Academic journal article Critical Arts

An Interview with Peter Abrahams: Custodian and Conscience of the Pan-African Movement

Academic journal article Critical Arts

An Interview with Peter Abrahams: Custodian and Conscience of the Pan-African Movement

Article excerpt


This article seeks to document aspects of the life and philosophy of Peter Abrahams, a significant figure of the Pan-African movement since the 1940s. It contains a general overview providing readers with the South African writer's background, exposing his political contributions to the movement in Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. The centrepiece of the article is the presentation of an interview with Abrahams conducted by the author on 20 July 2004 at Abrahams' home, Coyaba, in the hills of St. Andrew, Jamaica, where he lives with his wife Daphne. The interview, which was released to mark Abrahams' 90th birthday in 2008, documents his distinctive insights on a Pan-African movement in which he played a leading, if now under-appreciated role. This article assembles the life story and reflections of an icon, elucidating his worldview and perspectives on momentous occurrences in the processes of African and Caribbean decolonisation. Abrahams' continuing role is as the political 'conscience' of the movement, given creative expression through his works as a literary icon. His analyses and the rich dialogue shared with the author contribute to a deeper understanding of the forces that fashioned the African and Caribbean struggle against colonialism and for political independence in the two regions.

Keywords: Caribbean literature, Jamaican broadcaster, Pan-Africanism, Pan-Africanist literature, Peter Abrahams, South African history


In Elinor Sisulu's 2003 book, titled Walter and Albertina Sisulu: in our lifetime, she quotes her father-in-law, the South African liberation hero Walter Sisulu, as recalling his constant contact with a South African co-activist called Peter Abrahams in 1953, while they were both in London. There, they interacted with such other political activists as Jomo Kenyatta, Seretse Khama, Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere and Kwame Nkrumah. Those names now resonate as leaders of the iconic generation of anti-colonial, Pan-African activists who led their respective African countries to political independence.

Abrahams took a different journey: political philosopher, multi-published novelist, social critic and conscience of the Pan-African movement, he has been the recipient of a wide range of international honours and awards. Among them is the prestigious Order of Jamaica, recognising his 'outstanding distinction' in the field of literature. In 2008, the government of South Africa, in its national honours list, honoured Abrahams with the title Companion of the Order of Ikhamanga, a high and distinguished accolade, on the eve of his 90th birthday.

However, despite a lifetime of transformational and intellectual leadership, precious little is known of his Pan-African contributions--especially by successive, emerging generations of scholars and leaders who now walk the very corridors paved by his insights, sacrifices and achievement (see Dunn 2009).

His battlefield emerged almost from birth in 1919, in the inner-city slums of Vrededorp, near Johannesburg in South Africa. He fled into exile as a young man in 1939, following incarceration and a trumped-up treason charge. His method of escape was to take a job on a merchant ship, spending two treacherous years at sea at the height of World War II. Still surviving enemy attacks, Abrahams landed on the challenging racial and political frontlines of Britain of the early 1940s, where he joined the burgeoning anti-colonial and Pan-African Movement, already under the leadership of such Caribbean activists as George Padmore and, earlier, Marcus Garvey.

By 1945, Abrahams had established himself as a leading member of the community of activists in London who were drawn from a wide cross-section of colonised and oppressed peoples, represented in the heart of a British empire already in decline. He played an important role, alongside Padmore, American intellectual and activist W. …

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