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Faith: Faith Bandler, Gentle Activist, by Marilyn Lake.

February 19, 2013

Faith: Faith Bandler, Gentle Activist, by Marilyn Lake. Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2002.

Australian Women Writers—HISTORY

An interesting and informative biography of a black woman leader in the campaign for Indigenous rights in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s. The author, Marilyn Lake, directly addresses questions of who gets to say what is “true.”

Faith Bandler was the daughter of a man from the South Sea Islands who was kidnapped, enslaved, and brought to labor on the sugar plantations of northern Queensland. When the White Australia legislation was been enacted in 1901, the legislature decreed that such “blackbirds” be forced to return to their home islands. Bandler’s father escaped and settled with other South Sea Islanders along the Tweed River north of Sydney. He married a woman from a family who had migrated to Australia from India. Although Bandler grew up in a small but close black community, she faced harassment and discrimination because of her skin color.

Coming of age at the time of World War II, Bandler and her sister joined the Australian Women’s Land Army and traveled around Australia working the land. After the war the sisters moved to Kings Cross in Sydney where they became part of a cosmopolitan community of artists, radicals, and immigrants from various countries. Here Bandler met and married a Jewish refugee who had narrowly escaped from Germany. (This was the first time I had read of this community and it broadened my understanding of the variety of Australians. Diane Armstrong describes the post-World War II Jewish migration in Empire Day)

In the 1950s, Bandler became involved with others seeking to improve life for Indigenous people. She helped organize the Australian and Aboriginal Fellowship and later was a leader within the Federated Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torrey Straights Islanders (FCAATSI) an organization that brought together a diverse group of black and white organizations supporting that cause. As a gifted speaker and a person skilled at creating coalitions, she played a key role in demanding the referendum to the rewrite the Australian Constitution to insure that Indigenous people were full citizens of Australia. Once this was accomplished in 1967, divisions, always present with the organization, multiplied. Militants espousing “Black Power” directed their attention to gaining benefits for the Aboriginal peoples while attacking whites in the organization. As culture replaced race in the rhetoric, South Sea Islanders were excluded from the gains made by Indigenous peoples. Bandler, who had always championed blacks and whites working together, was pushed out of the movement

Combining research and her memories of her childhood, Bandler completed two novels, one about her father’s life and the other about her brother. Professional historians attacked her work challenging her claim that her father had been enslaved. Slavery had never existed in Australia, they said, and South Sea Islanders had come voluntarily. Bandler replied that young boys who knew no English could not have volunteered to be taken to Australia as workers. Herself a respected historian, Lake skillfully recounts the debates pointing out that professional historians, with their own particular definitions and evidence, are often distrustful on those who rely on the oral histories of the people who lived through the events. Next Bandler collected and published a history of FCAATSI which included ta variety of individual’s recollections of the struggle for Aboriginal rights in the 1950s and 1960s. Lake calls this book a “community history,” complied by the participants rather than by historians.

Bandler requested Lake to write her biography, perhaps hoping for a better response than she had received for her own books. The result is a largely positive narrative designed to ensure that Bandler and the movement she helped create are remembered and appreciated for their contributions to the nation. The book is not a piece of propaganda or fluff, however. Lake is an excellent historian who uses the tools of the historical profession to document her story. The book is written for a general as well as professional audience. The documentation is there, but always unobtrusive.  Lake describes the debates in which Bandler was involved, but does not argue with other historians or engage in technical of psychological analysis. While some of Bandler’s family life is included, the story is primarily about her public, rather than her private activities. The book is a pleasure to read as well as a reliable account of one black woman’s activism.

Lake carefully observes the tensions and conflicts within the diverse coalition that worked for Indigenous rights without rancor. When the group began its work, they defined themselves as working for goals like equality and “assimilation.” Soon, however, Bandler and others realized that “assimilation” implied that aboriginals would give up their culture. They changed their language to reflect their belief that people should honor their differences, not seek to destroy them. Sometimes individuals became involved in power plays. Efforts were made to insure the inclusion of Indigenous leaders.

The Indigenous rights movement generally, and the FCAATSI, in particular, included a strange and contentious group of supporters in the 1950s and 1960s. Bandler reached out to them all. She worked with everyone from aboriginal communities to rotary clubs. She spoke to women’s groups of all types, some of whom had no idea of the problems aboriginals faced. She also consulted with the labor unions that were a vital part of her coalition. (As an American, I found the amount of labor support surprising.) Bandler herself avoided ideological commitments, but she reached to all including those who were or were said to be Communists. (Lake observes that although Australian Communist had initially taken up the cause of the aboriginals, their concern with ideology than with local problems left them with few supporters among the Aborigines, especially in rural areas.)

Closely related to issues of ideology and the role of Indigenous in leadership was the issue of gender. Lake writes sensitively about the fear that men had over the strong, articulate women, like Bandler, who did much to fund and drive the organizations. Indigenous men, long denied their “manhood” were particularly incensed about the women who competed with them for leadership roles. Bandler used her gentle, poised demeanor to try to calm tempers, but she was among those attacked.

Lake does an excellent job of explaining Bandler’s approach to organizing and the basis for her appeal. Bandler was a person with charm and charisma which she deliberately cultivated. Never engaging in ideological agreements, she sought to attract others to her cause by personal persuasion. In her talks to widely varied groups, she sought to link local problems to larger issues of human rights and of black and whites working together. When she appeared, she was always poised and stylishly dressed. One black woman observed that she had never seen a black woman who was as elegant as Bandler. White women were also surprised and delighted at her charm. .

In addition, Lake places Bandler and the movement in the context of the struggle for the rights of blacks in other parts of the world. She notes connections which Bandler with leaders like Paul Robeson who visited Australia and supported their work. She shows the influence of ideas and practices that began elsewhere without ever implying that they were foreign imports. She simultaneously explains the local roots of the problems which Indigenous people faced.

I strongly recommend Faith to all readers, especially those interested in Australian history, the history of Australian Indigenous people, and the history of Australian women. And to anyone who enjoys a fine biography of a significant black woman.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Jennifer Rolfe permalink
    February 19, 2013 2:06 pm

    Thank you so much for introducing this book to me. I am an Aussie about to turn 66 next month and I had the honour of hearing Faith Bander speak at rallies in the late 1960’s. I always thought she was Aboriginal so this was a huge surprise to me to learn of her background. Will write another review when I have read it!!

    • February 19, 2013 3:45 pm

      Good for you. I’d love to have heard her. Bandler’s Sea Islander roots seem to have been more important in 1970s than earlier. I think you will enjoy this book. I look forward to your review of it and any bits you can say about having seen and heard her your self.

  2. February 23, 2013 9:29 am

    On to the TBR list this goes! Your posts are always so informative I feel as if I’ve half read the book already. 🙂

  3. February 23, 2013 11:36 am

    I do that mostly on nonfiction books when I want to share what I have learned with people who probably won’t read the book themselves. In my last fiction review, I said almost nothing about the book itself because so much of its power was the development of the plot and characters.

  4. February 24, 2013 1:01 am

    Another book is added to my TBR list. I am also curious about the books Faith Bandler wrote herself. Thankyou for this review Marilyn

    • February 24, 2013 11:41 am

      I have added those by her to my list to find because I am curious, too.

  5. Jennifer Rolfe permalink
    March 13, 2013 2:55 pm

    Well, as promised I have just finished reading Faith by Marilyn Lake. On a personal note I would like to share a few musings. Throughout the reading I was constantly thinking “I didn’t know that” when people I had known in those early years were mentioned. It made me realize that anyone’s history is dependent upon how someone else encounters or perceives that person at that particular time and what role or aspect they are presenting.
    I heard Faith speak at rallies during the late 1960’s on several different occasions. The most memorable was her passionate delivery at the sacking of Gough Whitlam. I cannot remember her exact words but I can remember she was very articulate about the future political implications of this move and as Lake pointed out at the end of the book, this tactic was used again when the Tampa tried to bring refugees to our shores in 2000.
    I had not realized what an influence Jessie Street played on Faith and how deep their friendship had been. I think my memories of Faith are summed up in the title – a gentle activist. She was firm, articulate and didn’t appear to allow her emotions to interfere with her logic. We can all ‘take a leaf out of her book’!
    Am also a big fan of Marilyn Lake and have read her book “Getting Equal”.

    • March 17, 2013 9:37 am

      I am glad you enjoyed this book and had the personal experience to give you context. I recently reviewed a good biography of Rosie Parks who in many ways was Faith Bandler’s US equivalent except that she was squeezed out of leadership and into becoming an icon. I haven’t read Lake’s GETTING EQUAL, but want to. I am in the middle of the book she edited on TRANSNATIONAL HISTORY which is wonderful. Australian historians are returning me to my roots in the history profession.

  6. February 14, 2015 3:03 am

    Thank you for your review. I was saddened to hear this morning that Faith Bandler has died. She was one of my models as a newly emerging feminist in the 1960s. I was surprised to read from your review that she was not an Aboriginal woman, because she was such an advocate for Indigenous rights. This book sounds wonderful and is now on my TBR list.

  7. February 20, 2015 10:20 am

    Yes, I am saddened, too. She was descended from a man from the islands and had been treated as if she were Indigenous. When I was an emerging feminist, I turned to African American women for role models, or at for examples of womanhood that were more functional than those of helpless white ladies that I had learned as a child.


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