage. Such a view held that, in spite of its historical `blemishes', to deny Australia its rightful national story was at best recklessly naive, at worst unAustralian.

Critical Australian histories had long provoked significant conservative disapproval. (2) In 1984, Geoffrey Blainey's Warmambool speech sparked a national controversy and debate. Directed at Australian immigration policy, he questioned whether multiculturalism, and in particular Asian immigration, was in the national interest. (3) As the debate wore on, however, it became clear that his comments were part of a wider appraisal of contemporary Australian society, identity and history:

   Attempts to depict Australian history as mainly a story of 
   exploitation, of racial violence, of oppressions and conflict have a 
   measure of truth, but contain a larger measure of untruth. (4) 

Ten years later, Blainey introduced a vivid mark of bereavement to illustrate the apparent emotional darkness of this writing. (5) Such history was `black armband', he said. It reacted against the Australian achievement with a dark mourning of the nation.

Black armbands are signs of sympathy and respect. Socially, they have constituted public demonstrations of conventional sorrow, and they are strong symbols in the ritual of mourning. Footballers have worn them for years, loyally venerating a dead ex-player, family member or Club associate. The football analogy may have rung strong for Blainey, a respected historian of Australian Rules, when he used this image as a populist metaphor for an apparent revisionist bereavement. (6) Black armbands have also constituted powerful political images of grief. Aboriginal activists wore them in the 1970s as signs of mourning and resistance. The imagery of the black armband plays a significant symbolic part of protest. Mark McKenna has astutely pointed out that by appropriating the black armband, Blainey twisted its political origins of often radical dissent to a pejorative catch-all for revisionist history. (7)

By injecting the black armband into the debate, Blainey gave this discussion a persuasive metaphor and new impetus. Since his original 1993 usage, the black armband debate has ranged widely, its momentum increasing as commentators entered the ensuing discussion. The debate has culminated with the assertion that not only are critical readings of the past coloured or biased, they have been integral to a sustained left-wing programme of negativity and misinformation. In 2000, historian Keith Windschuttle's series of articles published in Quadrant claimed that the Australian public had been deliberately misled by `a major academic deception'. (8)

   Over the past twenty years, Australian historians have conducted a 
   story of widespread massacres on the frontier of the expanding 
   pastoral industry . …