Aboriginal rights activist Roberta Sykes died at 67

(National Museum of Australia)

Jamie Walker and Andrew Fraser The Australian 17th November 2010

Roberta (Bobbi) Sykes

Aboriginal rights activist, academc, writer

Born Townsville, 1943
Died Sydney, Sunday, November 14, aged 67.

The flamboyant Aboriginal rights activist, academic and writer, whose searing autobiography laid bare racism in Australia and provoked debate over what it meant to be an Aborigine, died on Sunday. She was 67.

Dr Sykes spent much of her adult years in the glare of publicity. From being arrested in 1972 at the Aboriginal tent embassy in Canberra to being the first black Australian to graduate from a US university - namely, the ivied halls of Harvard - and the unresolved controversy over her entitlement to call herself Aborigine, she both polarised and compelled.

As her health deteriorated, she withdrew from public life. Debilitated by the effects of a stroke, she spent her last years in nursing care while her work of developing education opportunities for indigenous people overseas continued through the foundation that bore her name.

She was born in 1943 in Townsville. For years, she maintained she did not know the identity of her father, even though her white mother had been on the public record as naming him as an African American soldier she met during World War II but who had no ongoing contact with the family.

Dr Sykes said she was forced to leave school at 14 and wrote powerfully of the discrimination she experienced, both on racial grounds and as the daughter of a single mother. But her account of an impoverished childhood in north Queensland was later disputed by some in the indigenous community, who also questioned her right to cloak herself in the Aboriginal identity.

Typically, Dr Sykes gave as good as she got from the critics. If she did embellish aspects of her life, there was no need. It was rich and colourful by any measure. At 17, the then Bobbi Sykes was attacked and raped by four white men in Townsville, prompting a famous court case.

In the late 1960s she moved to Sydney and worked as a dancer in a strip club. Moving south also brought her political awakening; Dr Sykes joined activists such as Charles Perkins in loudly championing indigenous rights.

After her arrest in the tent embassy protests in 1972, the policeman responsible told a court: "She's a nice looking girl until she opens her mouth."

Dr Sykes resumed her truncated education, earned her landmark PhD from Harvard in 1983 and maintained an association with that bastion of US wealth and influence for the rest of her life. She also developed as a fine writer, with her first book -- an anthology of poetry -- published in 1979.

The opening instalment of her three-volume autobiography, Snake Cradle, appeared 20 years later to critical acclaim and controversy over her right to identify herself as Aborigine.

While not even her sternest critics doubted her passion and commitment, she was a divisive figure within the indigenous movement. Among her critics was fellow academic and long-standing indigenous health advocate Gracelyn Smallwood.

Associate Professor Smallwood said yesterday that although she had had her differences with Dr Sykes, she was grateful to her for blazing the trail to Harvard for black Australians.

"Twenty years ago, I was invited to Harvard University to lecture on human rights and Aboriginal health, and that came about because Bobbi Sykes recommended me," she said.

Activist Stephen Hagan, the editor of the National Indigenous Times newspaper, said Dr Sykes had contributed much to indigenous advancement. "Australia could well do with a Bobbi Sykes this minute - we don't have those charismatic advocates for indigenous people," he said.

Roberta Sykes Indigenous Education Foundation chairman Peter Waters said the organisation was a testament to her drive.

Dr Sykes leaves a son, Russel, and a daughter, Naomi.








Tributes flow for activist Roberta Sykes

Nine News/AAP Nov 16 2010

The poet and author, whose autobiographical work includes a description of a vicious pack rape, died at a Sydney hospital on Sunday at the age of 67.

Once described as "the militant activist with the afro", she became the first black Australian to attend Harvard University, gaining a PhD in education in the 1980s.

In 1994 she was awarded the Australian Human Rights Medal.

Larissa Behrendt, an Aboriginal protege of Dr Sykes who also went on to attend Harvard, told how she was at her bedside at a Sydney hospital when she died.

"I have known her all my life and one thing's for sure - I wouldn't have gone to Harvard if it wasn't for her," the 41-year-old novelist, activist and academic told AAP.

"She broke down doors so others could follow through.

"The amazing thing about her was that she had a passion for her private life that was equalled by her work.

"She was a trailblazer and she has left an amazing legacy."

Dr Sykes, who had suffered a series of strokes over eight years, died with her son and daughter by her bedside at around 4pm on Sunday.

"She was a strong, amazing person who was fair dinkum," said Shane Phillips, a community member of The Block, in inner-Sydney Redfern.

"I know her determination and her passion for our people and what is right is one thing Roberta Sykes fought hard for."

Born in Townsville, North Queensland, in 1944, Dr Sykes grew up as Roberta Patterson with her white mother and two younger sisters.

She stepped into the public domain as an afro-wearing Aboriginal activist known as Bobbi when she was arrested at the Aboriginal tent embassy outside Canberra's Parliament House in 1972.

"She did a lot for the Aboriginal community," said Mick Mundine, chief executive of the Aboriginal Housing Company in Redfern and brother of the champion boxer Tony Mundine.

"For anybody to get arrested at the tent embassy, a lot of credit goes to her. She was a pretty staunch lady she was.

"She was a good person, she had a good attitude, she was a really caring, sharing sort of lady."

Dr Sykes was the first executive secretary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and worked as an adviser in Aboriginal health and education.

She penned a three-part autobiography Snake Cradle (1997), Snake Dancing (1998) and Snake Circle (2000), in which she revealed details about being pack-raped by white men, the resulting birth of her son when she was 17 and the trial of her attackers.

"Without vocal chords, in pain the snake rears back and opens its mouth to cry in complete silence, and its agony is only apparent to those who know it well," she wrote in Snake Dancing.

It won her the $22,000 Nita B Kibble award for a published book of fiction or non-fiction by a woman writer, classifiable as "life-writing".

NSW Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC) chairwoman Bev Manton said Dr Sykes would be remembered for her writing as well as her passion for human rights.

"Dr Sykes will be sorely missed by those who knew her and her passing is a sad day for the Aboriginal rights movement," she said.

In her later years, Dr Sykes lived in the Sydney suburb of Redfern where she worked as a counsellor, consultant and advocate for human rights.

Mr Phillips, who grew up in Redfern, said Dr Sykes knew his family.

"She worked all around here and had a great reputation," he told AAP.

Mr Phillips said Dr Sykes was working on a book at the time of her death.

NSW Community Services Minister Linda Burney joined the tributes, saying: "Bobbi devoted her life to getting justice for Aboriginal people.

"She made a significant contribution to the Koori political struggle in the early 70s.

"An accomplished author, she was courageous, honest and tireless in her efforts - we are all in her debt."

A bright, passionate chameleon

The Australian November 17, 2010

Despite the controversy surrounding her identity, Roberta Sykes, who died in a Sydney nursing home on Sunday aged 67, was a significant activist for black people at a time they needed to be heard.

Bobbi Sykes, as she was known growing up in Townsville, helped put "black power" on Australia's political map 40 years ago. Her contribution was both symbolic, as one of the founders of the Aboriginal tent embassy outside Parliament House, Canberra, and practical, helping to create the Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern and working with Mum Shirl, whose autobiography she drafted.

While Dr Sykes was careful to define herself by colour rather than as being indigenous, she was widely believed to have been part-Aboriginal until her white mother disclosed that Dr Sykes's father was an African-American serviceman. The revelation led to controversy in indigenous circles, with Dr Sykes widely criticised, among others, by lawyer Pat O'Shane and academic Gracelyn Smallwood for adopting the Aboriginal snake motif as her own when she entitled her three-part, prize-winning autobiography Snake Dreaming. Dr Sykes's claims that she had grown up in poverty were also disputed by people who had known her, including her stepfather, who insisted she was part of "a normal, middle-class family". Dr Sykes encountered racism at its worst, however. After she was pack-raped by four white men when she was 17, an ordeal from which her much-loved first child, now a successful psychologist, was conceived, Dr Sykes's mother saw to it that the culprits were prosecuted. As their jail sentences were handed down, one of the men screamed to the court: "What the hell! She's just an Abo. She's just a f . . king boong."

Determined to make a mark, Dr Sykes was a complex personality who had no reason to embroider the facts when her intellect and drive were always going to take her a long way. After leaving school at 14 to work as a shop assistant, nurse, dancer and waiter, she was the first black Australian woman to graduate from a US university, earning her PhD from Harvard. Dr Smallwood commended her yesterday for blazing that trail. And for all the controversy over her identity, the judges who awarded her the 1998 National Biography Award said she deserved it on "clear literary grounds." Perhaps Dr Sykes summed herself up best: "I think I'm a chameleon. I have the ability to mirror back to people what they are."

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