America’s black history and Australia’s black present

It was a pretty white crowd in Palm Springs, which I alluded to in my last post, but as I got to the far end of the main city area I started to see a lot of black families walking up the street, so I kept going up the street as well. I soon encountered the Desert Art Gallery in front of a big fair. It was cool inside the gallery, a respite from the heat, so I decided to take a look at the exhibition on display. It was a local art competition and the idea was to interpret the idea of Palm Springs. A lot of it seemed to be created by hobbyists so the paintings were sweet but unmemorable.

“What’s happening back there?” I asked a well-heeled woman in her 60s, who seemed to be involved with the art gallery. “I’m not sure…something for Black History Month? It has nothing to do with us.” The event was happening a few metres out the back door – and I mean literally a few metres – but the way she said that made it sound like it might as well have been happening on Mars. The community fair was not even reaching its neighbours, let alone a wider audience. So those banners on the street proclaiming it was Black History Month – what did that mean to the residents of the area, if anything at all?

Black History Month, Palm Springs
Black History Month, Palm Springs

Was Palm Springs one of those middle-class segregated communities, or were there no black people in the main part of town because they were all at this fair? As a tourist, I have no idea – all I could do was notice the lack of cultural diversity in town. And the community fair which was almost entirely black as well, except for a few white people manning the stalls.

The fair itself was a standard community one with local business owners and organisations setting up stands – and it felt a lot like local community events in Australia, actually, right down to the local police, face painting and jumping castle. The only difference was that it was attended by a population we don’t really have here (African-Americans). It’s funny how the community fair was the one part of Palm Springs which felt felt most familiar. But I didn’t find too much to linger around for, especially since I’d already eaten lunch, so on the way out I bought a box of Girl Scout Cookies and headed back.

I’ve been thinking about Black History Month because last Sunday, I went to one of the best community festivals I’ve ever attended anywhere – Africultures in Auburn. A good friend is on the organising committee and had recommended it. It’s always great heading out to Auburn in Sydney’s western suburbs, and I was happy to take a break from all the work I had to do in order to experience something different.

Africultures in Auburn
Africultures in Auburn

Unlike what I’d seen for Black History Month, Africultures was a vibrant festival with a wide range of people attending. It was culturally diverse – including plenty of Asians like me – and people of all ages. There was a separate stage for performances by young people, and a main stage for the adults. I was surprised by all the different African countries represented – I didn’t fully appreciate the breadth of the African migrant community we have here now. The only official absence was South Sudan, even though they are the largest group within Australia’s African community. Apparently they’re not the easiest community to engage for an event like this.

It was a hot afternoon and perfect weather. Delicious food, music you could dance to and interesting stalls. We gave most of the government stalls a miss, though I was interested in the SBS stand. They were advertising a whole raft of new radio programming targeting the emerging African communities of Australia. These programs had recently started as a direct result of the organisation’s recent review to ensure that their program offer aligned with Australia’s current multilingual needs. This could only be a positive move for both representation and to give more opportunities for participation to these new groups in our society.

Of course I can’t directly compare one festival to another, but it did strike me what a different atmosphere it is to have a diverse community event where people from outside the specific community are also engaged. Black History Month in Palm Springs felt out of place to me, as a casual observer, and the woman in the art gallery’s lack of interest in it seemed significant. I also watched the news coverage that night back in my hotel and the anchors – I think they were white – talked about the community event in a fairly detached manner. For any Americans reading this post, can you fill me in on what’s going on with Black History Month? Am I totally off the mark?

We don’t have the same kind of Black History that America does – our Indigenous history is a whole other story – and Australia has its fair share of issues around racism and integration. But Africultures was such a joyous and inclusive event that it made me feel quite hopeful about our multicultural present…as well as our future.

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One thought on “America’s black history and Australia’s black present

  1. Well said. On a different note black seem to be people of African or mixed African origin in the USA whilst black mainly means aboriginal- black fella in oz. in the seventies n eighties black was used as a political tool by all non white people to include Asians, indiAns, Africans, Afro caribbeans stc in the uk though there were some grumblings by those of African origin in the uk for hijacking their terminology. Interesting to see how things will pan out in oz.

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