Uncle Jack Charles: 1943-2022
Uncle Jack Charles: 1943-2022
)

“Jack Charles is Up and Fighting” is the title of one of Uncle Jack Charles’ early shows for the Indigenous Theatre Group, Nindethana, and it sums up his life. An actor, musician, potter, activist, proud gay man, this Boon Wurrung, Dja Dja Wurrung, Woiwurrung, Palawa and Yorta Yorta elder was, as actor and director Rachel Maza put it, “a shining, vibrant celebration of life”.

His brilliance in so many fields is all the more exceptional given the brutality he faced in his early years. When he was a baby, he was stolen from his mother Blanche Charles, and did not see her again until he was 19. When he was taken and made a ward of the state, he was also given a criminal record. Later he commented, “So, my first offence ... was as an Aboriginal boy, four months old, child in need of care and attention. That was the offence”. 

Several actual offences followed. He was imprisoned 22 times for burglary and drug offences as a young man. Always ready to see the political side of his life, he half-jokingly justifies the burglaries as him being a “hunter gatherer on prime Aboriginal land” who was collecting dues from those living there rent-free.

Giving testimony to Victoria’s truth-telling inquiry, Uncle Jack talked about the years in the Salvation Army Boy’s Home, where he was physically and sexually abused. “It’s hard to convey the damage that place did to me. It wasn’t just the abuse that traumatised me, the Box Hill Boys Home stripped me of my Aboriginality.” 

It was only in 2021, during the making of the SBS documentary Who Do You Think You Are?, that he discovered the identity of his father and his family’s ties to more Aboriginal nations across Victoria and Tasmania. “My story has been lost, and with this story I’ve been healed again”, he said of the discovery. Over the years he found out his forebears had been part of the Blak political peoples who resisted government intervention at Coranderrk, a reserve for Aboriginal people in northern Victoria.

Acting was where he really shone. “I think I owe my life to having found theatre”, he once said. He established the first Indigenous theatre, Nindethana, with fellow activist and actor Bob Maza, in 1972. Stage, film and television were home to his performances in The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith through to Preppers, Cleverman and Mystery Road and the documentary Bastardry

In 2010, he gave a scorching performance in Jack Charles V the Crown with the Ilbijerri Theatre Company. From stolen generation childhood, imprisoned 22 times, he talks about his whitewashed existence, then sings tongue in cheek about how grand it was that the white man came. The play demands rights for Indigenous people and, for ex-prisoners like himself, the extinguishment of past criminal records.

He ends with a blues version of Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poem “Son of Mine”, where she writes, “I could tell you of heartbreak, hatred blind ... But I’ll tell you instead of brave and fine”.

Only recently Uncle Jack declared he still had lots to say and fight for. Speaking to the Saturday Paper, he said ,“Old thieves like me, we cry loudest when we see injustice ... We still have a problem with unaccountable deaths—in custody, in police cells and sometimes in hospitals, especially over in the West [of Australia],” 

Uncle Jack was also politicised by his experience of being a gay man. In a 2019 interview with the Star Observer, his message for younger LGBTQ Indigenous people was to be true to themselves, as he was. “But always watch your back, because we’re not in a gay world. We’re living on the fringe of society, like Indigenous people, we’re fringe dwellers. So us gay and Indigenous mob, we’re fringe dwellers twice over, and that’s what gives us great strength.” 

In 2021 he was more positive saying, “I have no problems being a gay and old arty bloke, because I’ve been a gay and young arty bloke for many years and everyone’s accepted it”, not to mention how he was “tickled pink” when marriage equality was won, observing that he had “thought Australia was too much of a bastard country to get it through”. 

Oppression and discrimination didn’t go away for Uncle Jack, any more than for other Indigenous or LGBT people. But he always came back fighting. In 2015, hours after being named Victorian Senior Australian of the Year, he was twice refused a taxi. He told taxi companies when it happened again in 2016, “You need a bastard like me. A deadset, ridgy-didge, beyond redemption bastard like me to take on the taxi industry, to take on the challenge”.

We will remember Uncle Jack Charles in all his many attributes, as a fighter, an inspirational leader and elder, his cheeky humour, an icon of acting and so much more. Listen to him and the equally inspiring Archie Roach singing “We won’t cry”, and lift your spirits to the sky.

Rest in power, Uncle Jack Charles.

Read more
Bans versus strikes at Sydney Uni
Alma Torlakovic

There has been a vigorous argument over the direction of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) industrial campaign at Sydney University this year. Most recently, those who have been reluctant to argue and organise seriously for frequent enough and long enough strikes are now leading the charge for a “smarter” strategy of administration bans. 

Plasterboard workers strike
Adam Bottomley

In late August, around 50 union members at Knauf plasterboard held a meeting in their Melbourne factory to discuss recent EBA negotiations, which had begun a few months earlier. A new HR manager insisted on attending the meeting and wasted people’s time explaining the wonderful job that company management had done taking care of the workers, in particular their recent and significant safety concerns. As he spoke, one after another the workers turned their backs on him. Soon, they began challenging the manager about a worker who had just been sacked.

The stolen revolution: Iran in 1979
The stolen revolution: Iran in 1979
Priya De

Minoo Jalali was among those who resisted Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power in Iran. In the early months of 1979, she joined a mass women’s protest against the compulsory wearing of the hijab in public. “That revolution was inevitable”, Jalali recounted 40 years later in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “Nobody could have really stopped the force of it. We hoped that we could steer it [but] we were wrong. And the clergy hijacked it ... and deceived many people.”

‘We are all Mahsa’: riots shake Iran
Riots shake Iran
Bella Beiraghi

Protests and riots have spread across Iran after a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, was murdered by the morality police. Amini was visiting the capital, Tehran, on 13 September when she was arrested for allegedly breaking mandatory veiling laws. Police beat her into a coma and she died three days later. Amini was buried in her hometown of Saqqez.

Reform or revolution?
Tom Bramble

The international working-class movement has long been divided between two strategies to win socialism: the reformist and the revolutionary.

The strategic value of students
Sandra Bloodworth

Revolutionary Marxists argue that socialism is possible only if the working class leads a revolution. So why organise among students?