Mawuena Logan | Peter Abrahams: the literary legacy
Had he lived, Peter Abrahams would have celebrated his 98th birthday on March 19, 2017. While he is best known for his journalism and radio commentaries on RJR, he has left behind a considerable legacy in novels. Peter Henry Abrahams was born on March 19, 1919 in Vrededorp, near Johannesburg, the son of an Ethiopian father, Peter Henry Abrahams Deras, and a mixed French/black mother, Angelina du Plessis.
At age 20, Abrahams fled South Africa to escape the dehumanising conditions of the non-white populace. His preoccupation with a myriad of issues is apparent in his writings: urban migration and the resultant alienation, home, self-assertion and identity, historical exigency, political and social consciousness, neocolonialism, African nationalism, and black autonomy in Africa and the diaspora.
Abrahams' collection of poems, A Black Man Speaks of Freedom! (1940) not only recalls Langston Hughes' poem 'The Negro Speaks of Rivers', but also articulates black consciousness, freedom and humanity, as well as the "unshackling of the mind". Dark Testament (1942), a collection of stories and sketches, chronicles the problems of interracial love and relationships of race, and so does Song of theCity (1945), his first novel to touch on the ills of the city.
Mine Boy (1946), probably a tribute to Abrahams' Ethiopian father who "died after a spell of working on the Rand gold mine", is a novel of childhood and growing up that charts the protagonist's life from "boss boy to black man".
This transformative theme reverberates in Abrahams' autobiography, Tell Freedom, when the author/narrator asserts: "I needed, not friends, not gestures, but my manhood ... . Perhaps life had a meaning that transcended race and colour. If it had, I had not found it in South Africa. Also, there was the need to write, to tell freedom, and for this I needed to be personally free." In Return to Goli (1953), Abrahams enunciates his commitment to society, but after over a decade, his return to Goli, the Afrikaans name for Johannesburg, gives him no hope of a "raceless" society or a "man without colour", as he had envisioned in Mine Boy.
The Path of Thunder (1948) is an attempt to address the fundamental question of race via "national intermarriage, whether between white and black or between pink and red", which he considers "a mirror of this highest form of world nationalism when man will really be free". But the interracial union between a coloured man and an Afrikaner woman comes to a tragic end and suggests the failure of such relationships as a solution to the race problem.
On the eve of Ghana's independence in 1957, A Wreath for Udomo was published. The novel views the problem in modern Africa on the eve of independence as stemming essentially from tribalism, an oversimplification, since it was not tribalism's "code of fear and authority" that robbed the author of his manhood in Tell Freedom (though the Afrikaners' domination of blacks can be read as obeying a 'tribal' code). But the novel is prophetic in that it envisages some of the ills in the postcolony today, prior to Frantz Fanon's postcolonial theorising in The Wretched of the Earth.
The idyllic picture Abrahams paints of Jamaica, published as Jamaica, An Island Mosaic (1957), is absent from the novel This Island Now (1966), in which the tribalism that he decries in Udomo gives way to political bickering. The View from Coyaba (1985), as far as fiction goes, crowns the work of a man whose life spans many generations and who has been at the centre of many struggles. The novel criss-crosses the Atlantic and covers issues of historical significance that have shaped and continue to shape the lives of Africans. It reads like a prelude to Abrahams' memoir, The Coyaba Chronicles, in which Abrahams bemoans the "sub-Saharan African mind which was so completely colonised that we ended up as the principal instruments in our own continued domination by others, even after most of us gained our independence".
In Wild Conquest (1950), Abrahams turned to a historical theme, the 19-Century confrontation of the Zulu people of South Africa with the encroaching Dutch Boers (Afrikaners). His novels are concerned with historical themes, whether within his own experience or in earlier times, and the contestation of values by opposing sides. These values shape the personalities and outlook of his novels' characters.
- Mawuena Logan is associate professor, Department of African Studies, University of Louisville, Kentucky, and formerly senior lecturer, Department of Literatures in English, University of the West Indies, Jamaica.
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