‘Say Sorry You Bastard!’: Postcolonial shame, reconciliation and National Sorry Day

'Sorry' painted in the sky during Corroboree 2000. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
‘Sorry’ painted in the sky during Corroboree 2000. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

On a cold Sunday in 2000, two days after National Sorry Day had been commemorated on the 26th May, over 300,000 Indigenous and non- Indigenous people walked together across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in support of Indigenous Australians and Reconciliation. Known as the great ‘Bridge Walk’, for over six hours the tide of walkers formed a ‘human sea of goodwill’, making their way across Sydney’s most iconic bridge together. According to one participant, ‘a huge snake of people moved over the bridge, a giant rainbow serpent wearing a skin of colour, predominantly red, black and gold’[1] The committee that organised the event, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, requested that people bring ‘bells, whistles, drums and colourful dress or other props to add to the fun’ to create a sense of hopeful celebration. The mass Bridge Walk would be a new start. It would inaugurate an affective and powerful national refounding, and participants were to be part of this crucial moment in the life of the nation. There were people in wheelchairs, and children in prams; there were countless Aboriginal flags and banners. The vast number of people and the physical act of walking together provoked charged emotional responses. Evelyn Scott, chairwoman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation described the day as ‘awesome’ and ‘emotional.’ Linda Burney, the chairwoman of the NSW State Reconciliation Committee, was quoted on the day as saying ‘a week ago, I was despairing about living in this country. Today, I feel great.’[2] Many walkers report moments of poignant interaction and friendship with people they had never met before. Australian author Kate Grenville recalls that:

Almost at the end of the walk, on the southern end of the Bridge, I noticed a group of Aboriginal people leaning against the railings watching us. … At the end of the row, a tall handsome woman frankly staring, as if to memorise each face. Our eyes met and we shared one of those moments of intensity- a pulse of connectedness. We smiled, held each other’s gaze, I think perhaps we gestured with our hands, the beginning of a wave.[3]

At the heart of this great tide of walkers was a genuine hope for a new beginning between peoples, for a new moral covenant, and a desire for recognition of past wrongs.

Huge crowd on Sydney Harbour Bridge during the Walk for Reconciliation, Corroboree 2000, by Loui Seselja. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
Huge crowd on Sydney Harbour Bridge during the Walk for Reconciliation, Corroboree 2000, by Loui Seselja. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

But for some the Bridge Walk was more protest than celebration. Many people walked in silent reflection. Banners in the crowd declared the word ‘Sorry !’ voicing a demand for an apology. Some marchers sang ‘Treaty’, the top-hit song by Aboriginal rock group Yothu Yindi, which could be heard being played down at the harbour. For some this powerful, en masse and state-choreographed journey of ‘Walking together’ for Reconciliation provided the good feelings of hope, pride and release. Yet for others attentive to the ‘bad feelings’ of national shame and the need for an apology, political redress was absent.[4] For the Reconciliation Bridge Walk addressed a hopeful future, but it did not directly acknowledge the past.

Today, May 26, marks Australia’s seventeenth National Sorry Day. But its origins are for some unclear, and its entanglements with the Australian movement for reconciliation and the highly charged cross-currents of emotion that Sorry Day generated in this period have only partly been explored.

National Sorry Day was first commemorated on the 26th May 1998, on the first anniversary of the day that the ‘Bringing Them Home’ report was tabled in parliament. This key report, produced by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, recommended changes in laws and practices surrounding the forced separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their parents and communities in the past and today. The report proposed that a ‘national ‘Sorry Day’ should be held each year to commemorate the history of forcible removals and its effects.’[5] However, despite people participating in events around the nation for National Sorry Day, it was recognised in a ‘semi-official’ manner only, with events largely state-based and sponsored by various government agencies, churches and business leaders.[6]

Crucially, in 2000 despite there being a national day of sorrow and mourning, no formal apology had been given by the Australian government. Indeed, Indigenous Australians would have to wait another ten years until Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s national Apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples of February 2008.

The Sydney Bridge walk of 2000 then was a heady emotional mix; Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples alike reported feelings of intense sadness and shame at past practices, and expressed hope in the future of reconciliation. The eudaimonic emotions of good feeling, unity, hope and celebration were entwined with an intense undercurrent of anger and frustration focused on policies of the contemporary government. Prime Minister John Howard had refused to make a formal national apology to the Stolen Generations, and he would not walk across the bridge. In a packed Sydney Opera house at the ‘Corroboree 2000 – Towards Reconciliation’ meeting, held on the day sandwiched between National Sorry Day (26th May) and the Bridge walk (28th May), highly respected Aboriginal activist and former public servant Charles Perkins shouted at Prime Minister Howard: ‘Say sorry you bastard!’ to great applause.

The Bridge Walk marking a crucial, celebratory national refounding was expected to do an enormous amount of symbolic, affective, and political work. But it became a dense site of performative and emotional contestation concerning Australia’s history. ‘Sorry’ appeared as a subversive moral counterpoint at the Bridge Walk. In the blue Sydney sky the colossal words ‘SORRY’ appeared three times. A plane had been hired by a group of citizens to write in the sky the word that the PM refused to say. Indeed, the word ‘Sorry’ was emblazoned on tee-shirts, hats, banners and placards carried by the walkers. Howard’s refusal to apologise meant that the reasons for saying ‘sorry’ had not only expanded, but that the emotional load it had to bear was even greater. Originally it was to address the National Sorry Day context of apologising to and commemorating the Stolen Generations as an act of political redress and healing, but the broader message of sorry that appeared at the Bridge Walk was an apology and a protest against the history of violence, Aboriginal dispossession of land, past government policies, the separation of families, Aboriginal deaths in custody, as well as John Howard being a ‘bastard’. One walker wrote:

I saw the river of people pouring onto the bridge … Over the railing, I glimpsed the sails of the Opera House and saw the first fleet’s arrival at that very spot. I saw the beginnings of our tragic slaughter and abuse of the indigenous people. And I felt shame; shame for my ancestors in country Australia who introduced disease and appropriated land, who saw themselves with unalienable rights, rights we now recognise they never had. Then I looked up and saw the word ‘Sorry’ being written in the blue, blue sky and I cheered with everyone else.[7]

The interruption then of ‘SORRY’ in the sky emerged as a moment of emotional truth for some walkers. One Aboriginal woman, a member of the Stolen Generations, said that she had not wanted to walk across the bridge because she was felt overwhelmed by bitterness and grief, yet ‘gradually as she walked in this crowd, that sense of bitterness began to recede but it was when the word ‘SORRY’ appeared in the sky that it struck her heart and lifted the veil of hurt and trouble.’ [8]

‘Sorry’ would carry diverse emotional significance for different people. Non-indigenous author Kate Grenville also reflected on how the Bridge Walk’s vague sense of purpose offered a good feeling of camaraderie and triumph that, for her, would turn out to be empty of historical significance. She wrote: ‘The walk itself promised to be another big symbolic thing. Its aims were large and vague enough to make us feel cosy in spite of the bitter westerly wind. Everyone was smiling. We were all pretty pleased with ourselves.’[9] But, like the giant ‘SORRY’ in the sky, her joy quickly faded when she realized that nothing had been risked, sacrificed or properly confronted. She recalls that after exchanging glances with an Aboriginal woman, a ‘sudden blade of cold’ ruptured her good feeling as she began to question seriously her sense of ancestral belonging. Contemplation of who her forebears were and what they might have done cut through any sense of pleasurable affinity, inspiring her to research her own complicit heritage:

I wanted to get away from it all now: the smiles, the benign feeling of doing the right thing, the shuffling crowd of people whose pleasure in the moment hadn’t been sliced open. … The imagery of our walk, across a bridge, suddenly seemed all too easy. We were strolling towards reconciliation – what I had to do was cross the hard way, through the deep water of our history.[10]

The collective emotions of pride, honour, shame, frustration and anger that attend the question of the colonization of Australia as invasion or settlement sat at the very heart of the ‘History Wars’ debates during this decade of Reconciliation.[11] The Bridge Walk carried these many diverse and ambivalent emotions. It also became a space for counter-political narratives demanding apology and treaty that would be reported in the national and international media.

What work did these emotions of good will, unity and togetherness generated by such state-based reconciliatory performances achieve? On one level they did have the potential to build trust and to raise the prospect of an emancipatory future. And for some the sudden appearance of ‘SORRY’ did ‘lift the veil of hurt and trouble’. Such cross-cultural, mass participatory performances had the power of feeling to move people to change. Yet such good feelings were also heavily entwined with the politics of shame and shame’s release, that is, the desire for a new covenant to overcome settler shame.

We must attend more closely to the ‘affective economies’ of sorry and shame in post-colonial settler nations argues sociologist Sara Ahmed. Suggestive is her insightful examination of the ‘Sorry’ books of the 1990s and 2000s, where thousands of Australians signed their name to apologise for past wrongs, and her extended critique of national shame. Ahmed posits ‘shame’ as comprising very much a coloniser presence-to-self dynamic. She argues that settlers work through their shame in order to become reconciled with themselves and the aspired settler nation, thus reinscribing its hegemonies.[12] Here the ‘recognition of shame – or shame as a form of recognition’ she writes, ‘comes with conditions and limits.’ For those who feel shame (eg. the colonisers) ‘shame becomes not only a mode of recognition of injustices committed against others, it is also a form of nation building’.[13] For Ahmed, those ‘who witness the past injustice though feeling national shame are aligned as well meaning individuals, if you feel shame then you mean well’. And, since we ‘mean well’ we can ‘work to reproduce the nation as an ideal’, in other words, the feeling of shame reconciles the coloniser with their preferred idea of themselves. Shame can thus be recuperative of the offender, not of those offended. Shame then can ultimately be transformed in to pride, entailing a reduplication of repressive national norms. Here ‘non-indigenous Australians express sorrow, sympathy and shame in order that they can ‘return’ to their pride in the nation.’[14]

When the national enunciation of ‘Sorry’ finally arrived in 2008 it was to great emotional release; it was a poignant moment of national affect. Prime Minster Rudd’s speech was also threaded with affective crosscurrents of shame, stain, pride, and honour. The Stolen Generations, he stated, represented ‘a blemished chapter in our nation’s history’. Casting not settlers but Aboriginal people as proud and honourable, he apologized for the ‘indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture’. Rudd spoke of the need for the ‘healing [of] the nation’ and, echoing the language of redress, stated that the ‘unfinished business’ was to ‘remove a great stain from the nation’s soul’.[15]

Today, fifteen years after the great Bridge Walk for reconciliation and seven years after the national apology, the political space of negotiation is in some ways closed off. Perhaps ‘sorry’ as Ahmed argues has served largely to recuperate the settler nation as benevolent, rather than promote progressive change. We inhabit now a post-reconciliation and post-apology moment. Pressing arguments around the recognition of Australia’s first peoples in the constitution, and heated debates about the closure of remote Aboriginal communities appear in the news. While the affective power of Australia’s reconciliation movement and the politics of apology have been marked for all in various ways, their substantive effects in terms of real political gains for Aboriginal people remains to be seen.

For National Sorry Day events please visit Reconciliation Australia:

Penny Edmonds is a CHE Associate Investigator, and an ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor in the School of Humanities, University of Tasmania. Her forthcoming book ‘Settler Colonialism and Reconciliation: Frontier Violence, Affective Performances, and Imaginative Refoundings’ (Palgrave Macmillan) is due out 2016.

Dr. Alicia Marchant is an Honorary Research Fellow and CHE Associate Investigator, based at the University of Tasmania.

References:

[1] Margaret Allum, ‘Bridge walk ‘must be built upon’’, Green Left Weekly, June 7, 2000.

[2] Tony Davis, ‘Marching for a Fresh Beginning’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28 May 2010.

[3] Kate Grenville, Searching for the Secret River, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2006, pp.11-12.

[4] See Sara Ahmed, ‘The politics of bad feeling’, Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association Journal, Vol. 1, 2005, pp.72-85.

[5] ‘Bringing them home: The “Stolen Children” Report’

https://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/bringing-them-home-appendix-9-recommendations

[6] Mike Head, ‘The Politics of Australia’s “National Sorry Day’, World Socialist Web Site, https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/1998/06/ausz-j02.html?view=print

[7] Excerpt from a letter to Council Following Corroboree 2000 by Suzanne McCourt, Birrag, Victoria’ in ‘Reconciliation: Australia’s Challenges. Final report of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation to the Prime Minister and the Commonwealth Parliament, December 2000’. http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/orgs/car/finalreport/index.htm

[8] Ronald Wilson, ‘Faith and Ethics in Contemporary Society’, Church and Civil Society: A Theology of Engagement, edited by Sue Leppert, Francis Sullivan, ATF Press, Hindmarsh, S. Aust, 2004, pp.28-29.

[9] Grenville, Searching for the Secret River, p.11.

[10] Grenville, Searching for the Secret River, p.13.

[11] See S. Macintyre and A. Clark, The History Wars, Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2003; R. Manne (ed.), Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Melbourne: Black Inc., 2003; P. Brantlinger, ‘“Black armband” versus “white blindfold” history in Australia’, Victorian Studies 46:4, 2004, p. 655.

[12] Sara Ahmed, ‘Shame before Others’ in The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Routledge, 2004.

[13] Sara Ahmed, ‘The Politics of Bad Feeling’, Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association journal, vol.1, 2005, p.72.

[14] Sara Ahmed, ‘The Politics of Bad Feeling’, p.80.

[15] K. Rudd, ‘Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples’, http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/our-country/our-people/apology-to-australias-indigenous-peoples (accessed 22 May 2015

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