The Little Red Yellow Black Book : An Introduction to Indigenous Australia
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Press
Amity Raymont, Design
AIATSIS Press, 2018 4th Edition (first pub 1994)
Secondary, Upper Primary
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- Aboriginal Australians
- Art, Aboriginal Australian
- Indigenous knowledge
- Relationship to place
- Social life and customs
- Stolen generations
- Torres Strait Islanders (Qld TSI SC54, SC55)
For an older generation of Australians, the title ‘The Little Red Yellow Black Book’ is inspired by one of the most controversial mid-20th century titles: ‘The Little Red School Book’ (1969) - a provocative primer for young readers with frank advice about sex, drugs, politics and parents. Originating in Denmark, it was banned in several European countries and (in 1972) in Queensland. The political intention of ‘The Little Red Yellow Black Book’ is equally, if not more, challenging - but its strategies are subtler.
First published in 1994, this is the book’s 4th edition, and one immediate observation is that identifying the author is not easy. Although an older publishing house, AIATSIS (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies) is less well known than the much loved Magabala Books - a name young readers will recognise; furthermore, there is no mention of authorship on the front cover, the back cover blurb, in the opening pages or in the publishing information. Just one discreet mention on the spine: ‘AIATSIS with Bruce Pascoe’. This is not accidental. The second observation is that the voice throughout is first person plural. ‘We acknowledge…some of us live…When asked where we come from…’. The narrator is a collective: all First Nations people in Australia and the Torres Strait Islands are here telling their story.
Similar to the use by the Bardi-Jaawi people of the title ‘Our World’ (2010 Magabala Books), the perspective here is astutely inclusive. Young readers are free to join the excitement and feel embraced by this use of the pronoun ‘we’ if they like. The subjects covered are headed: ‘Who we are; How we live; Our achievements; Our shared history; Our leadership and activism; Let’s celebrate’. Note - OUR shared history. As an introduction, the book confronts difficult topics such as the forced removal of children, the need for a treaty, the limp political response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the patriarchal Northern Territory Emergency. But it also inspires readers with its stories of Indigenous survival and creativity.
Formatted as a kind of travel handbook or field guide, the book’s visual content alone is cause for celebration. It includes a fold-out print of David Horton’s amazing 1996 map of Indigenous Australia, which stunned non-Indigenous readers with its colourful complexity. It’s likely too that this book will be the first opportunity young readers have had to study a map of the Torres Strait Islands. And there are wonderful new and archival photographs on almost every page, together with a useful historical timeline and an extensive and carefully curated list of references for further study.
In trying to embrace such a broad sweep of Indigenous cultures in only 200 pages, ‘The Little Red Yellow Black Book’ ticks every box when it comes to accessibility. It acknowledges that many readers are interested in learning about Aboriginal Australia, but don’t quite know where to start. So the blend of research and storytelling takes even complex topics and engages the reader’s interest. By noting the absence of certain sounds in one Queensland language, for example, the narrators show how the English word ‘swamp’ was rendered as ‘Toowoomba’ and was then borrowed back into English as the name of a now famous regional city.
It is not as location-specific as Marcia Langton’s ‘Welcome to Country’, so although it looks like a travel guide it would not be much use in the glove box or carry-on. But for readers who want to know more about the general context of what they are about to see, or what they have just seen, ‘The Little Red Yellow Back Book’ is a great introduction.
- (There are many wonderful possibilities. ‘The Little Red Yellow Black Book’ does not shy away from the tragic impact of colonisation, but to change stereotyped narra-tives, it emphasises the diversity of Australia’s First Nations cultures, their innova-tion, creativity and resilience. Fashion, music, design, literature, language, film, theatre, science, agriculture, aquaculture, politics - thousands of resources are available to inspire young readers to learn more. Below are just a few.)
- ‘5 Indigenous films that changed the national conversation’, SBS, 19/7/2017 https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2017/07/18/5-indigenous-films-changed-national-conversation
- ’13 Indigenous innovations that are truly amazing’, TEA&BELLE COLLECTIVE, 6/10/2017 (useful list to inspire further research) https://www.teaandbelle.com/single-post/2017/10/06/13-indigenous-innovations-that-are-truly-amazing
- ‘Babakiueria’ YouTube (1986) (historically important satire prior to Australian Bi-centenary) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqcFg4z6EYY
- ‘Chooky Dancers,’ YouTube, 15/8/2009 (much loved celebration of cultural fusion) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hXLw36sN5no
- ‘Virtual Indigenous Rock Art Tour in Queensland’, 13/11/2020 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-e7xsnEQAQ