“I have found that when speaking out against the injustices that I have perceived to exist in sporting communities, particularly within professional Australian rules football, that my words have always been used against me. So, I want to stress, that I am happy to be here and speaking in a safe space.”
The space is Blak Dot Gallery, in Melbourne’s northern suburb of Brunswick. The audience is made up of African and Indigenous youth, hipsters and academics. Héritier Lumumba is in conversation with two of his friends Wāni La Frere, a spoken word performer and, the ‘Let’s Talk’ host Pauline Vetuna.
Prior to their conversation there are powerful raps and songs by Band of Brothaz. It is a small venue, perhaps only holding 120 people; and although it was sold-out, there remain some empty seats. There is a piece of paper, left on a dozen or so of the folding chairs: “This seat is reserved for First Nations peoples, Elders, Black Folks, and People with Disabilities. If that’s you, take a seat.”
The raps and songs were sufficient to fill a program in their own right, yet, they were the ‘warm-up’ for Héritier’s conversation with Wāni.
The conversation between Héritier and Wāni is marked by their openness; both telling of experiences in which they felt themselves to be victims of prejudice, while also telling of how they also perpetuated prejudice of one form or another.
“I realised that I am a part of the problem. I have been misogynist. I was part of a culture where ‘to be a man’ meant sleeping with as many women as possible. It was about ‘conquering’. I have hated myself for this.”
Misogyny in footy culture runs deep. Media figures maintain positions of authority despite their ongoing statements of hatred against women or LGBTQI communities. Richmond’s premiership celebrations included the circulation of a photo against the subject’s wish.
Héritier draws on the cultures, which even if he feels removed from them, he is in the process of becoming closer to them through reading, conversations, travelling. The conversation’s trajectory reveals his sense of unease in footy culture specifically, and perhaps Australia more generally. “I come from a culture that is about creating. Wherever black people are, we have always responded to our circumstances. We’ve created capoeira, jazz, hip hop. These are our creations. I realise I’m a part of this.”
“It is an on-going process: this journey to not being misogynistic. I started looking at my bookshelves: who am I learning from? I realised, there are so many black male authors, why are there no black female authors? So, I’ve started reading more and more books by women. After all, I come from two different cultures, where women are revered. Women are strong spiritual leaders in both the Congo and in Brazil. But, I also realise that the Congo is where women face continual and systematic sexual abuse. Our technologies that we take for granted wouldn’t be possible without the minerals that are mined in the Congo. And yet, none of us do anything about the abuse of the women in the societies where minerals come from.”
Lumumba is establishing his post-footy life: he says a couple of times, “it has not yet been 12 months since I retired”. The transition from professional-athlete to regular citizen is well-documented as being difficult. Héritier, rather than seeking to cling on to his footy identity in footy-mad Melbourne, is seeking to break away from it. He rejects the culture that limited his expression of who he was and what he believed in. Once he realised the importance of mental health, while still at Collingwood FC, he quickly found himself at the centre of tensions within the Club. He confronted these, instead of toeing the party line. But, 12 years as a professional footballer remains embodied in his everyday life: although less bulky, Héritier is perfectly trim. “I still pinch my skin several times a day, checking my skin-folds. This is an involuntary reflex.”
During his career, Lumumba was characterised in the mainstream and social media as being full of himself, self-important and having too much to say. This is the limited space allowed for black players in the Australian Football League. But, throughout the evening a different Héritier is evident: he is a student of sociology, psychology, post-colonialism and contemporary politics. And here he is, making himself available, learning from others – with greatly varied life experiences and most without a care for his footy-celebrity. Arrogant and full-of-himself? Hardly.*
*I sent the link to this article to Heritier Lumumba to request an interview or at least some additional commentary to some questions which I felt required further elaboration. I didn’t hear back.