On my shelf: The ‘boy’ who taught us personhood

2017-02-05 16:05
Panashe Chigumadzi

Panashe Chigumadzi

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‘I said he’s my boy,” scolds the “red-head missus” whom Peter Abrahams recounts in his 1954 memoir, Tell Freedom, as saving him from the policeman about to arrest him for working as a market carrier without a permit. As a young, coloured man, Abrahams literally had no place in a space “reserved for Europeans only” as “a boy” pleading, “Carry your bags, missus?” or “Penny, please, baas.”

In the words of Nigerian scholar K Ogungbesan, apartheid “South Africa is not the place for a black boy to dream”.


“A world of activity opened to me,” writes Abrahams after his first encounter with the famed Bantu Men’s Social Centre. Located at 1 Eloff Street at the edge of Johannesburg’s city centre, the centre was a cultural and political hub for educated Africans working on the Witwatersrand that saw, for example, the 1944 formation of the ANC’s Youth League and the staging, in 1958, of Athol Fugard’s No-Good Friday.

It is here that Abrahams leaves, even if temporarily, the world of African “boys” and “girls” and encounters new African men and women who partook in Gamma Sigma debating, music tuition, dramatic society, film viewings, sports, educational and first aid classes and more.

Abrahams’ discovery of the iconic daily newspaper The Bantu World, edited by the centre’s Richard Victor Selope Thema, is what led him to 1 Eloff Street. Despite having sold Johannesburg newspapers, The Bantu World was a revelation. “The pictures on the front page were of black people. All the papers I sold had only pictures of white folk.”


While it is true that he finds his “first awakening” through English poetry and sustains this aspiration to a more humanist desire for self-actualisation, it is significant that Abrahams, who throughout his formative years in apartheid South Africa is constantly referred to as a “boy”, is particularly moved by the New Negro literature found on the shelves of the centre’s library. It is this that first made of him “a colour nationalist”. Through this literature he begins to grapple with his double-consciousness, fully aware now that as WEB du Bois wrote: “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour line.” He became aware that the “Negro”, like the African, “is not free”. Of these “revelations” Abrahams writes: “Now, having read the words, I knew that I had known this all along. But until now I had had no words to voice that knowledge.”


Writing on “The Black Atlantic” and African Modernity in South Africa (1996), Africanist cultural theorist Ntongela Masilela argues that “the New Africans appropriated the historical lessons drawn from the New Negro experience within American modernity to chart and negotiate the newly emergent South African modernity.”

While recognising the influence of the New Negro movement, Masilela critiques Paul Gilroy’s seminal book The Black Atlantic (1993), arguing that Gilroy erases the contribution of Africans on the continent and South America. By way of example, Masilela cites individual US/South African relationships between “Miles Davis and Hugh Masekela, Peter Abrahams and Richard Wright, Abdullah Ibrahim and Duke Ellington, Miriam Makeba and Sarah Vaughan, Langston Hughes and Ezekiel Mphahlele, Lewis Nkosi and James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks and Keorapetse Kgositsile, Alain Locke and Pixley ka Isaka Seme (founder of the ANC in 1912), Audre Lorde and the women’s movement in South Africa” as proof of the mutual exchange.


By the time Abrahams leaves the centre, his consciousness contains a broader view of the black African experience – such that Es’kia Mphahlele, his St Peter’s Secondary School classmate, later remarked on his burgeoning Pan-Africanism: “I remember him vividly talking about Marcus Garvey, dreamily he said what a wonderful thing it would be if all Negroes in the world came back to Africa.”

In the end, the oppressive conditions of apartheid’s racial domination meant that personhood – manhood – was not possible for Abrahams and ultimately had to be sought elsewhere.


It is while Abrahams is in London that he interacts with important cultural and political figures of the Black Atlantic, including leaders Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta and writers James Baldwin and Richard Wright, a “godfather” of the New Negro literary movement.

It is within this confluence of diasporic black experience that Abrahams is able to self-actualise as one of Africa’s most prominent writers. He poignantly narrates and articulates the struggle for personhood and humanity for those of us “others” who have long borne the brunt of what Cornel West calls the “dark side of modernity”.


Despite earlier promises, Abrahams does not settle in America, he relocates to Jamaica after an invitation by Premier Norman Manley until his death at 97.

At this moment of Trump and Brexit, the seeming apotheosis of global white supremacy in all its humanity-denying glory, Abrahams’ 1954 Tell Freedom is a timely read.

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