It was 1986. I was at Edinburgh Fringe Festival performing my first play with Leigh Drama Centre. After my play finished I read poetry to very small audiences. Very. Small. Audiences. An aboriginal woman and her son sat and watched as I ranted raved and rhymed. Her name was Maureen Watson. Her son was tall and strong and with digeridoo. She waited until I had finished to catch me. “I have a poem just like the one you read” she said and showed me a printed copy of hers. I was nineteen. That is the one and only time we met. We sat outside and talked and she told me of her people and of what I was to become.
Since then life opened, unfolded and became what it is. But I’d never been able to find that woman even though I visited Australia a few times for work – her name escaped me. But on this visit and after conversations with Australia’s first people, over twenty years later, I found her. She is of Birri Gubba descent, and a recognised Elder in the south-east region of Queensland. A storyteller she was awarded both the Red Ochre and the Global Leadership prize in 1996. She died two years ago. Here she is. And that same poem is quoted in remembrance of her passing here. The first lines are
Black Is …
Black is my mother's loving arms
Black is my father's hair
Black is the deepest shades of night
That soften the white day's glare
And here are the first four lines of mine
Airmail To A Dictionary
Black is the pupil of the eye
Putting colour in the seas skin and earthen sky
Black is the oil of the engine
On which this whole world’s depending
So here we are digitized. Together again over twenty years later. Throughout life there are signals to “keep on keeping on” as Grace Nichols once said to me. Maureen Watson was a signal, a beacon, a burning fire on the hilltop. This refrain “Black Is…” I later discovered in other poets work. It is in a poem by The Last Poets whom I would come to know in a similar way as I did Maureen.