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SS1010: Australian People: Indigeneity & Multiculturalism: Reading with a purpose

Reading with a purpose

When academics design assessment they always have an educational outcome in mind, the trick is to figure out what this is, then demonstrate that you have learned it. The good news is, they always tell you what that is, every time!! Our teachers really do want us to succeed.

In this assessment the lecturer wants you to learn about certain themes in Archie Roach’s autobiography.

So, what are these themes we need to be looking for while we read?

The research question (in your subject outline) will tell you what the lecturer wants you to learn and write about.

Remember this is not a book review; the autobiography is just one piece of literature that you will refer to in your essay.


Research question

Throughout Tell Me Why, Roach discusses the tension between keeping quiet and speaking openly about the painful events of history. What are the benefits of telling stories like Roach has (through his songs and his memoir)?

Answer the question with reference to specific examples from Roach’s life story but be sure to use his story as a case study to talk more broadly about Australian society and how we remember (or try to forget) the past.

Notice that the question is NOT asking you to only describe the painful events of Roach’s life, it is also asking you:


What are the benefits of telling stories like Roach has (through his songs and his memoir)?
to use Roach’s story as a case study to talk more broadly about Australian society and how we remember (or try to forget) the past.


So, let’s draw out some focus words from this question that will guide your reading and help you discover a theme in Roach’s autobiography that you might want to write about.

Focus words

At this point you don’t need to have all the answers, that is why you are going to do some reading, and if we read Roach’s autobiography with these keywords in mind you will find these themes, I promise you.

Remember our teachers want us to succeed and they wrote the question to fit the book.

Painful events of history Voicelessness Remembering/forgetting the past
Australian Society Speaking openly

Benefits of truth-telling

Storytelling Belonging



Here are some themes that I found in ‘Tell Me Why’ that might be worth considering

  • Stolen generations—commodification/objectification of Aboriginal children—neglect—child abuse—disempowerment—forceful removal of children—trauma—incarceration of children—emotional abuse—orphanages— institutionalisation—foster system—adoption
  • Voicelessness—powerlessness—lack of agency—social isolation—fear—exploitation—self-denigration for protection
  • Overt racism—systemic racism—stereotype—stigma—subtle racism—endemic racism—suspicion—fear of the ‘Other’—essentialisation—racist violence—murder
  • Spirituality—realization—connection to ancestors—connection to country—Spiritual apparitions—trance state—Christianity—totem—the Dreaming—ancient memory—songlines
  • Lost childhood memories—splintered history—cultural and social fragmentation—invisibility—dispossession
  • Government deception—institutionalised racism—corrupt power—removal of entire families—Stolen Generations—criminalisation of Aboriginal people—state violence—brutality—death in custody—two systems (one for white, another for Aboriginal)—structural violence—cultural violence—linguistic suppression— assimilation
  • Community—solidarity—understanding—empathy—seeking guidance—belonging— mentorship—role model—friendship in the midst of hardship—reunification—connection to country—community building—communal healing—extended family—parenthood—empowerment—redemption
  • Violence—conflict with authority—crime—rebellion—incarceration—substance abuse—homelessness—domestic violence—health problems
  • Truth telling—oral history—grieving—song writing—speaking out—collective action—collective power—native title—protest—being heard—being seen—mainstream cultural change—autonomy—agency—fearlessness—acts of defiance—boldness
  • Adaption—survival—endurance—fortitude—trust—dignity—forgiveness—pride—happiness—love—continuity—collective spirit—healing


Keep in mind, you are an academic reading with a purpose, so you need to devise a way of cataloguing the important passages in the book that you find. You don’t want to have to go back and read the whole thing again looking for that great example that you vaguely remembered reading.

I like to buy the book so that I can highlight passages and write my thoughts in the margins.

However there are a number of ways of doing this, what is important is that you record the sentences that matter, how they relate to your theme and what page they are on, if nothing else write down the important pages, you will thank me later.

What now?

Now it is time for you to read the book, yes, the whole book. Context is important, plus your marker has read the book and will be able to tell when you’re making stuff up.  

Then it is time to select the topic that you wish to discuss in your essay.

Note: you will not have enough space to effectively write about all these themes, so it is a good idea to narrow your essay down to one of them and discus this in detail.

So how do you choose which one? Well a good way is to choose the topic that interests you the most.

You will have to do further research and that means more reading, and it is much easier to read about something that interests you. Also, it is worth considering the themes that caused you to feel a sense of injustice, anger, sadness, or hope whilst reading the text. If it caused you to feel this way, then it is likely that others have felt strongly about the same issue and have written about it in journal articles.

We acknowledge the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first inhabitants of the nation and acknowledge Traditional Owners of the lands where our staff and students, live, learn and work.Acknowledgement of Country

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