Roberta Sykes: Indigenous Human Rights Activist and Renowned Author Aug 16 1943 - November 14 2010 Print E-mail

The Sydney Morning Herald ~ Friday November 19 2010
Also at: The Age ~ Melbourne ~ Saturday November 20 2010

'Black power' activist and author had ASIO spooked

By Gerry Carman

Education campaigner ... activist Roberta Sykes left school at 14 and went on to become a doctor of education. (Robert Pearce)

Roberta "Bobbi" Sykes, 1943-2010.

Dr Roberta Sykes, a self-described chameleon who defied conventions to become a well-known activist for indigenous rights as well as a poet and author of renown, died at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney after failing to recover from a stroke suffered eight years ago. She was 67.

Widely know as Bobbi Sykes in her early activist days, she was the first black Australian to attend Harvard University in the US. She graduated in the 1980s with a doctorate in education.

She was awarded the prestigious university's highest academic award, which usually goes to students from the schools of law or medicine, and taught there briefly.
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Sykes went on to be awarded the Australian Human Rights Medal in 1994 for her tireless work in advocating for the civil and political rights of indigenous Australians.

She first became an activist in the lead-up to the landmark 1967 referendum that proposed to include Aboriginal people in the national census and to allow the federal government to make laws for Aboriginal people.

However, it wasn't until she moved to Sydney in the early 1970s that she became deeply involved in the emerging ''black power'' movement and in 1972 was one of the founders of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of old Parliament House in Canberra.

She became the first secretary at the embassy and was among those protesters arrested. Sykes's activism led ASIO to regard her as a threat to national security and spooks kept close track of her. It can now be revealed that a Sydney academic who has prepared a bibliography - she authored 10 books, among them two on poetry - was given access to three volumes of information collected on Sykes by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).

Ironically, for a time her work in this sphere attracted criticism from some Aboriginal leaders, who felt aggrieved that she had used the Aboriginal snake motif in her acclaimed autobiographical trilogy, Snake Dreaming - made up of Snake Cradle (1997), Snake Dancing (1998) and Snake Circle (2000) - when she was not an Aboriginal.


But Sykes identified fully with indigenous people and causes, subjected as she was to racism while growing up in north Queensland - including its most vile form.

At age 17, she was pack-raped by four white men, one of whom shouted as he was being sentenced to jail: ''What the hell, she's just an Abo; she's just a f---ing boong.''

Born Roberta Barkley Patterson in Townsville, she was raised by her mother, Rachel Patterson, who made sure the rapists were brought to trial. While her daughter claimed not to know anything about her father, Rachel revealed he was an African-American soldier, Robert Barkley, a master-sergeant in the US Army during World War II.

Sykes left school at age 14 and worked as a shop assistant and then nurse's assistant in Townsville before moving to Brisbane. Another move followed, to Sydney in the mid-1960s, where she took the stage name Opal Stone and performed as a striptease dancer at the Pink Pussycat nightclub in Kings Cross.

At about this time she met an English migrant, Howard Sykes, a house painter, and they married. She already had a son, Russel, who was born when she was 17; a daughter, Naomi, was born during the marriage, which ended in 1971.

Sykes's private life was complex: on the one hand she easily made numerous enduring friends, yet this wasn't reflected in the partners she chose over the years.

She began writing in the 1970s and in a 10-year period as a freelance writer, contributed many more articles on Aboriginal disadvantage and indigenous politics to various outlets, as well as film reviews and poetry.

She also worked as the education and publicity officer for the newly established Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern. From 1975 to 1980, Sykes was an adviser on Aboriginal health and education to the NSW Health Commission and her first book of poetry, Love Poems and Other Revolutionary Acts, was published in 1979.

In 1981, she ghosted the award-winning autobiography of well-known NSW indigenous social worker, Mum (Shirl) Smith. That year, aged 38, Sykes went off to Harvard with her young daughter in tow and completed her master's degree in a year, followed by a PhD in Aboriginal education in a further two years. Her son Russel, now a psychologist, initially stayed in Sydney and looked after the family home but then joined his mother at Harvard, where he, too, studied for a year.

She returned to Australia from Harvard determined to create more educational opportunities for others and devoted herself to being a proactive voice for indigenous Australians.

Despite her achievement at Harvard, which considered her worthy of an academic appointment, she found it difficult to attract a similar appointment in Australia until she gained a creative writing appointment at Macquarie University. She went on to be a consultant to several government departments, including the NSW Department of Corrective Services and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Sykes's honesty, bravery, charm and charisma touched many. One of these, David Bardas, the former owner of the Sportsgirl stores, has offered to commission a portrait of Sykes to be hung in the National Portrait Gallery to honour her place in Australian history.

Bardas's late wife, Sandra (nee Smorgon), also an early member of the Black Women's Action in Education Foundation, befriended Sykes in the 1970s.

Together they were involved in the Greenhill's Foundation op-shop and, with the late Hyllus Maris, encouraged the founding of Worawa Aboriginal College, Victoria's only independent institution for indigenous education.

Bardas recalled visiting Sykes on the campus at Harvard: ''We were staying at the nearby Ritz Carlton Hotel and Bobbi thought it was very funny when we were refused entry to the bar, because Sandra was wearing jeans and not because she [Sykes] was an unwelcome black woman.''

Sykes suffered a stroke at her unit in Redfern in November 2002 but was not found until the next day, when she failed to make an appointment.

Her son, Russel, said she was immensely frustrated to be left paralysed on one side and unable to walk.

She is survived by Russel, daughter Naomi and grandchildren Lauren, Mason and Chez.

 (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) ~ Tuesday November 16, 2010

Rights campaigner Roberta 'Bobbi' Sykes dies

Ms Sykes was the first black Australian to attend Harvard University. (Cybec)

Video: Aboriginal rights campaigner 'Bobbi' Sykes dies (7pm TV News NSW)

Audio: Vale Roberta Sykes remembered (AM)

Aboriginal rights campaigner Roberta Sykes has died at the age of 67, after suffering a debilitating illness for several years.

Bobbi Sykes, as she was better known, was an author and poet who became a national political figure as the executive secretary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972.

Dr Sykes was the first black Australian to attend Harvard University in the 1980s and she received a PhD in education.

She then set up a fund for Indigenous women to study at Harvard.

Dr Sykes went on to win awards for her series of autobiographies, which in part charted her involvement with the protest movement.

She was awarded the Australian Human Rights Medal in 1994 in recognition of her decades of campaigning for Aboriginal rights.

She also worked as an adviser in Aboriginal health and education.

Dr Sykes led lands rights protests in Sydney and Canberra and publicised the cause overseas.

The New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council has expressed its condolences to the family of Dr Sykes, who passed away on the weekend.

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

NSW Magistrate Pat O'Shane paid tribute to Dr Sykes, saying she had enormous energy and talent.

"She was a well-known author. I didn't always agree with her content, but I do have to say that she wrote in a very entertaining style even if she was writing about truly serious socio-political issues and her writings will be more than ample legacy," she said.

SYDNEY MORNING HERALD Tuesday November 16 2010

Tributes flow for activist Roberta Sykes


Tributes have poured in for activist Roberta "Bobbi" Sykes - a trailblazer for the Aboriginal rights movement.

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."

© 2010 AAP