On January 18, the world lost an icon. Only much of the world did not know it. South African-Jamaican writer Peter Abrahams died at 97 in Jamaica, where he has been living for more than 60 years. Abrahams was prolific, insightful, and poignant. Unfortunately, he is also largely overlooked and often forgotten, especially in the country of his birth.
The son of a miner (who died when Abrahams was a child) and a domestic worker, Abrahams’ life could have easily been confined to poverty, his hometown of Johannesburg, and his coloured neighborhood, Vrededorp. However, his mother along with his “skokiaan” (illegal liquor) brewing aunt (whom Abrahams described as the family’s “cornerstone”) worked and sacrificed to insure that Abrahams could attend school. There he thrived and dreamt of a world away from Vrededorp.
Ezekiel Mphahlele, Abraham’s friend and another notable South African author, met Abrahams in 1935 when the two attended St. Peter’s School, an elite black school located in a white Johannesburg suburb. At the onset, Abrahams was set on intertwining both literature and pan-Africanism:
I remember him vividly talking about Marcus Garvey, taking it for granted we must know about him. And dreamily he said what a wonderful thing it would be if all the negroes in the world came back to Africa… I admired [his writings] because here was a boy writing something like the collection of English poetry we were learning as a set book in school. I remember now how morose the verse was: straining to justify and glorify the dark complexion with the I’m-black-and-proud-of-it theme.
Even then, Abrahams “was always yearning for far-away places” with a desire “to show the white man that he was equal to him.” By age 19, he had not only published a collection of poetry, A Black Man Speaks of Freedom, but also relocated to England. Abrahams was a complex character: He found inspiration from Garvey but relocated to the heart of the British Empire, rejected Garvey’s disdain for Communism, married a white woman, and befriended George Padmore, a Trinidadian pan-Africanist who was one of Garvey’s fiercest critics.
In London, Abrahams linked up with the burgeoning pan-Africanist circles. Alongside the likes of Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Ras Makonnen, he helped organize the 1945 Manchester pan-Africanist Congress. As director of publicity for the event, Abrahams helped insure that the energies inspired by Garvey could embolden black liberation movements across the globe. Informally, at home, he hosted countless numbers of Caribbean and African students and exiles “in of a few hours of congenial warmth in an otherwise cold and lonely place.” In Britain, Abrahams put pan-Africanism into action.
During this period, Abrahams also published the novels Song of the City (1943), Mine Boy (1946), which became a classic, The Path of Thunder (1948) and Wild Conquest (1951) all while reporting for the BBC and other media outlets. His writing was unapologetically black, railed against notions of racial inferiority, and promoted racial uplift through education, work ethic and pan-African solidarity. Despite being away from South Africa for 14 years, he used his personal experiences, memories and family history to flesh out compelling stories of what it meant to be black in South Africa. These books made him a recognized author both at home and abroad. Writing in Phylon in 1949, the preeminent African American scholar Alain Locke noted that Path of Thunder possessed “epochal significance” and was “the strongest and most objective portrayal we have yet had of love transcending the color line.”
His writing inspired the writers of the Drum generation in 1950s Sophiatown, as well as the blooming talent from Cape Town’s District Six. When Abrahams briefly returned to South Africa in 1952, Drum magazine’s staff gave him a hero’s welcome. However, this return was bittersweet. On this trip, Abrahams witnessed the conditions of black South Africa with new eyes. He saw firsthand how damaging Apartheid was, but he also grew disenchanted with black South Africa’s apparent acceptance of the system. According to Drum editor Anthony Sampson, at a 200-person banquet thrown in Abraham’s honor by the Coloured Garment Workers’ Union, the writer laid into the crowd:
“Why do you waste money on a banquet for me, when you could give a scholarship to make another writer? And why haven’t you brought your wives? What’s the good of talking about liberation if you haven’t even liberated your own women?”
Abrahams left South Africa further alienated from his birthplace. This distance prevented him, as well as work, from receiving the recognition and adulation he enjoyed elsewhere.
In some ways, Abrahams’s story is a “what if.” Path of Thunder was released to critical acclaim, making it on the New York Times bestseller list only to be overshadowed by Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country. “There had not been a novel out of Africa for a very long time and my US publishers thought they were on to a winner,” Abrahams wrote later in his 2000 memoir, The Coyaba Chronicles: Reflections on the Black Experience in the 20th Century. “But though I did reasonably well, Paton was the winner.”
The white liberal Paton went onto international fame as a vocal critic of Apartheid. For Abrahams, the experience denied him the limelight that he deserved and he soured on “the commercial, money-making aspect” of publishing overseas. His Tell Freedom (1954), a memoir recounting his childhood in Johannesburg during the 1920s and 1930s, stands as one of the best South African autobiographies ever, yet it hardly commands the attention of those who study South Africa.
Throughout the 1950s, Abrahams bounced between Britain, France and the African continent. In France, Abrahams and his second wife started a family. Here he also befriended American authors such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin as well as fellow South African, painter Gerard Sekoto, whose friendship grew as the two shared memories of “the same Johannesburg.” In France, Abrahams also encountered overt racism and began to sense xenophobia sweeping across Europe. In reporting on Africa, Abrahams’ understanding of African independence and the ability of African leaders to implement pan-African ideals was challenged. He grew critical of his friends Nkrumah, Kenyatta and Hastings Banda, who he saw as losing touch with their constituents or corrupted by global capitalism in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi. His novel, Wreath for Udomo (1956), offers a scathing critique of this generation of African leaders to which Nkrumah sent, according to Abrahams, “his disturbed appreciation.”
He offered even more critiques in later years, which further alienated him from many pan-Africanists. When he visited a newly independent Kenya in 1965, Abrahams did not come away bounding with optimism:
The President had ceased to be my friend, Jomo, the man of the people who had shared their struggles and suffering with them. Now, every business house, every store, every office I visited had the obligatory picture of the President hanging on the wall… The new Bwana Kubwa was the former freedom fighter… Somewhere along the road to freedom, the leaders of our freedom struggle had become like those they had fought against. We had become like our enemies, cloaked in the trapping of our enemies – only, more glaringly so.
In 1956, Abrahams relocated with his family to Jamaica, where he had been offered work. There, he found liberation:
“In the South Africa of my childhood and youth, I had to be against the system as an affirmation of my humanity. In Europe I had to be anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist. =In the Jamaica of my adoption I affirmed my humanity by becoming part of the process of the building of a nation.”
While South African exiles typically waxed nostalgic for home, Abrahams did not share that longing. Much of his impact came outside of South Africa, and physically but also emotionally he drifted away. In Jamaica, he published Jamaica: An Island Mosaic (1957), A Night of Their Own (1965), This Island Now (1966), The View from Coyaba (1985), and The Coyaba Chronicles (2000). Only one, A Night of Their Own, was specifically about South Africa. Discussing South Africa with a fellow exile, Abrahams remembered:
“I had been in Jamaica a long time, I spoke daily to Jamaicans on radio. I had become part of the Jamaican landscape. Because he was still the South African in exile, he expected me to also be a South African still in exile. He found it hard to accept that I had long ceased to be in exile. I had sunk new roots; I was accepted as Jamaican; became only ‘that damn South African’ when my enemies wanted to curse me.”
In adopting Jamaica, Abrahams’ place in South African popular memory faded. He did not pour his energies exclusively into the anti-Apartheid struggle. He was not one of the many, many exiles enticed back to South Africa after the fall of Apartheid. He never became a famous celebrity lauded for returning to the land of his birth (though he received the Order of Ikhamanga from the South African government in 2008). Abrahams not only championed pan-Africanism, he lived it, but also remained brave enough to challenge those within it.