Peter Henry Abrahams was the first nonwhite South African to publish a novel in English since Solomon Plaatje, whose Mhudi was published in 1930. Once his literary career began with the short-story collection Dark Testament in 1942 (a volume of poetry had previously been published by a small publisher), Abrahams established himself as a prolific writer.
Abrahams was born in Vrededorp, a mixed ghetto, on March 19, 1919. When he was five, his father died, and Abrahams was sent to live with relatives in rural Elseburg. On returning to Johannesburg, he entered school at about age eleven. After a few years, however, his education was interrupted by the Depression, and he was forced to seek work. Working at the Bantu Men’s Center, Abrahams was exposed to the works of African American authors, principally W. E. B. Du Bois and such Harlem Renaissance writers as Langston Hughes, Countée Cullen, and Sterling Brown. He would later be influenced by Richard Wright as well.
After working at the Bantu Men’s Center, Abrahams began attending St. Peter’s Secondary School, one of the best South African schools for nonwhites. There, Abrahams had essential experiences which shaped his vision as a writer. While at St. Peter’s, Abrahams had his first contacts with whites, influencing his ideas about the possibility of interracial harmony among certain individuals–a theme that runs through his works. Moreover, he was exposed to left-wing politics. Later, he began a brief flirtation with Marxism; his classic novel Mine Boy exhibits this interest in its focus on the possibility that workers could achieve a revolutionary interracial friendship.
After attending St. Peter’s, Abrahams left South Africa. He began work as a stoker on a freighter around the time of the beginning of World War II. At the end of two years at sea, he arrived in England, where he lived for much of the next decade. Soon after settling in England, he published his first work, Dark Testament. During the 1940’s, Abrahams established a reputation as a novelist–with the publication of Song of the City, Mine Boy, and The Path of Thunder–and as a journalist. Pursuing a journalism career, he returned to South Africa in 1952 to write about the issue of race relations for the London Observer.
After visiting Jamaica to write the history Jamaica: An Island Mosaic, published in 1957, Abrahams and his family went to live there in 1959. While his subsequent writings have focused on South Africa, as in A Night of Their Own, they have also focused on the West Indies, as in This Island Now. Thus, Abrahams has established himself as a truly international writer.
The major themes of Abrahams’s works are intraracial and interracial conflict, the possibilities for resolution of such conflict, and the chances for the transcendence of racism between blacks and whites. These issues span his literary career. Mine Boy, for example, which is considered Abrahams’s first major novel, begins in a manner well known to South Africans: An innocent young man from the country moves to the decadent city. The theme of Mine Boy, however, is that interracial harmony can exist in the midst of a country corrupted by racism. Furthermore, the early The Path of Thunder and the later A Night of Their Own not only dramatize the question of intraracial and interracial harmony but also ask whether interracial love could serve to help people reject the rigidly racist system of South Africa. Thus, Abrahams’s works explore whether segregation and apartheid can be transcended by interracial relationships among people of good will.
Although Abrahams is concerned with transcending race he also consistently writes about those who are corrupted by the racist system. This theme is evident in The Path of Thunder, as well as in Abrahams’s nonfictional study of South Africa, Return to Goli, and in the autobiographical Tell Freedom. In considering Abrahams’s career, therefore, it is evident that his works present an argument on whether people can transcend the racial discord of their society.
Many critics note Abrahams’s idealism in writing of the possibility of resolution of racial discord. Some are critical of this quality, finding Abrahams’s handling of the theme overly sentimental, pointing particularly to the books Mine Boy and The Path of Thunder. This criticism is answered by those who maintain that Abrahams is, in fact, emphasizing the difficulty of finding such a solution. Mine Boy, for example, argues that interracial harmony can be established only among a few people of goodwill. Furthermore, The Path of Thunder ends violently with the deaths of the black and white lovers and the triumph of racial hatred. There is a strong defense, then, against the charge that Abrahams is a sentimental idealist.
The charge is further refuted by those who note that Abrahams is greatly concerned with the possibility that racial hostility may remain fixed among the various racial groups in South Africa. He is not, therefore, merely a dreamer; in fact, his novels question whether interracial harmony is possible. Abrahams’s major concerns are exploring the negativity of race relations in society, considering whether this negativity can be overcome, and gauging the pressures against such a resolution in the context of a society corrupted by hatred and racism.
In 2000, Abrahams published another autobiography, The Black Experience in the Twentieth Century, in which he also offered brilliant vignettes and characterizations of such thinkers and activists as Du Bois, Wright, Hughes, George Padmore, Tom Mboya, Julius Nyere, Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, and Norman Manley, among others.