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Biography of Peter Henry ABRAHAMS

South Africa > Literature : Peter Henry ABRAHAMS

Peter Henry ABRAHAMS
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Born on 03/03/1919 (format : day/month/year)

Biography :

Peter Henry Abrahams (b. March 3, 1919), is a South African  One of South Africa's most prominent black writers, his work deals with political and social issues, especially with racism, most prolific of South Africa’s black prose writers, whose early novel Mine Boy (1946) was the first to depict the dehumanizing effect of racism upon South African blacks.

1928 - He received education with eagerness that enabled him to make up for lost time and race ahead

an adopted citizen of Britain, makes his home in Essex, but his spiritual home is South Africa, where he was born and to which he returns on frequent visits. “I am emotionally involved in South Africa,” he says, “Africa is my beat.” South Africa is the scene of Abrahams’ five novels and of his stirring autobiography Tell Freedom; Memories of Africa. As an artist, of course, Abrahams knows no national boundaries, but as a non-white who grew up in the slums and black ghettos of Johannesburg, he has a strong sense of dedication to a cause. “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. …

James Henry Abrahams, the author’s father, was an Ethiopian. His mother Angela Du Plessis , was colored, which he defines as “the South African word for the half-caste community that was a by-product of the early contact between black and white.” She was of Negro-French origin. Peter Henry Abrahams was born in Johannesburg on March 19, 1919. His father died when he was a little boy, and the childhood which he describes in Tell Freedom was a hard one. There was the endless struggle against poverty, common to so many people all over the world, but added to this was the spirit-crushing atmosphere of racialism, bettering conditions. What emerges so strikingly from Tell Freedom, indeed, is the sense of compassion and hope that filled the lives of Abrahams and his family in the face of these formidable barriers.

Peter went to work before he went to school. He sold firewood, worked for a tinsmith, cleaned rooms in a hotel, carried packages—did whatever odd jobs he could find—all this before he was ten years old. Education came later for him, but when it came, he received it with an eagerness that enabled him to make up for lost time and race ahead. After three years in school he had discovered Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare and the poems of John Keats. As he writes in Tell Freedom: “With Shakespeare and poetry, a new world was born.”

With the aid of a scholarship Abrahams attended St. Peter’s College in Johannesburg and the Teachers’ Training College at Petersburg. At college the world opened up rapidly for the boy. He edited the college magazine and began writing and publishing verse in the Bantu World. After graduating from college in 1938, Abrahams taught for a year in Cape Town and then worked briefly in Durban as a magazine editor. His dream was to go to England, but the chances of his earning the money for passage appeared hopeless. Then in 1939 he got a job as a ship’s stoker and spent the next two years traveling around the world. Ultimately this led him to England and freedom, and he has given all his time and energy since then to writing.

Abrahams wrote his first story at eleven.  ” His adult writing, however, took on a more serious and realistic note. Dark Testament (G. Allen), a collection of short stories, was published in England in 1942; Song of the City (Crisp), a novel, followed in 1945. His third book was Mine Boy (Crisp), published in England in 1946 and by Knopf in the United States in 1955. In The Path of Thunder (Harper, 1948) Abrahams had his hero an educated Negro who returns to his native South African village with ideas of reform and equality and inevitably clashes with the white population. Wild Conquest (Harper, 1950) was an historical novel treating the great northward trek of the Boers in the 1830’s and their conflicts with the Africans.

With Tell Freedom (Knopf, 1954), his autobiography, and A Wreath for Udomo(Knopf, 1956), a novel, Abrahams has made his most effective contribution so far to world understanding of the racial problems of Africa. Tell Freedom “adds an essential dimensions to the African picture,” Melville J. Herskovits wrote in the Nation (August 21, 1954). “Not since [Alan] Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country has there been such an enormous and detailed rang of discriminating reporting as in this book,” wrote Roi Ottley in Saturday Review (August 14, 1954).

A Wreath for Udomo is a powerful story of a brilliant Negro, educated in London, who returns to Africa to govern his own people. His failure and his martyrdom are as much the results of the tragic misunderstandings among his own people as of the prejudices of the white man. Harvey Curtis Webster in the Saturday Review (May 26, 1956) called this “probably … the most perceptive novel that has been written about the complex interplay between British imperialism and African nationalism and tribalism.”

Abrahams has also published a work of reportage Return to Goli (Faber, 1953). In 1965 he published A Night of Their Own, described by Wade as "a response to the crushing defeat inflicted on the South African liberation movement." This was followed by Abrahams' first novel not based in South Africa, 1966's This Island Now.1985 historical novel The View from Coyaba, which follows four generations of a Jamaican family and the ongoing struggle for black autonomy
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Abrahams once again turned his attention to political commentary, journalism, and travel writing.
The Black Experience in the Twentieth Century: An Autobiography and Meditation published in 2000.


Travel, gardening, tennis, walking, and “meeting and talking with people” are the author’s favorite recreations. In 1942 Abrahams married Dorothy Pennington. Their marriage was dissolved in 1948. On June 1, 1948 he married Daphne Elizabeth Miller, an artist. They have three children, Anne, Aron, and Naomi.  He is a member of the Society of Authors and of the International PEN.  








1938 - Attended St. Peter's College in Johannesburg and the Teachers' Training College at Petersburg.
Song of the City (1943) F
Mine Boy (1946) F
Path of Thunder (1948) F
Wild Conquest (1951) F
A Wreath for Udomo (1956) F
A Night of Their Own (1965) F
This Island Now (1967) F
The View from Coyaba, Faber & Faber, 1985.
The Black Experience in the Twentieth Century: An Autobiography and Meditation, Indiana University Press, 2000. 

Last update : 03/05/2010

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