Peter Abrahams: A life of telling freedom

2017-01-29 06:09
LITERARY GIANT South African writer Peter Abrahams in 1955. Picture: Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

LITERARY GIANT South African writer Peter Abrahams in 1955. Picture: Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

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Narrating his departure from South Africa to England, literary giant Peter Abrahams concludes his 1954 memoir, Tell Freedom, so:

“I had reached a point where the gestures of even my friends among the whites were suspect, so I had to go or be forever lost. I needed, not friends, not gestures, but my manhood.

"And the need was desperate. Perhaps life had a meaning that transcended race and colour. If it had, I could not find it in South Africa.

"Also, there was the need to write, to tell freedom, and for this I needed to be personally free … I walked briskly down to the docks. And all my dreams walked with me.”

Born on March 3 1919 in the then coloured township of Vrededorp, to a “Cape coloured” mother and Ethiopian father who passed away early in his life, South Africa was no place for a young, black man with dreams of writing.

Having attended Grace Dieu College outside Polokwane, Abrahams gained admission to St Peter’s Secondary School, the prestigious institution for black boys, where he was classmates with Es’kia Mphahlele, who would later remark on his age-mate’s 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.”

While Abrahams first found inspiration in the great English poets, it was as a young man working as an office assistant at the famed Bantu Men’s Social Centre that he encountered the literature of the New Negro movement that first made of him “a colour nationalist”, and to which he professed to owe “a great debt for crystallising my vague yearnings to write and for showing me the long dream was attainable”.

Abrahams left South Africa in 1939, working for two years as a stoker and then as a journalist in London.

In 1945, his debut novel Song of the City was published and followed a year later by his second, Mine Boy, which became the first African novel written in English to attract international acclaim.

An ardent pan-Africanist whose work as a journalist and novelist narrated with deep sensitivity and conviction the plight of black people in South Africa and the wider world, he went on to become one of Africa’s most prominent writers.

While in London, Abrahams moved in the circles of prominent pan-Africanist leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere and George Padmore.

His involvement in the movement saw him take on the role as a publicist for the fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester in 1945.

In this time, Abrahams met Jamaican Premier Norman Manley who persuaded him to help build a new nation by writing a popular history of Jamaica.

In 1955, Abrahams travelled there, finding “the most hopeful image I know of the newly emerging underdeveloped world”.

He soon settled there permanently with his family. He became involved in local mass media, notably the successful nationalisation of Radio Jamaica for which he also provided political commentary, and later became an editor for the West Indian Economist and a staff writer for Holiday Magazine.

With a literary and journalistic career spanning nearly 10 decades, Abrahams’ prolific output includes, among others works, the story collection Dark Testament (1942); the novels The Path of Thunder (1948), A Wreath for Udomo (1956), A Night of Their Own (1965), This Island Now (1966) and The View from Coyaba (1985); a journalistic account of his return journey to South Africa, Return to Goli (1953); Tell Freedom (1954); and The Black Experience in the Twentieth Century: An Autobiography (2000).

On January 18 2017, aged 97, Abrahams was found dead at his home in Saint Andrew Parish, Jamaica.

This article was contributed by Panashe Chigumadzi, a novelist and master’s student in African literature

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