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...
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