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Book review: 'The N Word' by Stephen Hagan

By Aden Ridgeway - posted Wednesday, 8 June 2005

The first thing that struck me on reading this book is that Stephen Hagan comes from a long line of troublemakers. And I mean that in the most complimentary way!

In Steve's book, The N Word I read with pleasure of his resourceful great-grandmother who successfully managed to negotiate a life between two cultures, and to both hold on to her kids and get them to school; his grandparents who moved around working different pastoral properties (and also avoiding the authorities who were after their children); and his father, Jim, who made trouble for governments through his membership of the national Indigenous advisory body - the NACC.

Stephen Hagan obviously has trouble in his veins!


But I think for most people with a passing interest in news and current affairs, he is that guy who never seemed to be out of the news with his seemingly never-ending fight to remove the word “nigger” from a football stand in Toowoomba. But The N Word is not just a story of one person and his fight about an outdated, racist word in a Queensland town - it is a journey through contemporary Indigenous politics.

He and his family are products of their time - and his family's journey can be traced alongside the history of this country. His father and mother, like the majority of Aboriginal families of the time, ended up in a blacks' camp on the fringes of town - in this case, the camp was called the Yumba and was on the edge of Cunnamulla.

It was the usual historical route of forced relocation and frontier violence on their traditional lands that saw his family end up there. His grandfather worked for squatters and, along with all other Aboriginal workers of the time, suffered the indignity of losing about three quarters of his wages to the Queensland Government. Steve's grandfather, however, eventually acquired an exemption from the repressive Queensland Act - this exemption was referred to as getting his dog tags.

It almost required an Aboriginal person to renounce their Aboriginality - to be accepted as an honorary white, and has been condemned by many in retrospect as selling out on culture.

I think we need to look at it in this way - young Albert Hagan's dog tags enabled him to keep all his wages; allowed him independence to move about the State as he wished; and gave him a certain amount of control over his life. This sense of choice and control - not to mention some financial stability and what that brings to quality of life - he was able to pass on to his family.

Steve's father became politically involved at a time when white Australia was slowly becoming aware of the realities of our Indigenous lives. As a result of the Hagan family moving from the Yumba into town, and the broader community connections that grew from that, Steve's father, Jim Hagan, was elected to the NACC - the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee - the first elected advisory body to an Australian Government.


I do think this part of the book provides a point of reflection on why it is important that Indigenous people run our own affairs and make our own decisions, and why it is not good enough that white bureaucrats do it for us.

Jim Hagan's involvement in national Aboriginal politics then flowed through his family and got them all active in their own lives, helping them see that you can make a difference, that you are as good as the person next to you regardless of the colour of your skin. It is only through such leadership, education and the experience of empowerment that real change eventuates and nowhere is this more obvious than in this story.

But to look at the other side, this is also a litany of the dangers an individual who decides to take on the authorities or to get involved in politics and to fight for their ideals, can expose themselves to.

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About the Author

Senator Aden Ridgeway is the Australian Democrats' Spokesperson on Indigenous Affairs and a Senator for New South Wales.

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