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You can’t put history back in the bottle

Wesley Enoch on racism and equality in the ranks and the search for diversity in the history of Indigenous servicemen.
8.3
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Wesley, you’ve mentioned that line before about, once you’ve faced death together, you could face life together.
13.4
WESLEY ENOCH: Mm-hmm.
13.6
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Could you talk a little bit more about the relationships between non-Indigenous and Indigenous servicemen when they’re actually over in the front line?
20.5
WESLEY ENOCH: Look, I don’t think there was much. Well, look, there are stories of racism. There’s one particular story of– where a non-Indigenous man was being racist to his black counterpart and that the whole platoon or unit ended up bashing this racist up.
41.3
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Yeah. Yeah.
42.3
WESLEY ENOCH: You know, the sense of the discipline and mate-ship was very clear. There are also stories of how there were just no differences. The differences that you were experiencing at home because of whatever kind of social structures were in place all disappeared so that you could actually work together over there. It’s interesting. One of the actors in the show, Uncle George Bostock, who’s– he’s 73– 74 now. And he served in Vietnam, and he talked of a very particular story, too, of– where he was in charge of a unit of men, and there was a racist. And that in the army, you’re self-disciplining.
75.8
WESLEY ENOCH: The rest of the unit said to this racist man, “If you don’t take the orders that this black man tells you, we are going to shoot you the first time– the minute we engage the enemy. The first time someone tries to shoot us, we will shoot you first. And your family will never know. It’s all right.” But if you’re the weak link, if you’re not following orders, you endanger everyone’s lives.
97.5
WESLEY ENOCH: And when the stakes are that high, racism is just– well, you’re just intolerable.
101.9
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Yeah.
102.9
WESLEY ENOCH: You just can’t do it.
103.9
WESLEY ENOCH: You actually have to work together, and I think that’s what– well, I think– that’s what I think a lot of the soldiers felt– that they were very much part of this unit together.
115.8
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Hmm.
116.7
LAURA JAMES: They needed it to work.
118.2
WESLEY ENOCH: Well, if it didn’t work, they all died.
120.1
REBECCA WHEATLEY: It’s a huge cost.
120.7
WESLEY ENOCH: Yeah. And you actually rely on each other in a way that maybe it was– racism is a luxury–
127.2
WESLEY ENOCH: –that you can have when you’re at home. But when you’re facing death every day, you can’t–
133.2
LAURA JAMES: No place for it here.
134.7
WESLEY ENOCH: You can’t have racism. No place for it here.
136.6
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Yeah.
137.6
LAURA JAMES: One of the characters in your play makes the comment that, “You can’t put history back in the bottle, mate,” and it’s such a great line.
143.8
WESLEY ENOCH: Mm-hmm.
144.1
LAURA JAMES: We were wondering, in the context of aboriginal war service, if you could elaborate on what this means.
150.1
WESLEY ENOCH: I think it’s a double-edge. There’s two sides to that particular bit. One is, look. We can’t forget the past. We can’t forget the colonial past and the problems that we’ve experienced as Indigenous Australians, nor can you forget that we have served.
165.9
WESLEY ENOCH: That you cannot undo the great sacrifice that Indigenous Australia has brought to World War I as well, that the history is played out. And any part of forgetting of it should be stopped. For me, there’s something around– because World War I and the Gallipoli mythology and legacy is so strong that there’s– it’s always been– I don’t know. We forget about the diversity.
197.1
WESLEY ENOCH: We forget about the working-class stories. We forget about Indigenous service. We forget about what it meant for a whole lot of Chinese Australians who were here. We forget that, in fact, Japan was our ally in World War I. We conveniently forget the diversity of our story because we were nation-building at the time. You know, some call World War I the “blooding of the nation”– this idea of going out there and then creating heroic figures and creating big narratives that we could build a nation on. And I think those narratives have– well, they’ve been with us for over a hundred years.
234
And now, a hundred years on, we can go back and pick it all apart and see the diversity of that narrative.
241.2
WESLEY ENOCH: And see that there were desertions.
243.6
WESLEY ENOCH: See that there were kind of terrible, terrible pain that these men brought back with them, and it then shows in the breaking of marriages, the beating of wives and children, the shell-shock, the walking wounded throughout the country. But we, for whatever reasons, conveniently forgot all of that. We forgot that there was diversity, and we– well, we shunned the idea that there was a real cost in lives, but also in lives that were lived after the war. So for us, I think this whole idea of this centenary and this commemoration is also a moment where we can look at ourselves and, for me, insert the Indigenous story into that narrative, which was always there.
292.9
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Mm-hmm.
293.4
WESLEY ENOCH: It just was hidden behind these nation-building hopes.
296.4
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Yep.
297.3
WESLEY ENOCH: And put a black face in Gallipoli. That’s pretty amazing.
301.3
LAURA JAMES: Yes. The one small section of a larger story.
303.9
WESLEY ENOCH: Exactly. Well– and Australia is a collection of small narratives– some being promoted, some being shunned.
312.5
WESLEY ENOCH: But this centenary is a wonderful moment of bringing them all to an even keel and say, oh, look at them all. And aren’t we proud of all of those stories?
321.4
LAURA JAMES: Definitely.
322.4
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Mm-hmm.

Watch Wesley Enoch discuss racism and equality in the ranks and the search for diversity in the history of Indigenous servicemen.

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