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Indigenous Law Bulletin

Indigenous Law Bulletin
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Foster, Robert --- "Book Review - Why Weren't We Told? A Personal Search for the Truth about our History" [2000] IndigLawB 9; (2000) 4(26) Indigenous Law Bulletin 22

Book Review-

Why Weren’t We Told?
A Personal Search for the Truth about our History

By Henry Reynolds.

Viking 1999, 264 pages.

RRP $24.95.

Reviewed by Robert Foster

Why Weren’t We Told? is essentially a scholar’s memoir describing two overlapping journeys, the first being a journey from the ‘innocence’ of Reynolds' Tasmanian upbringing in the 1940s and 1950s to the ‘realities of race’ in Northern Queensland, where he moved in the mid 1960s to take up an academic post in Townsville. The second journey took him from the comfortable myths of Australia’s past, to its unsettling realities. The two journeys overlap in important ways, with the ‘realities of race’ clearly motivating Reynolds’ search for the ‘truth about our history’, and his explorations of the past endeavouring to explain the racism he witnessed.

The lion’s share of the book is devoted to the two most significant areas of Reynolds' scholarly activity - the violence of the frontier and native title - in which his historical research has helped challenge two of the nation’s most powerful myths: the notions of a peaceful settlement of Australia and terra nullius. Reynolds not only recalls the ‘eureka!’ moments of his research, but reflects on the controversies generated along the way; the charge that his work overdoes the ‘violence theme’, the backlash against 'black arm-band history’ and the hysterical responses to the Mabo and Wik decisions.

The symbolic starting point for the journeys described in Why Weren’t We Told? is WEH Stanner’s challenge in his Boyer Lectures of 1968 to break the ‘Great Australian Silence’ about Australia’s Aboriginal past. The work of Reynolds and others has well and truly broken that silence, and the consequences have been profound. Whether or not the nation will genuinely reconcile past and present, and come to terms with the ‘truth about our history’ and the ‘realities of race’, has still of course to be determined.

Robert Foster is a Lecturer in Australian History at the University of Adelaide.

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