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Uncle Jack Charles: A tribute

  • 14 September 2022
I am deeply saddened at the passing of inspirational Uncle Jack Charles. I loved him. I was one of the many who loved him. He was always up for a hug and a yarn when we saw each other around the traps. He always made you feel good. Always had that twinkle in his eyes. He was a gentle, loving, big-hearted man, despite it all. Because of it all. He triumphed over institutional racism, the legacy of colonialism, and the immense suffering, fragmentation, and trauma it left in its wake — to become a brilliant storyteller, actor, artist, potter, musician and tireless worker for Aboriginal justice and rights.

If you want to get to know Uncle Jack, read his autobiography, Born-again Blackfella. It’s a  roller coaster ride with an exuberant, truth telling, yarn-spinner, who led an incredible life. It is not only the story, but the way Uncle Jack tells it, with his characteristic sense of mischief, and cheeky humour, even when depicting his darkest hours.

They came early, those dark times. Born on 5 September 1943, Uncle Jack was stolen from his mother when he was four months old, and put into institutional care, where he was physically and sexually abused. Let’s hear it from Uncle Jack himself:

‘Back in the day Box Hill Boys Home had a good reputation as an open institution that housed the city’s forgotten children. But, as was only revealed many years later, it was also a place that housed forbidden, dark secrets; unspeakable crimes committed against the children placed in its care.’

Uncle Jack exposed the façade. His childhood embodied the realities of, as he names it, ‘Australia’s shameful Assimilationist policy.’ What happened to Uncle Jack happened to many First Nations people. He  was robbed of his identity. He was told the lie that he was an orphan rather than an Aboriginal, and a Stolen Child. He had to find that out for himself. He had to embark on his own journey.

'He put a caring arm around the broken, and showed them a way forward, a way out. But he was also tough. If you want to call me Uncle Jack you’ve got to earn it, he’d say.'

And what a journey it was: at first, into the heart of Aboriginal Fitzroy, and out into the world; and onto the stage, his most enduring refuge, when he was nineteen. In 1971 he co-founded Nindethana, Australia's first Aboriginal-run theatre