Uncle Jack Charles – Indigenous elder, actor musician, activist


You’re listening to Communicate with Zen and John from Empower Your English.


Zen:                 Hi, I'm Zen Fong.


John:               And I'm John McKenna. 


Zen:                 We are the co-founders of Empower Your English.  This is our podcast called Communicate.  The Communicate podcast is all about how we express ourselves and how we understand one another.  During our conversations with our guests we focus on important areas such as listening, empowerment and humanity.  When we communicate we connect. 


                        You are about to listen to a conversation we have with our guest Uncle Jack Charles who is a recognisable character in Australia.  Uncle Jack is an Australian Indigenous elder, an actor, a musician and an activist who also wears many other hats.  We would like to advise that during our conversation there are some parts of our podcast that may be sensitive to our listeners, such as coarse language, sexual references and drug usage. 


                        Uncle Jacks speaks from the heart and we do hope you respect his honesty.  Hi, I'm Zen.  I'm with my co-host John in our Communicate podcast.


John:               Hi, Zen.  It's going to be another great show.  I'd like to welcome our guest Uncle Jack Charles.  Thank you, Uncle Jack.


Jack:                Oh, thanks, Zen and John for having on podcast - Communicate podcast.  I'm very proud to be talking how empowering English is so important to this podcast.  I am a self-proclaimed elder statesman in my own community.  I am googleable, my name is googleable or I can be googled through the Bastardy documentary, b-a-s-t-r-d-y, Bastardy. 


                        My claim to fame coming out of my years of infamy, too famed, by allowing myself to be seen on a big important documentary which took eight years to make recording my life homeless on Melbourne streets and being one of Melbourne's worst nightmares, a thief, and a drug addict and, etc, doing a lot of gaol time but also performing. 


                        So I'm in this unique position now where I've given up drugs.  I am now seen as a self-proclaimed leader, statesman, in my own right in my community.  I have found out through the Koori Heritage Trust and Link-Up exactly who I am.  Remember, I am a stolen person taken under the assimilation policy in 1943 to be assimilated.  So I was assimilated.  So I have gained full knowledge of my Indigenousness through the Koori Heritage Trust and Link-Up and I'm in a position now where I can give Welcome to Country in my own right as an elder statesman of Melbourne. 


                        We do Welcome to Countries because the Indigenous people of Australia still lay claim to the land, to the waters, to the trees and the rivers and, etc, and the mountains.  We still have our designated tribal boundaries discovered now, and for many of us we're reaching back into our indigeneity to discover lost heritage, lost stories, and I'm in that unique position now where I have been researching the story of my mother, my father and the breakup of the family because of the assimilation policy, etc, taking the children away.  So I've been part of that. 


                        So we do a Welcome to Country in Parliament.  It's been taken up.  After the Lord's Prayer is done in Parliament there is a Welcome to Country.  So it's been locked in now.  Even in Parliament and the States' Parliaments and the local councils around the nations we do Welcome to Country, acknowledgment upon which that council building or that town hall or that Parliament, where it sits, on whose land that sits.  We acknowledge the people of the land. 


                        I acknowledge the people of the five surrounding language groups of Melbourne of which I'm part through my mum being of the Woiwurrung, of the Boon Wurrung mob in Melbourne, and my great-greats being of the Dja Dja Wurrung in the middle of Victoria, and recently found my father through the Wiradjuri clans up in New South Wales.  So I'm competent.  You know, I mean, I'm able to give Welcome to Country in my own right because I was born in Melbourne.  My umbilical cord was cut at the Royal Women's Hospital in Grattan Street, Carlton, like so many others.  And so where your umbilical cord is cut that's your place of belonging ironically.


John:               Thank you, Uncle Jack, for your lovely introduction about who you are in this beautiful country of Australia.  Uncle Jack, as you know, Communicate is all about talking about sharing stories about people's communication strategy, their technique.  Would you like to perhaps share with us your, perhaps, approach to communicating along your journey, what's worked for you, what hasn't worked.


Jack:                Well, I've been an actor since I was 19.  I was pulled in by the New Theatre, which was commonly called the Pink Theatre in the day, left-wing leanings, and although I never played an Aboriginal character during my seven years amateur work with the New Theatre, it give me a grounding in theatre here in Melbourne.  It got me noticed.  But I knew nothing of my indigeneity.  So for many years I was performing various other black nationalities from around the world in the courses of certain plays, a South African play doing one of my best plays, the Blood Knot written by a bloke who was under house arrest over in South Africa at the time. 


                        But, you know, I believe that through acting I can give a voice, I can take my rage, when I did have rages, to the stage and it was a political sense but I hadn't done anything about my indigenousness.  It's just between the Communist Party and the present parties that were in vogue in Australia at the time.


John:               So basically, Uncle Jack, you've used acting as a way to communicate.


Jack:                Yes, yes, yes, yes.


John:               Okay.  For the other people around the world who say, "Well, I'm not an actor ..."


Jack:                Yes, yes, well ...


John:               "... but I still want to communicate," what tips do you give to them?


Jack:                Well, I found that by delving into the available organisations that were coming online, like Link-Up and the Koori Heritage Trust, I was seeking to discover, you know, on that road of discovering who do I think I am, that television show, Who Do You Think You Are.


John:               Yes.


Jack:                Well, I was on that.  Most of us of the stolen generations have to undertake this journey if we do want to find out exactly our heritage to the land, our kinship community connections, heritage that has been denied us.  So once you're on that road through the Koori Heritage Trust and Link-Up there's some information that comes to you that must be delivered with a certain measure of counselling because some of the things that are given to you about your great-greats and great-grandfathers and mothers, and also of your parents and that, comes with a certain amount of trepidation to put it out there because these are stories that would make people very uncomfortable.  But for the Indigenous person we have to discover these truths for ourselves. 


John:               We do.


Jack:                So in discovering the truth of our own journey we can then deliver that journey to people, year 10 and 12 students in schools, put it in a book so the population of Australia, or Victoria in particular, can read of my story, my journey, my discovery of my heritage and my connection to the land of Melbourne, Victoria.


Zen:                 So, Uncle Jack, I can hear that you will share your journey and exploration in your heritage with your community or other people.  So as we all know that listening is very important when we communicate with others, so how do you know that if you have been heard or delivering your message across?  Can you give us some example of that.


Jack:                I know I've been heard because I talk to a lot of people on the streets.  I'd love to talk to them in my own community centre, a hub, which we've been trying to develop ever since I've come out and that's been well over 10 years.  It takes a long time.  I haven't reached the sensitivities of local council, you know.  If I had, if I had reached their minds, and they took me seriously I believe I would be given a building here in Collingwood Fitzroy now to start the workshop, the [0:10:15.0] workshop mark II following the original one that we had in 70s.  We need community workshops so I've been putting that out. 


                        The rest of Victoria understands this because I've been pushing it at every event and every organisations that I've been speaking to, and even in my own shows, Jack Charles versus The Crown.  I wrote an appeal to the audience which was then the High Court of Australia.  You know, an unfulfilled wet dream of mine was to have my criminal record expunged and that I was in a position to be able to start my own business.  You can't do this if you've got a criminal record.


John:               Sure.


Jack:                So I was wanting to develop the [0:10:56.0] workshop in my own right because, you know, as I've healed myself I believe that I had the right choice of words that I could deliver to the right kinds of people to prompt their indigeneity, their response, you know.


John:               I think that's interesting you say that because, just following on from Zen's question, yes, people listen to you because people know of you in Australia.  But for people who don't have that fame ...


Jack:                Yeah, yeah.


John:               ... who still want to make sure they're being listened to, is it fair to say the right choice of words is important?


Jack:                Well, the right kind of words have been working because my words reach right across the strata to the people from the African countries here in Australia.  Obviously their young and their older have been listening to me and there's nothing like coming, you know, than, you know, going into Smith Street and have a coffee there when some Somalian kid taller than me, you know, but enthusiastically, you know, give me a tap and very proudly say, "I've got onto that methadone, Uncle."


John:               Okay.


Jack:                So, you know, and then there's others, white fellas, that have come up to me and proudly boasted that they're off the methadone.  So my words reach people ...


John:               Which is great.


Jack:                ... that are struggling because they see their own struggles unfolding when they saw Bastardy, the doco, or they've acknowledged that I am sitting in Smith Street, you know, at Friends of the Earth or at Rose's Café, accessible to all, a shoulder to lean on.  I have a few dollars and coins that I can, you know, pass on because I was, I never cold bit along that street.  If I wanted to earn money I sang for it ...


John:               Sure.


Jack:                ... as a busker.  I always felt out of place cold-biting.  But I understand other people don't have the talent that I did have, that I do have, to be able to sing with a guitar and put out a hat and then, you know, have money thrown into it and that.


John:               So it's those people who are not feeling empowered, and you've mentioned drugs.  Are there other types of perhaps tools that you could share from your personal toolbox for people around the world to say, "I'm feeling a bit flat.  I'm not feeling empowered."  So if you self-reflect on yourself, Jack ...


Jack:                You always have disappointments that, you know, that you might've been, you know, counselling somebody at the needle exchange, took him out of that environment and now, you know, really worked on him a couple of times a week, quite by chance and accidentally this comes about.  If I had a workshop it would be a set program.  Okay. 


                        But, you know, as I'm dealing with people on the streets and, etc, I'm only afforded this opportunity of a quick talk and, "Come back and I'll see you in a week down here time later," and that.  That's not to say that they won't see me in between.  But I keep a black watch of them and watch how they're doing.  You know, so I've been aware of the rise and fall, and the demise perhaps, of many of them but too few of them have succeeded in moving beyond their previous stations in life to reach the level coming up to my standard and that, you know, taken themselves seriously, you know, finding themselves a unit and protecting that unit. 


                        Once, you know, I said your journey to get out of this, the mud that you're in at the moment, is to insist on getting a unit from the Victorian Aboriginal Housing Service or from Office of Housing.  Once you have established and been given a key to a unit that then should be the journey of your own to discover, you know, a ways and forwards to get off the heroin or the drugs, the ice or whatever you are own, because that house is a sanctuary, a starting point.  Once you have a roof over your head, you know, there's no real excuse for you to go out and fuck it up continually.  You need to really pull up, stop and that. 


                        So the idea is that I have certain words, and sometimes that's the odd bit of swearing comes in because it hits the right, it tweaks the right enzymes up and their trams and trains and that. 


John:               Yes.


Jack:                Like total strangers I like going up to, especially people of different nationalities, and I'm straight up.  You know, they might be working in a worksite and that, you know, a big Somalian bloke, a couple of them and that, you know.  And they see me on the telly so I'll stop my bike and I'll purposely say, "Welcome to my fucking country, mate."  And they have a big laugh and everybody else, all the white Australians hear it and that, you know. 


                        And this is something that I've reached.  They get a good laugh about it and they see it that I'm seriously about welcoming people that have come from war-torn countries by the grace of their mums and dads and their uncles and aunties who thought, "Well, I'm not going to hang around and let my children die.  I need to have my children grow up in a safe environment," and here they are in Australia and they get to me moi, me, and that.


John:               Yeah.  I think it's an interesting topic and I think we're almost talking about people from around the world come to Australia, and that dirty word discrimination, I talk to you now as a gentleman in a wheelchair.  My co-host Zen Fong here from Hong Kong. 


Jack:                Yes.


Zen:                 Yes.


John:               Aboriginal.  We've all faced different sorts of discrimination.


Zen:                 I think in my story I have been discriminated on the train I think.  Yeah, because I have my Asian face and ...


Jack:                Yes, yes, yes.


Zen:                 ... Asian nationality, so mostly people were saying that, "Okay.  You come to my country because you want to, like, immigrate here," or something like that. 


Jack:                Yeah.


Zen:                 Yeah, so sometimes can hear some words that is not feel comfortable.


Jack:                I can understand because Australia is uniquely and peculiarly racist against people from other countries and originally they were particularly off-side with the Indigenous peoples and that.  So we're blessed by the fact that so many people like yourself have come and it's been a bit of a distraction for us, you know, that you're copping it now, you know, that the Muslims are copping it now.


John:               Okay.


Jack:                We've been left on the backburner, you know.


John:               I love it.  I love it.


Jack:                And so the point is we have to, you know, out anything that smacks of racism, and I'm just shocked that, and I'm not shocked, I fully expected that white Australia is uniquely and peculiarly racist against the First Nation's people because why would they allow a racist party like Pauline Hanson's party to be developed, fully developed, and that.  Rednecks, you know, make Australia, reclaim Australia.  We're not going around reclaiming Australia, the black fellas.  We already know it's ours, you know. 


                        But, you know, we are hard set with a mob that's following in Trump, Trump's footsteps, you know, that ignore legally binding outcomes and, etc, and ignore them, outcomes of policies and directives that, you know, you shouldn't go jumping on the bones of the likes of Uncle Jack Charles because he's head of the National Nation's TV that Australia is uniquely and peculiarly racist in response on Q&A to the Adam Goodes' kafuffle and that. 


John:               Sure.


Jack:                So once I said that, you know, the other element that's been missing in Australia always has been that Australia, the Liberal party and I suspect most in the Labour party, just flatly don't like the truth of, each state has got its own unique truth in history of invasion.  They didn't like the word invasion, right.  Then the Aboriginal wars, the eradication of the Indigenous peoples.  They didn't like that, the government, the Liberal government, and members of the Labour government.  They don't like the truth in history to come out. 


                        Australia is a bastard of a country because it hasn't gone through its own truth and reconciliation journey like every other country that's gone through a war, you know, South Africa, Germany, Japan, Italy.  All these other countries that have gone through wars have had to undertake their own journey of truth and reconciliation and that.  We're not in a position because Australia is dead-set against truth in history.


John:               Jack, hindsight's a wonderful thing so it's always a tough question when we ask our guests, but if we go back 20 years would you change anything dramatically about your own style of communication?  Would you be, you know, if I'll throw words like assertiveness or fierceful, would you do it differently?


Jack:                Yes, yes, because I was always ...


John:               What would you do?


Jack:                ... prompted by the great Bill Hunter, bless him, he's gone now.  But he always said, "Jack, I regret, you've never been assertive."


John:               Okay.


Jack:                "You should pull out your finger, Jack, and be assertive."  That's what Bill Hunter said to me.


John:               So you would've been, you'd be more assertive, would you?


Jack:                I am more assertive now because, and I know how to do it gracefully, with dignity, but also be very aware of the political nuances that come into whatever, with any Aboriginal person, especially if they're, you know, speaking in a public, you know, arena and that.  It's political. 


John:               Okay.


Jack:                Every word we utter is seen in the sense of the politics of that.  But, you know, I have this strange attitude towards the way I am now.  I look, I'm doing so many small shows like A Night with Uncle Jack Charles at the Curtin Hotel, at the Theatre Royal in Castlemaine, A Night with Uncle Jack Charles at Circus Oz and the Spiegeltent.  These are wonderful shows.  People, they're calling me Jack bums-on-seat Charles because we fill out these places and that, 30 bucks to come and see me talk. 


                        I feel like with the education, a religious education, that was drummed into me at Box Hill Boys Home I'm now, you know, I'm not the full quid so I equated with the, well, I'm Jack Charles, therefore I am JC.  Am I perhaps the second coming.  The original JC was brown, too.  So I'm talking in that sense because ...


John:               Sure.


Jack:                ... I realise I'm sermonising.  I'm talking about, you know, my modus operandi in how I discovered the value of taking charge of myself to get off the methadone, go talk to the doctor, tell the chemist, that I'm not going to come in every day to have my 50 mils of methadone per day.  I'm going to come in every second day.  Take charge of yourself and you can control, you can wean yourself off faster.  I had to do it in a space of two and a half years. 


                        So I got out, 2005 was my last prison sentence and that and I came out intentionally to be Collingwood, Fitzroy, Smith Street's kurdaitcha man [0:23:34.4] law man, and I became that law man.  Going up against my would-be gangster cousin dealers and, etc, was one issue or another.  A bit disrespected because they were still on drugs;  I was not. 


John:               Yes.


Jack:                So I understood why they arced up and got angry and would spit in my face and would want to bash me and all that kind of stuff.  But like the original JC, I never actually turned the other cheek.


John:               I see.


Jack:                I rounded on them because I'm not the full quid.  If they called me a dog I'd round on them like a dog and I'd bark some nasty, nasty words that I can't disclose to you publicly.


John:               No.


Jack:                I'm going to put them in the book instead.


John:               I see.  Uncle Jack, we're going to come to a close but I think, as you know, there's lots of people around the world listening to you right now and I think we all have concerns, and, Zen, I can see you nodding, about the youth, the new generation.


Jack:                The youth.


Zen:                 Yes.


John:               All right.  So ...


Jack:                Well, I'm in that position now ...


John:               Okay.  What ...


Jack:                ... where I'm going into youth detention centres.


John:               Okay.


Jack:                Okay.  Around the nation.


John:               So your closing message, not just Aboriginal, all the younger people ...


Jack:                Yep, yes.


John:               ... who sadly consider words like suicide ...


Jack:                Yep.


John:               ... are really struggling because of ...


Jack:                Yep.


John:               ... race, disability, LGBTII.  There are so many factors why youth are feeling disempowered.


Jack:                Yeah.


John:               If I gave you a magic wand, Uncle Jack, what would it be used to help the youth today?


Jack:                I would wave my magic wand and cause a miracle so that they can open up and start being able to put in their own kind of words, in their own form, where they might have some problems with movements or talking and things like this.  There's got to be another way for them to review where they've been, look at what you've been doing and that. 


                        I ask the fellas when I go in there, and I've got private time with them, is, you know, "You've got 17 hours in your slot.  Just turn the sound of the telly down, you know, and con your mate, your cell mate, into doing the same thing.  If you can do that then you're halfway there.  If he can do what I ask you to do, just think back at the original crime that put you in on that sentence that you're undertaking right now, replay that night, before you got, before you, when you left home or whenever you left from to go and do the dastardly deeds that ended up having you charged in a court of law and sent to this prison here."


Zen:                 Thank you, Uncle Jack, for sharing such fascinating life stories, and also the strategies about communication, but also about empowerment around in our community.  I think in Melbourne all people, no matter which nationalities or which countries we are from, it shows actually we are all connected ...


Jack:                Yes.


Zen:                 ... as a human being.


Jack:                My word we are, yes, yes.  And that's why I just love, Jon and Zen, that you have invited me to be on your podcast Communicate.  It's very important.  I've become the great communicator now.  Everybody wants to communicate with me now, and so in that communication a lot of words are said for the edification of the majority.  This is what, you know, I'm on about, what an elder like me in my unique position, special position, should be, that kind of person to be an enabler for other people to take themselves seriously.  And, boy, I'm sure they've got stories to tell.  Are they black enough to tell them?  Are they Somalian enough to tell them?  Are they Vietnamese enough to tell these beautiful stories that they have been holding back. 


                        They've got to tell their story because it's a healing process, beginning to tell your own stories to people.  They do it at AA and NA meetings.  People make a jolly great effort, these stragglers that are struggling with their eagle juice afflictions and that, you know.  I love the idea that they can come together at NA and AA and begin telling total strangers their way, their problems and how they're sticking to the 12 rules against the odds because they're there talking on that particular night.


John:               Thank you, Uncle Jack.


Jack:                Thank you.


Zen:                 Thank you, Uncle Jack.


Jack:                Lovely.



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