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‘On Reading “Nigger’s Leap” by Judith Wright’ by Anne Vince
Judith Wright knifes the scab off an old, unhealed wound.
In the classroom I explain that this poem is set in their own backyard – at the local falls – where three generations ago white men, squatters and landowners alike, regularly went ‘hunting’ and it wasn’t for kangaroos.
A snarl sweeps across the pig-shooter’s son.
‘Supposedly,’ he interjects.
I’m stunned. Not because it’s the first time I’ve heard four consecutive syllables from this boy – it’s the ferocity of the denial. There’s a history here, a hint of blood knowledge.
Under this remark I can hear the lazy slam of a fly screen door, the indignant scrape of a chair rasped over cracked, worn lino.
‘Yeah…’ drawls another student. Then another.
The heat in the room builds. Even the incessant flies hesitate.
A sea of sun-scorched faces, eyes ready to pass judgment, stare.
To gather my thoughts, I glance outside. Massive cumulus clouds the colour of dark bruises roil and tumble over each other, mocking the scrubby horizon, piling higher and higher in the expectant sky.
I have to be careful. These are children well versed in suspicion. I know anything I say will make it back to shoddy verandahs and the town’s single, stainy-tiled bar.
I want to tell them their disbelief makes them complicit but that would mean slipping a fingernail under that lino, scraping at the decades of dirty reasoning and the trampled effort of surviving in a place like this.
The class waits – a collective held breath willing the relief of a reply.
I look at their hands. Some of them are men’s hands, thick-knuckled from weekend labour or cutting horses in low rent rodeos. Most of these students are already helping shoulder the burden of overgrazed, drought-stricken farms, riddled with dieback. They are tough kids from decent families who believe they’ve been given the whole country for their own.
‘No,’ I finally say. ‘Local aborigines were driven over the falls. Stockmen from neighbouring stations rounded them up like cattle and beat them to the cliff’s edge. Mothers leapt, leaving their babies clinging to shrub roots. Some tried to hide their children in the burnt out husks of the giant gums that used to grow around here. After a while the riders would release their dogs…’
There is such a silence my words falter before tumbling forward. I have to breathe deeply to continue, to remember.
‘How do we know this? Hard evidence. Skeletal remains at the bottom of the cliffs – and, yes – they are human remains. And, of course, oral history… Judith Wright had heard these stories.’ This is what I tell them.
I don’t tell them that swimming one afternoon in the dark pools of the falls, just as the sun slanted shadows through saplings at the water’s edge, I met those shrill, anguished spirits. I don’t tell them of the high-pitched keening and tortured wailing that filled my ears each time I dived, or of the roaring bush silence that greeted me when I emerged, clean-skinned and gutted. I don’t tell them how I choked, sick with sudden comprehension as I lay on the hard granite, resisting the pull of those blood channelled ghosts to join their sway and wander in the waters far under.
Now, Slessor they will understand. White man’s words. White man’s war.
They are excused by the bell.
To me it is the sound of alarm.
‘Nigger’s Leap‘ is a poem by Australian author Judith Wright recording one of the massacres of indigenous Australians in a remote, rural region of NSW in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.