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Roberta Sykes (1944c. – 2010)

Roberta ("Bobbi") Sykes, photo courtesy University of Queensland Press Roberta ("Bobbi") Sykes, photo courtesy University of Queensland Press

Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Sykes was born about 1944 in Townsville, Queensland. Raised by a white mother, she came to identify as  Aboriginal in her teenage years (although this identification became controversial after her mother stated Sykes’ father was an African-American serviceman), and her experience of racism while growing up in far-north Queensland profoundly affected her. She attended St Patrick’s College in Townsville, but left school at the age of 14 and worked as a nursing aid. At the age of 17 she was raped and became pregnant; her harrowing experience during this ordeal and the subsequent court trial is detailed in her critically acclaimed autobiography Snake Dreaming .

Sykes became involved in the Aboriginal Rights movement in Queensland in the 1960s. In 1971, she moved to Sydney, was involved with the Aboriginal tent embassy in Canberra, and later worked as an Education and Publicity Officer for the Redfern Aboriginal Legal Service, becoming a counsellor and an adviser on Aboriginal health to the New South Wales government. During the 1970s she also worked as a freelance journalist and essayist, and began writing poetry. Her poems, along with her other writing, reflected her activism and critical stance on Australian society. Her first poetry collection, Love Poems and Other Revolutionary Actions, was published in 1979. It was republished twice: by the University of Queensland Press in 1988, and in a dual language German-English version in 1990.

In the late 1970s, an American professor visiting Australia met Sykes, and arranged for Harvard University to invite her to its postgraduate program. After raising funds through various community organisations, she left for the USA, and eventually completed both a Masters and PhD in Education at Harvard – becoming the first black Australian to be awarded a doctorate from an American university. On her return to Australia, she lectured at various tertiary institutions, and developed an international profile as a guest speaker as well as a writer. Her second volume of poetry, Eclipse, was published in 1996. Her three-volume autobiography Snake Dreaming: Autobiography of a Black Woman (2001) was initially published in the separate volumes Snake Cradle (1997), Snake Dancing (1998), and Snake Circle (2001).

Poetry Collections
  • Love Poems and Other Revolutionary Actions (Cammeray, NSW: Saturday Centre, 1979).
  • Eclipse (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1996).
Suggested Further Reading
  • Wanda Coleman, ‘Bobbi Sykes: An Interview,’ Callaloo no.24 (1985), pp. 294–303. http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/2930979.pdf
  • Jennifer Kelly, ‘Poetry Explores Aboriginal Thinking,’ Antipodes 11.2 (1997), p. 123.
  • Sonja Kurtzer, ‘Is She or Isn’t She?: Roberta Sykes and “Authentic” Aboriginality,’ Overland no. 171 (2003), pp. 50–56.
  • Cliff Watego, ‘Roberta Sykes with Cliff Watego: Love Poems and Other Revolutionary Actions,’ in Gerry Turcotte, ed., Writers in Action: The Writer’s Choice Evenings (Sydney: Currency Press, 1990), pp. 25–41.
  • Jennifer Woodhouse, ‘Living Close to the Bone,’ Hecate 14.2 (1988). pp. 85–90.