Photo by JENNY FRASER
My inheritance of humour
"Talk about laugh!" Every time I hear this from an aunty or cousin, usually accompanied by a raucous laugh, I know that a hilarious yarn is to follow. My mob use this phrase to precede a funny story. It’s not just the content that makes my family's stories funny. It’s the way my mob tells them. The language my cousins use, the accompanying theatrical gestures of my aunties and uncles – the performances that have audiences hypnotised with enjoyment, titillation and laughter. Exuding a natural ability that can outshine the best comedians, they combine a set of perfectly timed ingredients that produce the best type of laughter. The kind that makes your belly ache and your eyes flood with happy tears.
"Ah ya wonder why you’re black".
Then out of nowhere, you’re hit with an ending to a story personifying the genre of Blak humour. Sound strange? Not really. Not if you’re from peoples and a culture that are used to oppression, familiar with discrimination, and accustomed to inexplicable change. What may sound like jokes of self-disparagement are in fact lessons in intelligence, humility and strength. The lesson of survival inherited through humour has been passed down to me through generations. Talk about laugh…
Lesson 1 – Humour vs Racism
Empathy was never a preference for my father as a parenting method. Yet my tear filled eyes elicited some form of loving wisdom as I whined.
"She’s calling me an Abo".
"So", he laughed. "You are!"
Tough love is what my parents and grandparents grew up with, and hence it is what my brother and I grew up with, too. It was something we didn’t appreciate at the time, but are definitely grateful for on reflection.
Sharon (Shazza) Davidson was the typical golden blonde, blue-eyed, tanned Australian girl. The archetype portrayed in tourism campaigns that reinforce the sun kissed, athletic, beach going Aussie stereotype. She had her own clique, miss popular, excelled in sport, teacher's pet, and an A student. Sharon had also been my personal bully from day one at my new school. It's an understatement to say that the outer seaside suburb of Brisbane got a bit of a surprise when an Aboriginal family moved into the neighbourhood. The government’s 1970s integrated housing plan enabled minority groups to do more than add just a bit of colour to the place, that’s for sure. Little did Sharon (Shazza) Davidson know, I was about to burst her bubble.
Dad’s broad grin projected the question, "So what’s the problem?" It made me feel like I was in the wrong for being upset. I had to re-evaluate. I sat back in my seat, as confusion set in. Could I be wrong?
"Don’t worry about her. Just focus on your running", he said.
I looked across the breakfast table at my mother whose smile preceded her maternal explanation.
"It’s just short for Aboriginal". A new transforming perspective smoothed out my frowning face.
My breathing muted all sound as I tried to keep my pace to the end of the race. Motion seemed to slow as I threw my arms in the air, crossing the finishing line in first place of the 200-metre sprint at my Grade 3 Sports Carnival. Second place must have felt like a decade away for Sharon (Shazza) Davidson. I moved to the sideline and sculled a whole cup of orange cordial whilst waiting for her. I crossed the line so far in front that my Aunties’ post race jokes amused us for days later.
"Haaaa we could’ve had lunch and an afternoon nap waiting for that Shazza to finish", cackled my Aunty Ninny.
All the school staff and locals were surprised and stunned that the new kid, an Aboriginal, stole the crown of fastest sprinter from the local golden girl. I stood so proudly on the podium to receive the first place trophy from my disingenuous teacher, Mr. Monty. The same Mr. Monty whose own covert racism enabled constant in-class bullying. He blatantly ignored a table of kids’, including Sharon’s, racist verbal abuse of me. Their taunting faces are still embedded in my mind. Only when inconvenienced at the sound of my uncontrollable crying did Mr. Monty address the issue at the end of class with...
"Now you guys! Angelina is just like the rest of us".
My mob’s enthusiasm was second to none. Their yelling and cheering drowned out the carnival’s MC. Sharon’s stature literally shrunk as she stood in second place on the podium next to me. I remember staring back at her with a smirk and thinking...
She called me an Abo. So!
Lesson 2 - Humour vs Survival
Mum and Aunty Dot casually maneuvered their trolley through a crowd of frantically crazed shoppers. Our normally serene local supermarket resembled a major outlet’s end of year sale. Self-absorbed panic replaced any form of social etiquette as products flew off the shelves.
Shopping trips are more than just a chore for Mum and Aunty Dot. They are outings, an event, and an excuse to catch up on gossip.
"Mmm look who's coming", whispered Aunty Dot. A divorcée in a tight dress and heels is always fair game.
"She shouldn't be wearing dresses that short at her age. They should be knee length at least!" Mum pointed out.
"Yeah! She should be wearing a dress like mine, hey", said Aunty Dot.
In disbelief Mum looked her sister up and down. She wasn't fond of Aunty Dot's attire either. Mum never can understand why Aunty has to wear those multi coloured floral Islander dresses just because she is married to an Islander.
"Whatever Dot", said Mum.
Their focus quickly changed back to the task at hand.
"People just go crazy when this stuff happens", said Mum.
"Yeah migaloos, see, stupid", said Aunty Dot.
I followed behind them giggling as they continued their commentary down aisle after deserted aisle. As we turned the corner into the bread aisle they suddenly stopped. The atmosphere sang the theme from ‘The Good, The Bad and the Ugly’, as a woman stood poised with her trolley at the other end. On a shelf half way down the aisle was a lone loaf of bread, the last of the stock. With no warning, the woman rushed at the loaf of bread sweeping it into her trolley, and flew straight past us with a look of triumph. Mum and Aunty Dot simply shook their heads with a shared bemused look. My mother and Aunty had no intention of grabbing the final loaf of bread. They had their own plan.
"People panic too much", said Mum.
"This mob are all womba", laughed Aunty Dot.
We passed a bunch of shoppers arguing over the last carton of milk in the refrigerated section as we found the aisle we were looking for.
"Here we go", stated Aunty Dot.
"Yeah this is all we need", said Mum.
We managed to make it to the checkout amongst all the craziness. Other shoppers queued with trolleys stacked with loaves of bread, cartons of milk, bottles of water, toilet paper, batteries and canned food. Amongst perplexed onlookers we unloaded our trolley of packets of flour, and a mix of powdered and long life milk. The glances of pretentious judgment and bewilderment that annoyed me went totally unnoticed by Mum and Aunty Dot.
We sat back and watched TV in a lounge room filled with the aroma of freshly baked damper. I placed a freshly brewed pot of tea in the middle of the table, as we got an update from the local news and weather report…
"Supermarkets quickly sold out of all essential foods and supplies today, in anticipation of Cyclone Sam. Locals are battening down the hatches as Sam is due to reach the mainland at approximately midnight tonight. The bad weather is predicted for at least another week".
"Well I hope that white woman’s one loaf of bread lasts her. I can make heaps of bread, damper, and scones out of just one packet of flour, and litres of powdered milk", said Aunty Dot.
"Yep that’s right hey Dot, we can feed the mob for weeks", laughed Mum.
Revelling in their wisdom, I grinned as I watched Mum and Aunty Dot smugly devour jam drenched damper and cups of tea.
The sound of thunder and rain slowly rolled in.
Lesson 3 – Humour vs Sorrow
"‘The Wind Beneath My Wings!’ I was thinking I could sing that song after the Eulogy. Just here before the pastor’s speech", insisted Aunty Kay.
I know that funerals are a time of mourning and songs of joy aren't exactly appropriate. But what is it with our mobs’ habit of stringing a medley of tunes together that stretches out the sadness to the point of exhaustion and dehydration? I wasn't going to let that happen at Dad's funeral. His favourite bands, The Beatles, The Eagles and The Rolling Stones, were all that was going to be heard.
"The Wind Beneath My Wings", a favourite of Aunty Kay’s, was regularly sung on her karaoke circuit. She stood behind me, pointing at the computer screen as I type up the draft proceedings for Dad’s funeral. I looked up to see the faces of three cousins gasping in horror at the suggestion. With silent facial protests targeted at me, my Mum entered the room at the opportune moment.
"Mum! Aunty Kay has offered to sing at the funeral", I said.
"What?! Oh I dunno Kay, let’s just wait and see hey. A lot of people want to pay tribute, so maybe at the end, or at the wake hey", said Mum.
Aunty Kay was a little taken aback, but totally undeterred as she launched into an explanation of how Dad always loved her singing. I stealthily deleted her name off the proceedings, as she emptied the room with her spontaneous rendition of ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings’. Dad never liked her singing. In fact, he hated it. She never could quite sing in tune. He often threatened during the claims of boredom by my brother and myself that...
"Well, we can go down to watch Aunty Kay sing at the local RSL", he used to cackle. It was a suggestion to which an alternative was always quickly found.
Sorry Business is never easy. The protocols, behaviour and expectations all impacted on my ability to simply mourn on the day. Duty, obligation, strength and order all weighed heavily on my soul. Can’t I just laugh; can’t I just cry; can’t I be angry; can’t I just lie? We couldn’t afford an expensive coffin, but as it passed down the aisle everyone admired it’s beauty, painted and decorated by his best friend’s hand. All black, it was covered with the tools of his visual artist trade paintbrushes, paint tubes, a pallet, and spatulas. It was crowned with one of Dad’s prints, the totem of our family clan, Gnyala the Owl.
As the church doors opened to let us exit a room filled with sobbing and tears, in the eucalypt trees, a murder of crows appeared. As Aunty Kay pounced on her opportunity to sing and took the podium, apt and on cue the crows squawking drowned her out and killed the unscheduled tune. Dad’s coffin got loaded into the hearse and my sorrow turned to laughter, as I whispered...
"Ha ha ha, thanks Dad!"
Like most, it’s in solitude that I sit back and reflect on life, happy that karma takes care of things like anger, jealousy and spite. I laugh out loud to myself a lot, and on occasion fear that others may think my humour is queer. Racism, survival and sorrow are just a few of the obstacles we as Aboriginal peoples have had to endure. Humour has enabled me to never wonder why I am black, but to live with pride and without regret. Humour is our healing. It’s been our salvation. For this inherited gift, to my Dad, my Mum, my Elders, my family, my mob, I applaud you and am grateful.