July 2009

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Faith Bandler & Paul Robeson

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Money was tight when Faith Bandler was growing up in Murwillumbah in the early 1930s, but her two older brothers managed to save a portion of their wages to buy records. Paul Robeson was a favourite and the family would all sing along. At 17, Faith sneaked away from a church meeting to see him perform ‘Ol’ Man River’ in Showboat. It was the first movie she ever saw.

Young Faith’s interest was more than just musical. The daughter of a South Sea Islander blackbirded to the Queensland canefields, she already saw parallels between the Afro-American experience of segregation and the petty Australian apartheid that distinguished islanders from Aborigines while discriminating against both.

In the person of Paul Robeson, Jim Crow had a particularly formidable opponent. The son of an escaped slave, Robeson had graduated from Columbia Law School and become the greatest American football player of his era before winning worldwide acclaim as an actor and singer. But when he exercised his freedom of speech to oppose racism and fascism, the FBI targeted him. In 1950, the US government revoked his passport and his recordings disappeared from the shelves of American stores.

Faith Bandler found some of his discs in Europe the following year. Now in her early thirties and a peace activist, she’d taken leave from her job as a dressmaker at David Jones in Sydney to attend a Soviet-sponsored youth festival in Berlin. When she returned home, sceptical of the communists, the security police confiscated her passport and her phonograph records, the Robesons among them. They also had her sacked from her job.

After almost a decade, the US Supreme Court restored Robeson’s passport. In 1960, he embarked on an overseas concert tour. When he got to Australia, Faith Bandler was at the airport to meet him.

“‘You must tell me more about your people,’ he said. Well, actually he meant the Aboriginal people …”

She set up a projector in his hotel, the Australia, and screened a film shot on a mission. What he saw moved him to anger and the declaration that he would come back and lend his hand to the struggle for racial equality. “He was beautiful, but he died and he didn’t come back.”

But his example fuelled Bandler’s determination. By the time of Robeson’s death, in 1976, she had helped establish the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and led its successful campaign in the 1967 referendum.

And at nearly 90, a Living Treasure, her passion for human rights and social justice jes’ keeps rollin’ along.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

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