Bobbi Sykes

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

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Roberta "Bobbi" Sykes (b. 1943) is an Australian poet and author. Although she is the daughter of a white Australian mother and an African-American father, she has always identified as, and until recently was accepted as, an indigenous Australian. She has been a life-long campaigner for indigenous land rights, as well as human rights and women's rights.


  • 1 Life
  • 2 Awards and nominations
  • 3 Bibliography
  • 4 External link


Born Roberta B. Sykes in Townsville, Queensland, Sykes was raised by her mother and never knew her father. Sykes says in her autobiography that his identity is unknown, but her mother, Rachel Patterson, told a reporter in 1973 that Sykes's "father was a Negro soldier... His name was Master Sergeant Robert Barkley of the US Army," presumably one of many African-American servicemen stationed in Townsville during World War II.

Sykes left school aged 14 and, after a succession of jobs, moved to Sydney in 1971. She became a freelance journalist and got involved in several national indigenous activist organisations. She was one of the protestors arrested at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in July 1972. She was involved in the creation and early development of the Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service, although other participants say that her autobiography exaggerates her role in this.

Sykes's early poetry was published in 1979 in the book Love Poems and Other Revolutionary Acts. The first edition was limited to a thousand copies (with the first 300 numbered and signed). A mass market edition was published in 1988. Her second volume of poetry was published in 1996. In 1981 she ghosted the autobiography of Mumshirl, an indigenous Australian social worker in New South Wales. She won the Patricia Weickert Black Writers Award in 1982.

Sykes received a PhD in Education from Harvard University in 1983. She was the first black Australian to graduate from a United States university. She returned to Australia where she continued her life as an activist and was appointed to the Nation Review, as Australia's first (presumed) indigenous columnist. In 1994 her role was recognised when she won the Australian Human Rights Medal.

Sykes's three-volume autobiography Snake Dreaming was published between 1997 and 2000. The first volume won the Age Book of the Year 1997 and the 1998 Nita B. Kibble Literary Award for women writers.

The publication of Snake Dreaming brought the issue of Sykes's identity into public debate, when members of the Birrigubba indigenous community at Townsville accused her of dishonestly claiming to be of indigenous descent. Gracelyn Smallwood, Director of Aboriginal Studies at the University of Southern Queensland, prepared a report for the Birrigubba people which identified "inconsistencies" in Sykes's autobiography. Pat O'Shane, Australia's first indigenous magistrate, wrote to Sykes accusing her of "failing to correct the media when they have incorrectly labelled her as Aboriginal and for not thoroughly researching her family's past."

Sykes has responded to these accusations by neither confirming nor denying the facts of her ancestry. Her defenders point out that she has usually identified herself as "black" rather than as "Aboriginal," and that she was treated as though she was an indigenous Australian all through her childhood in Townsville, making her adoption of that identity an understandable response. Her critics point out that, however, that when she graduated from Harvard and again when she was presented with the Human Rights Medal, she did not contradict media reports that she was the first Aboriginal or indigenous Australian to achieve these distinctions.

Awards and nominations

  • 1982: Patricia Weickert Black Writers Award
  • 1994: Australian Human Rights Medal
  • 1997: Age Book of the Year for Snake Cradle
  • 1998: National Biography Award for Snake Cradle
  • 1998: Nita B. Kibble Literary Award for Snake Cradle


  • Love Poems and other Revolutionary Actions (Cammeray: The Saturday Centre, 1979)
  • Mum Shirl: An Autobiography (with Colleen Shirley Perry) (Melbourne, 1981)
  • Love Poems and other Revolutionary Actions (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1989) ISBN 0-7022-2173-2
  • Eclipse. (Queensland, Australia: Univ of Queensland Press, 1996) ISBN 0-7022-2848-6
  • Incentive, Achievement and Community (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1986)
  • Black Majority (Hawthorn, Australia: Hudson, 1989) ISBN 0-949873-25-X
  • Murawina: Australian Women of High Achievement (Sydney: Doubleday, 1993) ISBN 0-86824-436-8
  • Snake Cradle (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1997) ISBN 1-86448-513-2
  • Snake Dancing (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1998) ISBN 1-86448-513-2
  • Snake Circle (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2000) ISBN 1-86508-335-6

External link

  • for an analysis of the controversy about her identity.
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