Aboriginal poet and activist, Kevin Gilbert, died in Canberra on 1 April 1993 after a long battle with a respiratory disease. He was sixty years old.
Kevin was the figurehead for an entire generation of Aborigines, having overcome incredible odds to become an educated and fluent spokesman for land rights and other Aboriginal issues, as well as the man most widely considered to be Aboriginal Australia’s greatest poet.
His writing was marked by a passionate and uncompromising desire to communicate black anger and frustration and his direct, often highly witty, manner made him Black Australia’s most powerful advocate. Whether one agreed with him or not, it was impossible not to respect his beliefs, and the way he expressed them.
He emerged from a troubled childhood and early adulthood to become one of the few internationally recognised Aboriginal writers. His play The Cherry Pickers (1971, reprinted Burrambinga Books, 1988) was the first written Aboriginal play, two acclaimed volumes of poetry, Because a White Man’ll Never Do It (A&R, 1973) and People Are Legends (UQP, 1979) followed, and he compiled a book about the Aboriginal experience, Living Black (Penguin) in 1978. He was also the editor of the Penguin bicentennial anthology of Aboriginal writing, Inside Black Australia (1988).
Hyland House has been Kevin’s publisher since the publication of The Blackside: People Are Legends and Other Poems (1989, reprinted 1992). More recently, of course, we have published Child’s Dreaming (1992), a well-received poetic work for children on which Gilbert collaborated with his wife, the photographer Eleanor Williams.
Ironically, his death came only a week after we received confirmation of an Australia Council grant to publish what was to have been his most ambitious work yet, Black Hole & Beyond, a collection of new poems and photographs which will be published posthumously in September.
Al Knight, Anne Godden, and I will miss him. He was a great poet, in that he addressed himself to great issues of life – freedom, rights, power, and beliefs – with a fervour and integrity that could not be ignored. In this UN International Year of the Indigenous Peoples, the work Kevin has left behind will stand as testament to the depth of feeling amongst Australia’s indigenous population, and testament also to a truly unique man.