Remembering the Inspirational Uncle Jack, Sparkling-Eyed Actor, Activist and Mentor
I heard the news of the death of my close friend and mentor, Jack Charles, while watching the must-see coverage of Queen Elizabeth’s death. Everywhere I surfed, from canal to canal, there was the Queen, riding a stallion across the expanse of one of her landed estates, waving to a crowd outside Buckingham Palace from a carriage that looked like a pumpkin giant, and reclining in State in one palace or another. Whatever my personal feelings about the Crown and its declining colonial empire, I was struck by the crude display of parading a corpse across the country. When an Aboriginal person dies, we are motivated to bring peace and rest to their spirit, as opposed to turmoil and noise.
Jack Charles was a proud Boon Wurrung, Woi Wurrung, Dja Dja Wurrung and Yorta Yorta. Others who knew and loved Jack have already commented on his rich life, as an actor, writer, potter, activist and occasional cat burglar. A member of the Stolen Generations, he was taken from his mother as a baby, spent years in institutions and foster homes, and graduated from the prison system, as others sometimes do. Indigenous people, after suffering childhood trauma at the hands of the state. Jack spoke actively about the physical and sexual abuse he suffered in the institutions that housed him over the years. The resulting pain he lived with throughout his life contributed to a severe drug addiction, which he gave up around the age of 60. Jack was an old-school “do the crime, do the time” character, a man who never sought sympathy for his failings. What he has come to expect of others and himself is basic decency.
I knew Jack on the street long before I saw him on stage or on screen. I knew him from before the years when he rode his bright yellow bicycle through central Melbourne, sporting a high-vis vest, his silver mane swaying in the breeze. Regardless of whether he was unlucky or enjoying his success of the past few years, Jack’s love for others, his spark and his wisdom have not changed. People have commented recently that Jack has a smile for everyone and loves to share a laugh. He did. But appearances can be deceiving. Jack was a principled political activist throughout his life and fiercely defended Indigenous rights when necessary, never backing down in any battle, despite his lack of physical stature.
Jack was an inspirational leader to our people. His voice was as wise as it was humble. I had the chance to work with him several times. On one occasion, I had the privilege of hearing him speak the words that I have never forgotten. Words that changed the way I think about community and country. At the time we worked together on the play We will show the country, produced by Ilbijerri Theater Company, with the wonderful artistic director Rachael Maza. Jack played the role of William Barak, a Wurundjeri leader from the banished Aboriginal community on the Coranderrk reserve, east of Melbourne, in the 1860s. a historical context to the story.
One afternoon, Jack and I were invited to lead a discussion with the non-Aboriginal actors in the production. They were great people to work with, keen to learn more about the history of the incarceration of native communities in the missions and reservations of the Victorian colony from the mid-19e century later. I talked about the Aboriginal Protection Act 1886, more infamously known to Native people as the “half-breed” act. It was a violent law enacted to forcibly separate indigenous families on the basis of caste, being an attempt to exterminate people with the stroke of a pen rather than a bullet.
“Sovereignty” was the buzzword at the time when We will show the country went into production. One of the actors asked Jack if he could explain the concept of sovereignty for the cast. Although he spent a lot of time in courtrooms being questioned by lawyers or being defended by his own “beak”, Jack Charles was not himself a legal expert. The day didn’t matter. He confessed to having no interest in the constitutional legality of the term, nor in the efforts of some Indigenous nations and individuals to test the validity of sovereignty in court. For Jack, understanding sovereignty and its practice was a personal matter.
He stood in front of us and spoke in typical Jack Charles fashion, his voice sometimes going from a deep baritone to the softest whisper. His eyes shone like only Jack’s could, and his dancing hands animated every word he spoke. Jack began by telling us that he was not seeking Crown sovereignty. He did not go headlong before a judge to ask that a token form of sovereignty be granted to him. Jack was a sovereign Aborigine, he told us, and he asserted his authority every day of his life, wherever he was and whatever company he had.
Jack added that his position not only comes with authority, but also a deep responsibility, which he described with clarity and heart. He then asked us to imagine that we were walking down a street and met a person in need. The person may be sick or homeless. They could be drunk or overdosed. Jack said that as an Aboriginal sovereign, it was his responsibility to see that person. To help them instead of leaving. Caring for all the people who share the country.
Unsurprisingly, Jack went on to say that responsibility becomes a burden that no individual can overcome if they struggle alone to bring about change. He pointed to the cast members and said they, we, were an example of the values of cooperation and collaboration. He was frustrated that Indigenous peoples who maintained a philosophy and culture of the collective good were not engaged in a world he described as “screwed up”.
In the days following our conversation, I often thought about Jack’s words. I knew his personal suffering, and I was in awe of his offering, his immense sense of generosity. Shortly after, I was watching a talk given by Winona LaDuke, a North American First Nations scholar and activist. She spoke about the issue of negotiating colonial structures and the concept of reciprocity. She then said that whenever she finds herself in a situation where she doesn’t know what to do, perhaps at an ethical or political crossroads, she asks herself the question, “What would Nelson do?”
In LaDuke’s case, she refers to Nelson Mandela, someone she considers an absent mentor. Of course, she doesn’t assimilate to Mandela (LaDuke is a determined and humble person). She asks for his advice, a conversation with him, so that she can then make a thoughtful decision for herself and her community. My respect for Jack Charles is such that when faced with an intellectual or political dilemma, I often wonder, “What would Jack do?” Until recently, I had always been able to ask my question directly to Jack, and I often did. Now that he’s not here to talk to him personally, I’m going to have to find a place where I can call Jack and ask him, “What would you do?”
The last time I was on the road with Jack was at the Byron Writers Festival a few years ago. We arrived on Friday and the next morning sat on a bench in the sun, drinking coffee and sharing stories of old Fitzroy. Our accommodation was at a local resort. Each room had a white tub deep enough for someone the size of Jack to swim in. (I’m only a little taller than Jack and could possibly handle the breaststroke.) We had both taken a bath the night before and clean as a whistle. “And this bath? said Jack. “The bath!” I answered. We had never enjoyed such luxury. I had grown up in a house with no running water, and Jack had undergone communal bathing in institutions, where other boys sometimes pissed in the water. “The bath!” we repeated again and again.
People loved Jack’s company. It was no surprise that, as we sat at the bench, other writers who had been invited to the festival joined us, eager to talk to him. They were mostly white writers, good people who had real affection for him. Jack never wronged anyone and his conversation that morning was as generous as ever. He posed a question to each of the authors. He wanted to know, “Have you ever taken a bath?” None of them had. Once they were gone and we were alone, he leaned over the table and patted my arm to get my attention. Jack Charles was about to share one of his pearls of wisdom with me. “Not one of them was in the tub,” he said. “The poor white men have been so spoiled that there isn’t a carnival ride left that excites them.”