UNCLE JACK CHARLES: Black Presence
Uncle Jack Charles is a national treasure. An elder and self-made feather-foot, Uncle Jack is respected by the arts community, Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike. Bastardy, a documentary about Uncle Jack, followed the re-ignition of his career from thief and addict to an esteemed Indigenous elder and Australian icon.
THE PIN. As an Elder and a lore man, speaking out about your past, what affect does that have on your identity in the community?
UNCLE JACK CHARLES. I have been on the journey to make my mark, to be taken seriously. When I came out of gaol for the last time, I intended to be this communities featherfoot; kurdaitcha man, lore man, and I undertook that role.
The ultimate role for me is to place the mantle of responsibility for my community upon my own shoulders. I couldn’t wait for any of the other Elders in my community to place this on me. I’d be dead. I am a reformed, rehabilitated character that has this aching need to maximise the good I do. Time is pressing now, it’s been over 10 years and still I am not taken seriously.
I have to use my newly found, inherent obligations as an Elder to try and return to prisons to start tweaking their minds. As an Elder of Victoria or Boonwurrung country, half the population of prisoners in Victoria are related to me. If I’d had someone like myself come into prison on a regular basis to start tweaking me to ideas, there would have been a big, bold statement in that. People love nothing better than witnessing for themselves the story of a reformed, rehabilitated character.
Who’s your mob and where is your country?
UJC. Boonwurrung mob here around Melbourne. It takes in Melbourne and goes all the way down to Wilsons Prom - that’s Boonwurrung country, my mum’s land.
You were taken away from your mum at what age?
UJC. Four months and was taken to a baby's home. Then when I got too big they shuttered me up in Box Hill Boys’ Home, then into another home down in Geelong, and then back to the Box Hill home.
What was it like for you when you first started making connections with your country people again?
UJC. Very difficult. I’d already seen my brother and two sisters, quite by accident. A month before I left the Box Hill Boys’ Home, Kutcha Edwards (now an Indigenous singer and songwriter) and his brothers came in and that was my first sighting of other Aboriginal kids. I was shocked, you know.
Growing up, did you always think or feel that you were Aboriginal, or did that come later?
UJC. It came later, after I started to get used to being called “Blackie”, “Abo”, and all that other stuff.
In regards to racism in Australia, and your appearance on the ABC television program Q & A, in your view what does it mean to be a black man in Australia today?
UJC. It means it’s very unsafe. At a moment’s notice you could be plucked off the streets by the police and given a hard time, you know. It doesn’t happen with white people, unless they’re known junkies or criminals in the community. For Aboriginals it’s a bit risky; we’re at risk of being abused at every turn.
Do you think Australian racism is targeted towards Aboriginality, or is it a general racism over people of colour?
UJC. The racism shown towards Aborigines is completely different to racism shown to any other nationality that has sought sanctuary in this country. It’s completely different. And that’s because of the underlying guilt. The guilt has never been addressed because nothing is talked about in school curriculums. This is why Australia has become uniquely and particularly racist towards the First Nations people - the Aborigines.
You started the first Indigenous Theatre company, Nindethana with Bob Maza; how did that come about?
UJC. I was given a grant by the government at the time to start an Aboriginal Theatre. So we started Nindethana Theatre.
I was out of my element, an alcoholic, and at a loss for what to do. So we pulled in Bob Maza to help us find out what we had to do. Bob was instrumental. He could direct, perform and develop some great scripts. We developed the ‘Jack Charles is Up and Fighting’ series, political reviews and music. We were meant to take it to the Tent Embassy. I said I didn’t want to be involved because I was against Black Power, I didn’t see the need for it here in Australia. I’m not Black Power, you see. I’m Black Presence. In your face, we’re still here, you know!
We did ‘Jack Charles is Up and Fighting’ at the Australian National University. This was the first time any other Aborigine in the country had seen a full Aboriginal production. Written by Aborigines, performed by Aborigines, in an Aborigine theatre.
Do you think you have seen a change in the film and television industry for Aboriginal actors?
UJC. No. It’s a racist country and our casting people show a touch of racism too. We’re not in Neighbours because we’re not seen as the norm. We weren’t seen in Prisoner despite more Aboriginal people in prisons than there are ordinary people. Casting people have been despicable in their attitudes of casting. Blatantly racist, I should say.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about the skin you’re in, what would it be?
UNCLE JACK CHARLES. Be comfortable with it. It’s the only skin you’ve got. It’s the skin that has lasted longer than the so called 80 or 60 thousand years on this continent. Be proud of that skin because many of your forebears who had the same kind of skin were here when this land, Australia, was being formed and moved.
We saw, we wrote pictures and scenes of the land forming in dreamtime stories. There are not pictures of us here arriving by boats and all that. We were here all the time.
- This interview has been edited and condensed
Photo credit: Dale Lynch