SHELF

CityPress - - Voices & Careers -

years in apartheid South Africa is con­stantly re­ferred to as a “boy”, is par­tic­u­larly moved by the New Ne­gro lit­er­a­ture found on the shelves of the cen­tre’s li­brary. It is this that first made of him “a colour na­tion­al­ist”. Through this lit­er­a­ture he be­gins to grap­ple with his dou­ble-con­scious­ness, fully aware now that as WEB du Bois wrote: “The prob­lem of the 20th cen­tury is the prob­lem of the colour line.” He be­came aware that the “Ne­gro”, like the African, “is not free”. Of these “rev­e­la­tions” Abra­hams writes: “Now, hav­ing read the words, I knew that I had known this all along. But un­til now I had had no words to voice that knowl­edge.”

Writ­ing on “The Black At­lantic” and African Moder­nity in South Africa (1996), African­ist cul­tural the­o­rist Nton­gela Masilela ar­gues that “the New Africans ap­pro­pri­ated the his­tor­i­cal lessons drawn from the New Ne­gro ex­pe­ri­ence within Amer­i­can moder­nity to chart and ne­go­ti­ate the newly emer­gent South African moder­nity.”

While recog­nis­ing the in­flu­ence of the New Ne­gro move­ment, Masilela cri­tiques Paul Gil­roy’s sem­i­nal book The Black At­lantic (1993), ar­gu­ing that Gil­roy erases the con­tri­bu­tion of Africans on the con­ti­nent and South Amer­ica. By way of ex­am­ple, Masilela cites in­di­vid­ual US/South African re­la­tion­ships be­tween “Miles Davis and Hugh Masekela, Peter Abra­hams and Richard Wright, Ab­dul­lah Ibrahim and Duke Elling­ton, Miriam Makeba and Sarah Vaughan, Langston Hughes and Ezekiel Mphahlele, Lewis Nkosi and James Bald­win, Gwendolyn Brooks and Ke­o­rapetse Kgosit­sile, Alain Locke and Pix­ley ka Isaka Seme (founder of the ANC in 1912), Au­dre Lorde and the women’s move­ment in South Africa” as proof of the mu­tual ex­change. By the time Abra­hams leaves the cen­tre, his con­scious­ness con­tains a broader view of the black African ex­pe­ri­ence – such that Es’kia Mphahlele, his St Peter’s Sec­ondary School class­mate, later re­marked on his 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.” In the end, the op­pres­sive con­di­tions of apartheid’s racial dom­i­na­tion meant that per­son­hood – man­hood – was not pos­si­ble for Abra­hams and ul­ti­mately had to be sought else­where.

It is while Abra­hams is in Lon­don that he in­ter­acts with im­por­tant cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal fig­ures of the Black At­lantic, in­clud­ing lead­ers Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Keny­atta and writ­ers James Bald­win and Richard Wright, a “god­fa­ther” of the New Ne­gro lit­er­ary move­ment.

It is within this con­flu­ence of di­as­poric black ex­pe­ri­ence that Abra­hams is able to self-ac­tu­alise as one of Africa’s most prom­i­nent writ­ers. He poignantly nar­rates and ar­tic­u­lates the strug­gle for per­son­hood and hu­man­ity for those of us “oth­ers” who have long borne the brunt of what Cor­nel West calls the “dark side of moder­nity”.

De­spite ear­lier prom­ises, Abra­hams does not set­tle in Amer­ica, he re­lo­cates to Ja­maica after an in­vi­ta­tion by Pre­mier Nor­man Man­ley un­til his death at 97.

At this mo­ment of Trump and Brexit, the seem­ing apoth­e­o­sis of global white supremacy in all its hu­man­ity-deny­ing glory, Abra­hams’ 1954 Tell Free­dom is a timely read.

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