Bobbi Sykes

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Bobbi Sykes

Roberta "Bobbi" Sykes (16 August 1943 – 14 November 2010) was an Australian poet and author. She was a lifelong campaigner for indigenous land rights, as well as human rights and women's rights.

Early life and education[edit]

Born Roberta Barkley Patterson in Townsville, Queensland, Sykes was raised by her mother and purportedly never knew her father. Sykes says in her autobiography that his identity is unknown, and her mother told her a number of different accounts about her father; variously that he was Fijian, Papuan, African-American and Native-American.[1] However, her mother has revealed that he was an African-American soldier, Master-Sergeant Robert Barkley. Although she fought hard for Australian Aboriginal rights, she herself was not of Australian Aboriginal descent. She was sometimes criticised for not correcting the record when others assumed she was Aboriginal.

Early activism[edit]

Sykes was, controversially, expelled from school aged 14 and, after a succession of jobs, including a nurses assistant at the Townsville General Hospital from 1959 to 1960, she moved to Brisbane and then to Sydney in the early to mid-1960s where she worked as a striptease dancer at the notorious Pink Pussycat Club, Kings Cross under the stage name of "Opal Stone". She became a freelance journalist and got involved in several national indigenous activist organisations. She was one of the many protestors arrested at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in July 1972.[2] 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.[who?]


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 Mum (Shirl) Smith, an indigenous Australian social worker in New South Wales.[3] She won the Patricia Weickert Black Writers Award in 1982.

Harvard and later activism[edit]

Sykes received a PhD in Education from Harvard University in 1983. She was the first black Australian to graduate from a United States university.[3][4] 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.[citation needed] In 1994 her role was recognised when awarded the Australian Human Rights Medal.[5]

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 Kibble Literary Award for women writers.

Sykes died in Sydney in November 2010.[5]

Awards and nominations[edit]


  • 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


  1. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 30 September 2011. Retrieved 2005-11-15. 
  2. ^ Robinson, S (1994). "The Aboriginal Embassy: An Account of the Protests of 1972". Aboriginal History. 18 (1): 51. 
  3. ^ a b Coleman, Wanda (1985). "Bobbi Sykes: An Interview". Callaloo. The Johns Hopkins University Press (24): 294–303. 
  4. ^ Kovacic, Leonarda; Lemon, Barbara (23 September 2009). "Sykes, Roberta (Bobbi) (1944 - )". The Australian Women's Register. Retrieved 23 February 2010. 
  5. ^ a b Rights campaigner Bobbi Sykes dies ABC Online (16 November 2010) - Retrieved 16 November 2010

External links[edit]