Peter Abrahams (1919-2017): South African literary giant deserves acknowledgement in his home country
- J Brooks Spector
- South Africa
- 25 Jan 2017 12:22 (South Africa)
South African-born literary giant Peter Abrahams passed away last week at the age of 97. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a measure of his achievement.
About a month ago, browsing in a local second-hand bookstore, I came across a copy of Peter Abrahams’ first book, his short story collection, Dark Testament, published in England in 1942. The actual copy was in excellent condition, even though it had been inexpensively printed in Britain in the midst of World War II, as that nation faced the increasingly harsh conditions of rationing and scarcity of even such commonplace things as paper and ink.
As a first edition, it was priced accordingly, but I have reserved it for purchase just as soon as I scrape together the funds to buy it. National treasure and all that, it deserves an honoured place on my bookshelf.
Over 40 years earlier, when I was assigned to come to South Africa for the first time as a junior diplomat, I had sent out a plea for some meaty reading about the country I was about to enter to friends in Southeast Asia where I was living. Coming to my rescue, friends lent me copies of Peter Abrahams’ first novel, Mine Boy, and Es’kia Mphahlele’s The Wanderers and Down Second Avenue, all to give me some historical depth on the problems and textures of South Africa and its society.
Eventually I learned more about Peter Abrahams (and, along the way, also met Mphahlele when he was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, while I was in the US on leave). I discovered Abrahams’ first novel had been published when he was only in his early 20s – and in Britain. This early volume became the first novel by a black South African published internationally. In fact, Abrahams’ book became the first novel written by a black South African to be published at all since Solomon Plaatje’s Mhudi had been released in South Africa back in 1930 – although Plaatje had actually written it over a decade earlier.
Perhaps due to Abrahams’ absence on the literary scene in recent years, it came as something of a shock to learn that he had just passed away on January 18, at his home in Jamaica, at the age of 97. Along the way, his had been a fascinating life, even apart from his prolific output as a writer and journalist.
Abrahams had been born in Vrededorp, now a downtown neighbourhood in the Johannesburg CBD, but, in Abrahams’ youth, a vibrant racially mixed suburb on the fringes of the city – even before the creation of Sophiatown – largely inhabited by Indians and Coloured South Africans. Abrahams’ own ethnic background was an example of how race as the absolute determinant of everything had not yet quite become as hard and fast as it would be, later on in 20th-century South Africa. His father was an Ethiopian who had migrated to South Africa to seek his fortune in the rapidly growing mining hub of Johannesburg, while his mother’s background included both French and African roots.
However, his father died when Abrahams was only five years old. Thereafter, his family struggled financially. In those circumstances, his mother sent him to live with relatives in the small Northern Cape town of Elsberg until, at the age of 11, he became a boarding student at the Anglican Church’s Grace Dieu School in Pietersburg. Later in life he would recall that the initial impetus driving him to gain an education had come while he was a child labourer in a tinsmith’s shop. One of the employees there had read the story of Othello to him from Charles Lamb’s book, Tales From Shakespeare, and it was the push he needed.
Graduating from Grace Dieu School, he returned to Johannesburg to enter the renowned St Peter’s Secondary School in Rosettenville. (Before that school had been forced to close due to the restrictions of apartheid, it had become the alma mater of many of South Africa’s leading black figures, including Oliver Tambo and Hugh Masekela.) To earn his tuition costs, Abrahams worked at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre, a downtown hub famed for its many cultural opportunities and heated political discussions. While Abrahams was still in school, his first published works, a series of his poems, were published in the African-oriented Bantu World newspaper.
While he worked at the social centre, he began reading the works of American writers such as sociologist WEB Du Bois as well as the writers of the Harlem Renaissance such as Langston Hughes, Countée Cullen, Claude MacKay, and Sterling Brown. Richard Wright would eventually become a strong influence on his work as well.
Abrahams himself had written of this voyage of literary discovery, “I read every one of the books on the shelf marked American Negro literature. I became a nationalist, a colour nationalist, through the writings of men and women who lived a world away from me. To them I owe a great debt for crystallising my vague yearnings to write and for showing me the long dream was attainable.”
His early experiences of working at the social centre and studying at St Peter’s (where he came into contact with a number of empathetic whites) had a deep impact on him, encouraging a sense of qualified optimism about the possibilities of interracial understanding – even in South Africa. Inevitably for the time and place, he became increasingly drawn towards left-wing politics. His first novel, Mine Boy, for example, had built on the possibilities of a kind of revolutionary interracial harmony in the face of harsh, exploitative capitalism.
After finishing at St Peter’s, he became increasingly eager to see a wider world beyond the racial limitations of life in South Africa, especially given the difficulties in finding work, and so he signed on as a stoker on a freighter at the beginning of World War II. After two years at sea, he settled in England. During his residence in England, his first book, Dark Testament was published, followed by Song of the City, Mine Boy, and The Path of Thunder, as he increasingly established himself as a novelist and journalist. More volumes followed, including a book profiling a return visit to South Africa, as well as a history of Jamaica, sponsored by the British Colonial Office. Later on, he wrote his autobiographical memoirs, Tell Freedom and The Coyaba Chronicles, when he had moved to Jamaica.
In his early years in the UK, he became part of a circle of expatriate African nationalists such as Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta, as well as various other left-wing thinkers. Eventually, however, his own personal political stance moved away from a close sympathy for the Communist Party and the ANC in exile, and in the direction of a more black-nationalist stance, where he became aligned with people like Trinidadian expatriate writer, George Padmore.
When he first arrived in England, he had worked briefly at a communist book distribution agency, and then as an editorial staffer for The Daily Worker. But, by the time his first book was published, he had already broken his connections with the Communist Party.
Describing his youthful political sympathies, Abrahams had written of himself, “We were not necessarily communist, but radical. The black man had to be revolutionary in order to have self-respect.” And University of the West Indies senior lecturer Rupert Lewis had written of him that Abrahams’ importance in Pan-African history came from “being the publicist for the Manchester Conference (of Pan-African leaders in 1945). His book, A Wreath for Udomo, anticipated the difficulties African leaders would face when they returned home.”
Almost a decade before his passing, in an interview with The Gleaner, a Jamaican newspaper, reporter Howard Campbell had set the scene, describing Abrahams’ home, “Reams of literature line the spacious living room of Coyaba, Peter Abrahams’ home in the hills of Rock Hall, St Andrew. Two items reveal the evolving thinker: A copy of the book Caribbean Reasonings by Trinidadian Pan Africanist George Padmore, and a satellite dish that helps keep Abrahams in tune with world affairs.
“The South Africa-born Abrahams turns 90 today. He and Daphne, his wife of 51 years, have lived at Coyaba since the mid-1950s when he first came to Jamaica at the behest of then Premier Norman Manley.” Entering his 90s, Abrahams told his interviewer, “As long as the mind is alive, how old I am is an interesting experience.” And describing his early impressions of Jamaica, Abrahams said, “It had a little over 600,000 people, was dirt poor and few black people had shoes. It reminded me of South Africa except for one thing; the racism was not law.”
Still, he liked what he saw, writing later, “In Jamaica, and in the stumbling and fumbling reaching forward of its people, is dramatised, almost at laboratory level, the most hopeful image I know of the newly emerging underdeveloped world.” After moving permanently to Jamaica, besides his continuing stream of novels and memoirs, he also worked as the editor for the West Indian Economist for several years and he was also a commentator for Radio Jamaica.
Describing his place in literary history, the New York Times wrote on his death that Abrahams had both “explored, with sensitivity and passion, the injustices of apartheid and the complexities of racial politics”. While he had lived the greater part of his life away from Africa, he had told the Wilson Library Bulletin long after leaving his homeland, “I am emotionally involved in South Africa. Africa is my beat. If I am ever liberated from this bondage of racialism, there are some things much more exciting to me, objectively, to write about. But this world has such a social orientation, and I am involved in this world and I can’t cut myself off.”
Literary critic Lewis Gannett, years earlier, in reviewing a new Abrahams novel, had written in the New York Herald Tribune, (then a near-legendary Manhattan daily) “Beside Richard Wright’s name as a Negro novelist, set that of Peter Abrahams. Or beside that of Alan Paton as a South African novelist, set Peter Abrahams.”
In fact, in his works like Mine Boy, Abrahams had firmly established the archetype of a storyline of the naïve African who leaves his home because of the crush of economic circumstance, and, coming to the city, faces the full force of capitalist exploitation, restrictive and destructive racial laws, and then the tragedies that must inevitably ensue from this mix. Part of Abrahams’ influence is that this tragic storyline became a template for many other South African writers, dramatists – and even filmmakers.
In judging Abrahams’ life, The Times added, “Abrahams addressed the promises and the perils of black rule after colonialism, the possibilities of a post-racial society and questions of personal identity. Those he felt acutely as a mixed-race South African — ‘coloured’, under the country’s apartheid system — married to a white woman, and as an exile for most of his life. Above all, the spectacle of racial injustice in his homeland spurred him to write.
“The novelist Nadine Gordimer, in an introduction to his memoir The Black Experience in the 20th Century: An Autobiography and Meditation (2001), wrote, ‘Abrahams is an African writer, a writer of the world, who opened up in his natal country, South Africa, a path of exploration for us, the writers who have followed the trail he bravely blazed.’ ”
And in summing up his own life, Abrahams had written some 15 years ago, “I became a whole person when I finally put away the exile’s little packed suitcase. When Mandela came out of jail and when apartheid ended, I ceased to have this burden of South Africa. I shed it.”
But what comes as a shock to discover, however, is that there apparently are no monuments in his home nation to Abrahams’ great literary achievement. Surely there should be a library named in his honour, an endowed chair in African literature at one of the nation’s premier universities, and a publishing effort reprinting his output in a standard, uniform edition. It is long past time for these honours.
But with nearly three years remaining until the anniversary of his birth, there is time to get things moving, if influential people get behind such an effort. Embracing his memory as an early literary pioneer and impact as a writer must also take into consideration the eclecticism of his political thinking, his influence on the Pan-African idea, and an ethnicity that embraced the near-totality of South African experience. But the question is: Does anybody still care about the country’s literary legacy any more? DM
Original photo: Peter Abrahams (Caribbean Beat)