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Civilization by Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Beds are Burning by Peter Garrett

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In the Australian culture, there have been many debates about the rightful ownership of Australian land and about whether the Aborigines have the right to retain the land taken from them. Further more, indigenous writers have expressed anger and protest towards the loss of their culture to white civilization. Peter Garrett and Oodgeroo Noonuccal are two artists who seek to raise the issues of the native land title and the oppression of Australian Aborigines.

Civilization” by Oodgeroo Noonuccal is a poem, which comments on the effects of white civilization on Aboriginal people and “Beds are Burning” by Peter Garrett comments on the issue of native land title. Throughout the two texts, various poetic techniques such as imagery, irony, tone and point of view, as well as poetic form are used to express deeply held views about the values and issues raised. Both texts, “Civilization” and “Beds are Burning” reflect anger and protest towards the various injustices suffered by the Aboriginal culture since the colonial invasion in 1788.

The title of the song “Beds are Burning” suggests things about the song itself and what it means. “Bed is burning” comes from a proverb, “lying in a burning bed”,. This proverb means that a person is ignoring a crisis that surrounds them and eventually this crisis will destroy or overwhelm them. The lyricist has created the imagery of burning beds, implicit in the title of the song, to express the deeply held view that post colonial Australia is in the grip of a crisis concerning land ownership and who it really belongs to.

The lyricist likens the image of a burning bed to the guilt the individual Australians should feel due to the invasion of Aboriginal Australia on 26th January 1788. The lyricist suggests that if white Australia does not acknowledge the theft of land from the Aborigines that they will suffer devastating consequences. “Burning” raises connotations of hell, suffering and overwhelming guilt. Peter Garret has used the poetic form of the son lyric and poetic technique to express a certain position on the issue of native title.

The viewpoint expressed in “Beds are Burning” is that Australian land belongs to the Aborigines and must be rightfully returned to them. The lyricist begins the song with some imagery which is directly associated with the white Australian culture. These images are of a more rural nature and allow the listener to imagine a hot outback environment. “Holden wrecks and boiling diesel” are clearly typical of the white culture and seem to be at odds with the natural environment of “Blackwood and desert oak”.

This contrast creates a sense of the ferocity of the outback and creates a feeling of intensity and foreboding. The listener also gets a sense of the lyricist’s anger towards the issue of the land stolen from the Aborigines. The lyricist then uses a series of clear statements to express what he thinks should be done about the issue of native title. When the song says, “fairs fair”, it draws on the Australian clichi?? “fair go”. It suggests, in a language that those familiar to Australian clichi?? , understand that it is absolutely right and just that Aborigines should reposses their land.

The line “to pay the rent” implies that white Australians carry a heavy burden of guilt over the issue of Australian land ownership. “To pay our share” suggests that the white Australian listener of the song should share the guilt over land stolen from the Aborigines by colonizers. Verse two in the song re-affirms the view that Australian land belongs to the indigenous Australians. The word “fact” used in the line, “a facts a fact” is used to suggest the absolute righteousness that the lyricist feels about the issue of native title.

The chorus of “Beds are Burning” passionately expresses the lyricist’s anger and protest towards white Australians who have been living for hundreds of years on “stolen land”. The lyricist uses two rhetorical questions and directs them towards white Australians. He asks How can we dance when our earth is turning? How do we sleep while our beds are burning? The lyricist constructs the image of people (white Australians) dancing during a heavy crisis. This is clearly expressing the lyricist’s anger towards the people who do not care about native title and are keen to continue to selfishly live their lives on “stolen land”.

The chorus also includes the image of people sleeping in burning beds to reinforce his view that white Australians are apathetic and indifferent to the cause of indigenous Australians who want the return of their land. The lyricist asks these two rhetorical questions with urgency for the chorus is the most heightened and intense point of the song. The title of the poem “Civilization” by Oodgeroo Noonuccal is an ironic poem about the civilization of Australia since colonization. The word civilization usually has positive connotations.

Westerners use it to mean the systems and organizations which operate in their society, and it is often used in a celebratory way. It also points to a modern world full of better ways of doing things. However, in Noonuccal’s poem, it is used in an ironic way to signify all the harm and danger inflicted on Aboriginal people violently introduced to “white man’s ways”. When used by Noonuccal, the word civilization takes on the meaning of a system or a way of living capable of causing great unhappiness to those living within it.

She aims this criticism at the colonizers and at those who continue to uphold the ways and ideas of the colonizers, which she thinks are oppressive, and rob people of their humanity. The point of view of “Civilization” is that of an Aboriginal identity; the persona speaks as an Aboriginal person and on behalf of her cultural group. The poem begins with the line “We who came late to civilization, missing a gap of centuries”. “We” is representative of the Aboriginal culture and extends as far back as to its origins (40 000 years ago).

The anger of the poem is directed towards white Australian people, extending as far back as the 1788 invasion of Australia. The use of first person point of view, to represent the deeply held views of the persona, is powerful because Australians don’t often hear the views of the marginalized Aboriginal culture. It creates a sense of directness and intimacy between the persona and the reader and immediately implicates the white Australian reader in the culture that caused the Aborigines so much harm and sadness.

It also emphasizes the anger of the persona because she speaks directly to the reader and the reader cannot help but to feel a sense of guilt and shame due to the violent invasion of a culture whose people were clearly doing well before they had “civilization” forced upon them. Oodgeroo Noonuccal uses a specific tone to convey the view that Aboriginal culture was destroyed by white people and how this culture continues to destroy them. The tone of the poem is sarcasm, bitterness and anger. The persona states “We marveled and admired” which the reader understands is full of bitterness.

The persona then uses the word “foreboding” which creates a sense of the fear and violence associated with the forced “civilization” of the Aboriginal culture. “For we were people before we were citizens… rate payers, tenants, customers, employees, parishioners” is an attack on white culture who has so many different meaningless roles for people to play within a society. The persona is clearly angry that a beautiful and contented Aboriginal culture was destroyed and replaced by a cold and souless colonial culture.

The line “Your sacred totems of lord and lady, highness and holiness” is conveyed in a mocking tone. It is implied that these “sacred totems” means absolutely nothing to the Aborigines. “Your strange cult of uniformity” is also mocking and bitter because it means that white people have no ideas or individuality separate from their culture. They follow each other like sheep. The poetic technique of irony is used powerfully in the lines. Oh we have benefited, we have been lifted With new knowledge, a new world opened.

Suddenly caught up in white man ways Gladly and gratefully we accept. The persona clearly does not express the joy and happiness of the Aboriginal culture’s joining of white civilization. She means the opposite of what she says. The reader understands that she, and the people she stands for, reject white man’s ways and that they also believe that these ways caused them great damage and despair. The last two lines are expressed in a more gentle, but still bitter tone. The reader as a “white man” is advised to take a clear look their culture.

But remember, white man, if live is for happiness, You too, surely, have much to change. The persona clearly states that white people are caught up in their money, jobs and “looking good” or presenting well, but this does not equate with happiness. This is stated when the persona says, “You too surely have much to change” The reader is left with a strong impression that they could incorporate some of the ideas and values of the Aboriginal culture to better their own way of life.

Civilization” by Oodgeroo Noonuccal and “Beds are Burning” by Peter Garrett both powerfully raise cultural issues regarding the injustices endured by the Aborigines since colonization in 1788. The texts use different types of poetic techniques, some of which are; irony, tone, imagery and point of view. These are needed to draw the reader into the texts and to help them to sympathize with the Aborigines whose land was taken from them and who endure the oppression of living in a culture, whose beliefs and values, the do not share.

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