In this week’s Q&A we talk with Professor John Maynard about what inspired his love of history, who he writes for, and the future of academia. He has some fantastic advice for ECRs, reminding us to read widely, work hard and with passion, and to never be afraid to listen and take advice.
Over the past decade Professor John Maynard has established himself as the foremost Indigenous historian in Australia. Since entering the University environment in 1993 he has achieved a Diploma (Aboriginal Studies – University of Newcastle), Bachelor of Arts (Aboriginal Studies – University of South Australia) and was awarded his PhD with the University of Newcastle in 2003. His books Fight for Liberty and Freedom (shortlisted for the Victorian Premiers History Award), The Aboriginal Soccer Tribe (a highly commended finalist for the prestigious Walkley Award) and Aboriginal Stars of the Turf (Dymocks Readers Choice) have received high acclaim. His research has concentrated on the intersections of Aboriginal political and social history and made significant contributions to the research fields of Aboriginal, race relations and sports history both nationally and internationally. His work has impacted through a wide range of important research articles published in major peer-refereed journals and publications in Australia, United States and England. His work examining the rise of organized Aboriginal political activism during the 1920s has been recognized as groundbreaking including the revelation that African American influence and inspiration (particularly, Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association) played a part in the rise of the early Aboriginal political movement has challenged the previous misconception that it was largely non-Indigenous Christian and humanitarian influence that drove Aboriginal political mobilisation.
1. Was there a moment when you discovered your love of history?
I always had a passion for the past or at least as long as I can remember. I do not look back fondly on my school years as there was nothing about Aboriginal history or culture in the school texts of the 1950s and 1960s. But I always loved to read and I read as much as I could particularly from a young age on history. I wanted to know what had happened or what had been constructed as had happened.
2. When and why did you decide to become an academic historian?
I actually did not decide it was all an accident. I was thirty-nine years of age having left school at the age of fifteen and had no educational qualifications at all. I was just undertaking some family history on my grandfather a high profile Aboriginal activist of the 1920s for family members. There was no academic path to follow in my family. I was only going to write something up in a nice exercise book include some of my grandfather’s letters, old family pics and newspaper material and present to the family. I went to the Wollotuka centre at the University of Newcastle just to touch base and maybe get some advice on other archival material and institutions I had not considered. Tracey Bunda a Murri (Queensland) Aboriginal woman was at the time the Director and we had a brief conversation. The way I tell the story is by the time I had turned around Tracey had kidnapped me into enrolling into a Diploma course. I owe her a lot and I loved every minute of it nothing like my school years. A BA and a PhD followed in quick succession and a very personally rewarding journey was underway.
3. What are the big questions that underlie your research, and to what extent have you found answers to them?
Unquestionably the missing place of Aboriginal people in the nation’s history certainly for the greater part of the twentieth century was the major motivation. Initially I was driven with the desire to write my grandfather’s story back into the nations memory. But this was only the beginning. Aboriginal history is like a giant jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing and I wanted to play a part of unearthing, researching and writing up these missing, overlooked, forgotten and erased stories of our past. If I lived another ten lifetimes I would not have the time to reveal all of the stories out there waiting to be told but at least I have played a part.
4. Who do you write your history for?
Without question, first and foremost the Aboriginal community. My work is directed at our people to read, enjoy, learn and gain inspiration from. Particularly our young people. Secondly, I write to inform the wider population of the history that for so long was hidden and obscured from this nation. When the country acknowledges and recognises the tragedy since 1788 only then can we walk together in a country that is just and equitable for all.
5. How has your background as a truck driver, barman and builders’ labourer affected your outlook as an historian?
Very important. I believe that academic and not just historians come through a protected cocoon existence of education. They have not in the main lived in the real world and experienced what it is like on the ground outside. Most have come through a school education system where they have been high achievers in school and university and do not carry those outside experiences which I believe are critically important in understanding the way of the world and people in it.
6. Who has had the greatest influence on the way you research and write?
I don’t think anyone influenced the way I write or research it is just my way of doing things. My grandfather and his memory is the source of inspiration that drives everything I do.
7. What do you think about the state of academic history? Does it have a bright future?
Yes of course academic history is of high importance. From an Indigenous perspective, we were for the greater part of the last two hundred and thirty-nine years missed and it was all about discoverers, explorers and settlers. Very occasionally a few Aboriginal people might have gained a mention as largely wandering aimlessly across the landscape. This was for the greater part of the twentieth century the bleached and biased history of the continent. For the past forty years there was a move to correct the myths of Australian history and deliver a balanced history of the past including recognising 65,000 years of Aboriginal connection to the continent and examine the tragedy of the Aboriginal experience since 1788. Sadly just when you think progress is being made some event happens to drag us back into a ‘History Wars’ mindless argument like the recent crazed monuments ‘beat up’ comparison to the United States. This event encouraged and fuelled by sections of the media panicked the wider population and even Prime Minister to think that there was some plot to steal, re-write and blacken the past.
8. Have you had mentors over the course of your career? How important are they?
I have had some wonderful supporters/mentors if you like during my early years. People like Peter Read, Heather Goodall and John Ramsland in particular provided great advice and support to me.
9. What advice can you give to history ECRs about their careers?
Read as much as you can. Work hard with a passion in your area of interest. Be organised and never be afraid to listen and take advice. It helps if you have a love of the archives and libraries. Build up a network of contacts. Enjoy your job and history – the past is a wonderful space to work and operate in and provides the opportunity to in essence time travel. ENJOY!