I was surprised to find this. I had honestly known only of Sally Morgan’s enormously famous *My Story*.
*My Story* is like the default Aboriginal autobiography. That’s a lot of expectation to hang on one solitary book. Every time I mention I am doing this challenge people say ‘Oh, I’ve read *My Story*. You should read it.’ Apparently I had also fallen into this trick of thinking as I had not realised she wrote another work.
Sally Morgan met Jack McPhee when she went to Pilbara, looking for people who might have known her own grandparents before they were sent down to missions in the south. He remembered them! She got to know him and wound up writing his biography.
Jack McPhee was born to an Aboriginal mother and a white father around 1905 in the Pilbara. As he says:
‘I see it as the story of a working man, and I think working me who read it will understand because they know the struggle. Then I also see it as the story of Wanamurraganya, the son of a tribal Aborigine. Then again, it’s the story of a man who is fighting with being black and white. A man who chooses not to live in the tribal way, but who can’t live the whiteman’s way because the Government won’t let him. I could go on and on, because what I’m really saying is, it’s the story of many people, and they’re all me!’
This means it is completely different to *My Story* which concentrates on Sally Morgan’s search for his identity. Jack knew who he was and where he came from (with a caveat I discuss below).
The focus of his story is on his attempts to negotiate living his life despite the constant interference of the Department of Native Welfare. You can hear his frustration at the need for permission to marry, the fact that he and his wife weren’t allowed to go to a station where his wife had family and where they had good economic prospects.
The other theme that recurs throughout the book is the importance of names as a means of negotiating between traditional and white cultures. This is implicit in the title which gives both his names. The first chapters consist of Jack naming his family: his mother Marduwanyjawurru (‘her white name was Mary’), his aunts Mugaari or Eve, Nyamalangu or Nellie, Yarriwawurru or Dinah, and Ngarlgaari or Fanny.
He met his wife while visiting relatives at Moore River Native Settlement. He says ‘I became serious about a girl named Susie Smith. She was from the Ashburton area... and her real name was Bessie Connaughton, but they changed her name when she was brought to the Settlement. Her Aboriginal name was Mularna, but no one called her by that.’
Names are very confusing things in this world. There is the Aboriginal name given at birth and then a name randomly assigned by white people when they met them. This could lead to much confusion as, for instance, when Jack met a pastoralist who was trying to figure out if Jack’s wife Susie was the girl he had known on his station.
He was interested in knowing because she had ‘been like a daughter to him’. This was often code for ‘this is my unacknowledged child’ but in this case seems to have actually meant ‘I knew her as a child’.
Jack had himself thought that one white man was his biological father (a man named Sandy McPhee who was fond of him and spent time with him before he died in World War One). As an adult he discovered that it was actually a different white man. This was essentially irrelevant as he had an Aboriginal father who took on the cultural role of fathering him. (This is the caveat I noted earlier).
This double vision stems from the constant negotiation between the black world and the white one. Jack McPhee always knows exactly who he is and where he comes from, u=but explaining it means a lot of extra information because it is quite complicated.
In short, an excellent book, a real surprise to me.