One Bright Spot
Victoria K. Haskins
New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
281 p. AUD$ 35, Paperback, Illustrated, ISBN: 1 4039 4744 9.
Reviewed by Susan Ballyn
I’d always been interested in Aboriginal history and when a university history scholarship gave me the chance to write a dissertation on the subject of my choice I leaped at it. But I was tormented by issues I had never before encountered in my previous historical studies. How could I, a middle-class white woman, write a history involving Aboriginal people that would be in any way valid? Worse still, was I just perpetuating colonialism by writing yet another white version of the Australian past? Eventually I found myself at my Gran’s, having deferred my scholarship, gloomily agreeing to do some family history for her instead. When I spotted amongst her old sepia photographs of our ancestors a faded image of herself as a fair-haired toddler, in the embrace of an Aboriginal nursemaid, I was taken aback.
The woman was Mary, my Gran told me. The photo, hand-tinted, had belonged to my great-grandmother. My great-grandmother Joan Kingsley-Strack or Ming as we all called her, had left behind a whole stack of papers when she’d died in 1983, and they’d been lying untouched in my aunt’s garage ever since. Now Gran suggested I sort through them to find more clues about our family history. [Radio National Perspective, Wednesday 16 November, 2005]
What Victoria Haskins found took her totally by surprise:
When I opened the first of Ming’s boxes, however, to my amazement I saw that she’d been, incredibly, secretary of an Aboriginal rights group in the late 1930s, working hand-in-hand with the well-known Koori activist Pearl Gibbs. I certainly wasn’t prepared for the extraordinary story that emerged as I pieced together the jumbled mass of letters, diaries and official papers in her boxes. [Radio National Perspective, Wednesday 16 November, 2005]
Then "the jumbled mass of letters, diaries and official papers" became Haskin's major project and the amazing book that resulted from her research: One Bright Spot. Haskins has talked on several occasions about how she felt as she approached the telling of Ming's story:
I was confident that her story was at least in some sense my own to tell, but writing about my own great-grandmother induced an intense self-consciousness in the way I approached her. Her profuse sentimentality and overweening maternalism towards Aboriginal women (which arose out of the way she liked to imagine her domestic relationship with those who worked for her) profoundly embarrassed me; as her great-granddaughter I felt the constraints as well as the release of an intimate personal connection to the history of colonialism, and to a complex history of complicity and resistance. [Australian Humanities Review, issue 39-40, September 2006]
Haskins also wrote about Ming in the book she co-authored with Anna Cole and Fiona Paisley, but her tribute to great-grandmother Joan Kingsley-Strack finds its full expression in One Bright Spot.
The 1930's was not a propitious time for anybody to be working as an activist for Aboriginal rights. It was certainly not the time for non-Indigenous women to take up Aboriginal rights and become activists on their behalf, without being maliciously talked about and misinterpreted in their actions. Ming was one of a small number of non-Indigenous women who saw quite clearly that Aboriginal Rights had to be put on the agenda and worked strenuously alongside Aboriginal groups. She became the secretary of the Committee for Aboriginal Citizenship, establishing a close relationship with the Aboriginal activist Pearl Gibbs. Such work took courage and determination at a time when the outrageous abduction of Aboriginal children, now known as the Stolen Generation, was reaching its height. Ming herself employed young Aboriginal girls who had been forcefully removed from their families but, as she came to know their personal histories, she was galvanized into action on their and all the stolen children's behalf.
As Haskins herself points out, her great-grandmother in many ways represented the archetypal middle-class white woman who took Aboriginal girls into employment as domestics in their homes. Ming's own life was not exempt from tensions and distress. A war bride she soon found that her husband and she were basically incompatible, a fact exacerbated even further by the war injuries sustained by her husband, Norman, who found it difficult to settle down into the routine of maintaining a young family. His wife found herself forced to take on piecework in order to supplement the family income, something she was deeply ashamed of.
One Bright Spot deals with each of the Aboriginal girls who came to work as domestics in Ming's household. The catalyst for her later involvement in their cause and her eventual constant campaign that the Aboriginal Protection Board actually paid them the wages they owed them was her first charge Mary. Mary came to Ming's household at a time when her future mistress was under considerable strain. The two women bonded closely and Ming's dependency on Mary was evident almost from the start. Mary herself bonded extremely closely with Ming's children and her place in the home became almost that of a mother-daughter relationship as Ming struggled to keep the family together and deal with her husband's now evident profound depression. When Mary became pregnant, things began to go awry. Confused correspondence between Mary, Ming, and then the authorities finally led to Mary and her child being taken back under the "protection" of the Aboriginal Protection Board at Wallaga Lake Aboriginal Station. Ming was never to see her again and she died of pneumonia at the age of thirty-eight.
Each chapter is dedicated to the Aboriginal girls who worked for Ming. After Mary, "my one bright spot" , came Alma and Del. These chapters are then followed by an analysis of Ming's work with Pearl Gibbs with one chapter significantly titled "Just ordinary justice"  which by now had become the core aim for this middleclass white woman: ordinary justice for a generation of Aboriginal children who had been used and abused in the most outrageous way.
Jane was the only "unapprenticed" Aboriginal domestic to work for Ming who "professed great sympathy for" the young aboriginal woman describing her as "a most intelligent gentle & lonely little thing, and like most of her people, an outcast" . If Mary, Alma, and Del had progressively moved Ming into the world of Aboriginal Rights, Jane was to be the cause of Ming's finally throwing her hand in as an activist in favour of Aboriginal Rights and stashing away all the letters, photos and documents that her great-granddaughter found so long afterwards.
To tell how this reversal in Ming's work came about through the figure of presence of Jane in the family would be to reveal too much about a book which has to be read and savoured for so many reasons. First and foremost Haskins has maintained as much of a sensitive objective distance as is possible from her subject matter. She has handled the intricacies of racial and gender relations during a difficult period of Australia's history with remarkable adeptness. Her contribution to Australian history forms part of the work that has been carried out in Uncommon Ground, which she co-authored: to allow the historical gaze look into the extremely complex, volatile field of Non-Indigenous/Indigenous domestic relationships, between the white female coloniser and the Indigenous female colonised. In an interview on November 16, 2005, she put her task as a historian working in this field into a nutshell:
As a white Australian historian I know I am not alone in wrestling with the questions of why we write history, of what we hope to achieve by doing so. Contemplating my responsibilities as the custodian of Ming’s story, it strikes me that Ming entertained the hope that one day, if not in her lifetime, the injustices she witnessed would be recognised. Ming’s long-silenced story, testimony from one who was intimately involved in the system and was indeed a beneficiary of it, provides a powerful rejoinder to the denials and equivocations that Aboriginal people have met with from the wider Australian society. By retelling this forgotten and repressed history, I wish to honour the memories not only of my great-grandmother but also of all those Aboriginal people who struggled and suffered under this policy in the past and whose descendants continue to bear that legacy. The fact is that the histories of black and white are inseparably entwined, and we cannot tell the one without the other. [Radio National Perspective, Wednesday 16 November, 2005]
I would like to suggest here that Uncommon Ground and One Bright Spot should be read in close conjunction as both delve revealingly and fascinatingly into this "forgotten and repressed history."