Snake Cradle, Roberta Sykes

AWW Gen 4 Week, 16-23 Jan 2022

Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Sykes (1943-2010) was a prominent Black activist in the seventies, and a poet with Love Poems and Other Revolutionary Acts published in 1979. Snake Cradle (1997) is the first volume of her 3 volume autobiography. My focus this week has been on women’s activism but of course Bobbi Sykes takes us also to another aspect of the Gen 4 period, Black Rights.

It is necessary at this point to make clear that although Sykes never met her father, nor got much information from her (white) mother, he was almost certainly an African-American serviceman passing through Townsville, where Sykes was born and grew up, during WWII.

Sykes implies a connection with Indigenous people, not least in the title of this book, and that caused her some trouble. She did not grow up within the Indigenous community as did for instance Mudrooroo, her contemporary, from the other side of the continent, and with similar ancestry, but there is no doubting she suffered from racial prejudice, nor her commitment to activism.

I should admit here I made a mistake. This being the first volume of Sykes’ autobiography it stops when she is 18, so we see nothing of her life as an activist in the 1960s and 70s which is what I was really interested in and which would have been most relevant to this generation of women. As a literary work it has almost no merit at all, which is not to say it is not plainly written and readable, but that it is just another kid’s life: this happened and then that happened.

You could say I have read and loved two memoirs of childhood recently, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Inseparables and Gerald Murnane’s Tamarisk Row, and why is Syke’s childhood so white bread compared with those two. And I would have to say, good writing makes you think about more than just the events taking place. Perhaps it is as Murnane says, good writing makes you know the narrator.

Anyway, I will take you quickly through the events of Sykes’ life. They are not typical of what we read about growing up Black in Australia, but of course they were formative and still illustrate aspects of racism in Australia and Queensland. I could say ‘at that time’ but Queensland remains Queensland, and it is only 17 years since Cameron Mulrunji Doomadgee died of tripping over a stair in the Palm Island police station after singing ‘Who let the Dogs Out’ while a police car was passing.

Syke’s mother was a white woman who for reasons of her own chose to be single mother with two daughters by a Black US serviceman, Roberta and Dellie, and one by a Chinese Australian greengrocer. It turns out late in the book that Roberta also has a much older brother who has no contact with them. Two older girls also live with them from time to time, Leila and Desma. Sykes is told they are both orphans though Leila’s father, a Finnish seaman, boarded from time to time in the house next door and would occasionally come over to do chores, or to take them for a drive.

Are we told her mother’s name? It’s Mrs Patterson, but let’s call her Mum, as Sykes does. Mum is compulsively secretive and hard working, taking in laundry to be washed by hand, and also when she’s short of money, boarders. She owns their small house on the outskirts of Townsville, an important port in north Queensland, and later buys and sells others. Queensland houses are typically up on stilts and if there were too many boarders Roberta or Mum or both would have to sleep out on the verandah or in a corner under the house.

Mum’s family are from Cairns, further north, but the one sister, Glad, she stays in touch with lives in Brisbane, 1,000 miles (1,600km) to the south – a day and two nights by the Sunlander train.

Roberta is accepted at a Catholic girls school and does well there. She, and later Dellie, are the only non-whites, and for long periods Roberta forgets that she is non-white, though she is often chased and taunted by state school kids on the way home. She is a small, skinny child, often ill and eventually missing a year of school with meningitis, her only consolation while at home a set of encyclopedias bought on time payment which she reads from end to end. To her chagrin, younger sister Dellie is introduced to bras before she is.

The nuns attempt to direct her down the ‘domestic’ stream, but Roberta is determined to be a doctor. The only compromise that can be reached is for her to do the domestic stream and the maths/science stream side by side, and in this, luckily, one of the teachers helps her out with early classes. But as soon as she turns 14, the senior nun makes an excuse and turns her out. As far as this book is concerned that is the end of her schooling, though I see that in 1983, so at age 40, Sykes received a PhD in Education from Harvard, the first black Australian to graduate from a United States university.

Roberta’s only contact with Indigenous children is at the Saturday afternoon movies, where she makes friends with some and returns with them to their home suburb, Garbutt. At various times she speaks with older Indigenous men and implies that they see her as belonging to the Snake totem, hence the book’s title, and her later problems with Indigenous colleagues.

The last quarter of the book is concerned with her moving to Brisbane, living first with Aunty Glad and then in rooming houses, working notably in the pineapple factory – we all grew up eating Golden Circle tinned pineapple – and going out dancing. After a midnight movie she is left stranded without transport, accepts a ride with some men, is taken to a farm on the outskirts and is beaten, raped and left for dead. For all the times that she is picked up by police and questioned does she have documents permitting her off the mission, this time a detective believes her and over the course of a year pursues the men involved and brings them to justice and long prison sentences.

Roberta returns to Townsville, is only slowly brought to realise she is pregnant, turns down two proposals of marriage, and so at 18 she is a single mother with a son.

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Roberta Sykes, Snake Cradle, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1997. 330pp.

15 thoughts on “Snake Cradle, Roberta Sykes

  1. I once had dinner with Roberta Sykes at the home of some friends. I think this was in the 1970s. At that stage, she struck me as rather quiet – she didn’t say much the whole evening. I didn’t want to ask her many questions, for fear of being intrusive.

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    • I could understand that! Apart from anything else she was older and well known. I don’t know anything about her since that time but I can easily imagine her ‘retiring’ to a productive academic life.

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  2. I love the cover of this edition: that alone would encourage me to pick up a copy. It’s interesting that you’ve been enjoying memoirs lately. It’s not normally a genre you gravitate towards, is it? I seem to remember a conversation about your not wanting to know much about a writer’s life, but maybe that’s more a comment about literary biography…

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    • This one I read because (I thought) it suited my theme – women activists etc. But I must have said something to mislead you. I read and enjoy literary memoirs from time to time, and I quite often compare a writer’s life to their fiction. In fiction I want place, time and POV to be ‘authentic’, which concept I can be easily persuaded to discuss at length.

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      • It was in regards to Margaret Atwood and, I think, something to do with how much you wanted to know about her growing up in the bush, if that helps bring back the conversation. And I think you did mention at the time that there were exceptions or that you knew it was in conflict with wanting to know that their voice was authentic, so that all fits quite nicely.

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      • For some reason two of the last three books I’ve read have been non-literary memoirs – Alice Pung’s Unpolished Gem and Drusilla Modjeska’s Poppy – maybe because, stuck at home, they annoyed me by sitting on the shelf for so long. The Pung was really entertaining, the Modjeska, not so much. In between I snuck in a Georgette Heyer (which won’t appear on any list!) and Kindred which I must get written up today.

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  3. But Bill, it’s not just another kid’s life! I read this back then when it was published, and I’ve never forgotten that “a ride with some men, being taken to a farm on the outskirts and being beaten, raped and left for dead” was what routinely happened to Black women, in country towns, in the outskirts of cities, anywhere that offered a Black victim and a secluded place to do it. For some young men, it was just what they did on a Friday night when they left the pub. And their victims were Black because most of the time the police did not want to know about it.
    And—
    being “picked up by police and questioned does she have documents permitting her off the mission” is not just any kid’s life either. Only Blacks had to endure that kind of harassment.
    Sadly, I’m not even sure that I should be using past tense to discuss these things.

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    • Lisa, I don’t disagree with a single thing you say. Nevertheless, until she went down to Brisbane in her late teens, she lived a relatively ordinary childhood. She remarks herself that it was a long time before she realised she was Black.
      But the real point I was trying to make, badly I guess, is just how mundane her writing is. Everyone writing about their childhood says I did this, I did that, Mum was unreliable, Mum was a rock, our hole in the middle of the road didn’t even have a cardboard box to keep the rain off etc. This was a sometimes interesting story that might have been written by any competent journalist.

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      • Fair comment, I don’t remember the writing well enough to say.
        But I would say that most (not all) of the Black memoirs I read in the early days … and I read quite a few of them, almost everything I came across… had the kind of writing you might expect from people with limited education. Their power was in the revelations they shared, which shocked people like me out of our naïveté.

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  4. Back in 1997 I used to spend my Saturday afternoons reading the weekend papers. I remember very clearly when this book came out & was reviewed in the SMH. I found her story riveting, compelling but then they included an extract & as you say, the writing was ordinary. And I knew I couldn’t read the whole book. I do remember the article referenced the section that Lisa mentioned though. I’ve never forgotten it.

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    • It’s the old reviewing problem – how much of the ‘important’ part of the story do you reveal without destroying readers’ experience of the book. I don’t know how marketing works, but if I was Sykes I would have been annoyed that they chose to reveal, out of context, the most dramatic part of the book.

      As you say, her story is compelling and I would still like to know how she made her way from poverty and single motherhood in 1960s Townsville, to a prominent place in the Australian civil rights movement, to Harvard.

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  5. I wonder how a person decides to write about their life in volumes. Mark Twain did it. Perhaps these early stories truly shape who she becomes in the next 18 years and were necessary for the reader’s development. Or, perhaps she wanted her life in print for posterity. I’m not sure. I prefer memoir over autobiography, which I tend to define as a book about some aspect of a person’s life (their relationship with their mom, their troubles with alcohol, how they became an Olympian, etc.) vs. autobiography (starts with birth and then says this happened, then this happened, then this).

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    • I probably prefer autofiction over both memoir and autobiography.
      Because this is a relatively early account of growing up Black in Australia, I think Sykes – and her publisher – probably thought it was worth doing properly, that her account was general or representative as well as personal. And I’m guessing that it is that thought which drive’s Lisa’s response too.

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