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Reflecting on the remarkable, painful and inspiring life of Uncle Jack Charles

Tamati Smith -

His smile was his strength. His voice was his power.

For generations of Australians Uncle Jack Charles was a colourful character, a master orator and a driving force helping everyone who calls Australia home understand our shared history, our trauma and our opportunity.

On September 13 this land we now call Australia lost one of its greatest story tellers.

The Bunorong and Wiradjuri Elder was an actor, an activist, a thief, a mentor, a prisoner, a writer, a drug addict, a story-teller, a gay icon and, as his book and story will say, a born-again Blackfella.

Uncle Jack never hid his truth, he wore it warts-and-all with pride as a beacon to show everyone we can define our own stories.

For Nunukul and Ngugi playwright Wesley Enoch, that message resonated for his career and his personal life.

Uncle Jack Charles died aged 79 on September 13, 2022.

"I'm a queer man as well, and he was a queer man, he said never step backwards," Enoch said.

"Always to step forward, always be proud of who you are.

"Whether it's because of your race, because of your sexuality, because of your background, always be proud of who you are and people will come on the journey with you."

Uncle Jack's passion for life sat in stark contrast to the cards life itself dealt him.

He was a survivor; stolen from his family as an infant, sexually abused, told to forget who he was, incarcerated and pushed into homelessness.

In his powerful speech to the Yoorrook Justice Commission this year, Uncle Jack detailed the extreme lengths those charged with caring for him took to tear him down.

After more than a decade of abuse at Box Hill Boys' Home, he was fostered as a 14-year-old to a woman who lied to him about his past, then cruelly denied him the opportunity to reconnect with his mother.

But Uncle Jack stood strong and, as soon as he had the opportunity to do so, he began piecing his story together.

In his memoir he wrote of the moment he saw an apparition of an Aboriginal man with skinny legs and a red head band standing on the rocks. This moment set him back on track to return to his roots and be proud of being Aboriginal.

At 18, at a time of his life when he was in-and-out of prison and dealing with substance abuse, he connected with his mum, and just last year he finally discovered who his father was.

I'm so thrilled, it's exciting, that, you know, my - I have made my mark and I'm still

making my mark and it's only because I now know who I am," he told the Commission.

"I was a lost child but now I am found."

In his tireless quest to reconnect with his family and culture, Uncle Jack's star began to shine through the pain.

From founding the first Aboriginal theatre company to most recently being the voice of the AFL finals campaign, Uncle Jack's story became intertwined with Australia's story.

The mark of the man can be seen in the many anecdotes shared upon Uncle Jack's death.

From Meyne Wyatt to Magda Szubanksi, the tributes painted a clear picture of just how many lives Uncle Jack touched.

Lowell Hunter, a fellow NAIDOC award winner this year, heard the news while in the US attending New York Fashion Week.

Uncle Archie Roach and Uncle Jack Charles are together in the dreaming.

"Uncle Jack has been one of those inspiring Elders that faced many adversities throughout his life but continued to strive for a better life," he said.

"It is a really difficult one to process because of the life that he's lived and what he's been able to give back to our community and to our people, it is significant.

"So rest in peace, or rest in power Uncle Jack, you will be definitely missed."

Federal Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney summed Uncle Jack's legacy up best.

"The beauty of Uncle Jack Charles is that he never put himself above anybody," she said.

"His success was everyone's success.

"He was funny, he was humble, and he used his life as an example to others of what's possible now."

The legacy he leaves for everyone in this country includes the heartbreaking yarns, stories and experiences, as well as the highs of blazing a trail in Aboriginal theatre, gaining national respect and discovering his true self.

Uncle Jack may have described himself as a born-again Blakfella, but to the nation he was the embodiement of an always was, always will be Blakfella.

With Jarred Cross and Emma Ruben

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