Jack Charles, Urban Aboriginal in Australia

| November 12, 2015 | 0 Comments

Jack Charles stands two centimeters shy of five foot. His face is framed by thick white tufts of unruly hair down to his shoulders, accompanied by a matching beard streaked with gray. Up close, his eyes are startling and scary but hard to look away from. His irises are a blue that is best described as a darker hue of the sky right before sunset. His blue irises juxtapose his sclera, noticeably yellowed, possibly due to years of heroin abuse. Take a step back and his eyes transform into one picture: a look of peacefulness, warmth, and wisdom.


Jack Charles and me.

Charles, an Aboriginal activist and grandfather of Australia’s Indigenous Theater, was one of many in Australia’s lost generations. “Forgotten generations,” he says. “We’ve been here all along.”

Based on the assumption that the Aboriginal gene was destined to die out, assimilating the Aboriginal children into white Australia, in theory, would help quicken the end to the “Aboriginal problem.” So when the Australian government started forcibly taking children away from Aboriginal families, the passing on of Aboriginal customs, language, and tradition stopped dead in its tracks.

Jack Charles was separated from his Aboriginal family only months after his birth in 1943, and placed in Melbourne’s Box Hill Boys’ Home as the only Aboriginal child. A victim of physical abuse, “I left Christian, sexually confused, and not at all interested in my Aboriginal heritage,” he says “I couldn’t connect with my white foster parents. I ended up in juvie. I’ve been a loner all my life.”

Early in life he began abusing heroin and supplementing his income with petty theft. In the early ’60s, he stumbled into what would turn out to be a life-long passion when he was offered a role in an all-black theater production. Charles later co-founded Nindethana, meaning “ours,” Australia’s first Indigenous theater company. But his heroin addiction proved to be too much, causing him to miss rehearsals and landing him in and out of jail.

With a passion for acting and performances, Charles is credited in several film and theater performances, but Bastardy, a documentary chronicling his life, is maybe his best-known work. It starts out bluntly: in a poorly lit room, Charles injects himself with heroin while causally describing how to hide “outward signs that [he’s] had a hit.” He mentions how important this drug is to him and how long he’s been using. His confidence and ease during the entire scene is staggering. The film reveals the extent of Charles’ drug addiction in a vulnerable and honest way, but what gained the public’s attention was the film’s focus on the adult lives of the forgotten generation and the psychological, emotional, and cultural toll they took.

You can check out the trailer here:

It was only after the filming of Bastardy that Charles was able to get clean and reconnect with his Aboriginal heritage. In addition, he is now an advocate for Aboriginal rights. “Even today Aboriginals struggle to be treated equally,” Charles says. “Australia is still very suspicious of us, and we’re still kept very separate in society. Sometimes refugees get better hearings than Aboriginals. How do we fix this? We educate Australians. The younger generation is much more interested in Aboriginal history.”

Charles hopes to one day soon gain access to prisons to talk to incarcerated Aboriginals. His goal is to help other Aboriginals escape drug addiction and crime, and reconnect with their Indigenous culture. The only problem: “Because I have a police record, I’m not allowed in prisons.” He says with a quick, well-deserved, eye roll. Charles is a current finalist of 2016’s Australian of the Year competition. Winning this award could grant him prison access and the opportunity to work with Aboriginal youths. 

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Category: featured, Social Activism

Emmy Parks

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I write to validate and solidify my feelings. Make them less fleeting and more concrete and real. I'm ready to be judged.

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