In the hills above Kingston, Jamaica Annie Paul unpacks some baggage in a rare interview with Peter Abrahams, the South African-born writer and ardent Pan-Africanist.
According to Nigerian critic Olu Oguibe, the South African-born novelist and essayist Peter Abrahams is “one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, though few people know it. Every school child of my generation in Nigeria (and English-speaking West Africa) had to read Abrahams’s Mine Boy.” Though few people know it, in the 1950s and 60s Abrahams was internationally celebrated – the first major African writer to be published in the mainstream British and American circuits. The Path of Thunder (1948) was on the New York Times bestseller list for a week before it was superseded by Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country. Numerous editions of his 1954 book, Tell Freedom, have been published all over the world.
An ardent Pan-Africanist, Abrahams was very much part of the Bandung generation and an intimate of Julius Nyerere, Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, George Padmore among other key players in the Non-Aligned Movement and the Pan-African movement. He was also friends with Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, James Baldwin and other literary luminaries, including the crème of French letters, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Nadine Gordimer credits Abrahams with blazing a trail for herself and other famous South Africans to follow.
In the early 1950s Peter Abrahams moved to Jamaica where he has lived ever since. He shifted his focus to mass media here and orchestrated the successful nationalisation of Radio Jamaica, previously British-owned and controlled. Radio Jamaica became a model that many other countries tried to copy – a national radio station whose ownership was mass-based rather than government-owned, allowing it to remain free of government interference.
Although at the age of 89 Abrahams is no longer directly involved in the public sphere, he remains a fiercely independent spirit completely up to date with new technologies and methods of communicating and thinking. His wife and companion of more than 60 years, Daphne Abrahams, 80, has been an invaluable partner in this extraordinary man’s life and career.
When I found myself at Peter Abrahams’s hilltop eyrie, I felt an immediate sense of accomplishment. I had been warned that Abrahams was resistant to interviews, that he actually did not agree to them anymore, arguing that he had said what he had to say in the dozen or more books he had produced during his considerable lifetime.
And sure enough, my two emails to him, introducing myself and asking if I could talk to him by email, phone or in person, had gone unanswered and I was beginning to despair when I discovered his responses languishing in my junk mailbox. Far from declining my request he had sent his phone number and asked me to call. Twice. I did so immediately and arranged to visit him the very next day, the only proviso being that I had to get there before 7am because he is an early riser.
I set off for Mt. Zion, near Rock Hall, in the hills above Kingston, to Coyaba, the home the Abrahamses built in the 1960s. To get there you have to climb a steep hill, where at one point all you can see through the windscreen is sky, as Christine Randle, who published Abrahams’ last book Coyaba Chronicles, had warned. No quick getaways from this place.
How do you behave with the dignity of the immortal when you know that you’re not?”
Peter was watching Al-Jazeera when I arrived. How on earth did he manage to get this station in Kingston, I asked? Repeated requests to my cable company to include Al-Jazeera in the packages they offer have been fruitless. Abrahams pointed wordlessly at his satellite dish, and the two boxes on his desk, one for receiving American and European channels and the other for Al-Jazeera and the news networks of the darker nations.
The Abrahamses arrived in Jamaica in 1955 after Peter was commissioned by Norman Manley, then the Premier and whom he had met in London, to come to Jamaica and write a book about it. Abrahams, an ardent anti-colonial and anti-imperialist campaigner at the time, was impressed when Manley told him not just to remain in ‘against’ mode all the time, but to try the ‘for’ mode sometime. Come to Jamaica, he urged, and help us build a new nation. Abrahams took Manley at his word.
On that Saturday morning I found Peter and Daphne in fine fettle, both of them embodying in their way of life the courage, tenderness, independence and self-determination held up in book after book by Abrahams as the human values to aspire to. The only thing he rued was the length of time it had taken him to get to this point of spiritual liberation.
Peter Abrahams: When I reflect on the fact that it took me a lifetime just to unshackle my own personal mind from the occupation of the British – because they made me think what they wanted – I mean Arthur Lewis, our brilliant Arthur Lewis proudly called himself an Afro-Saxon! Now that’s the ultimate occupation of your mind – when anybody can get you to think what they want you to think, to see them as they want you to see them, you’re occupied territory!
Annie Paul: But don’t you think Norman Manley was like that too? And Jawaharlal Nehru? That first generation of post-colonial leaders?
PA: Gandhi was not! When Nehru wrote The Discovery of India, he was going back into a pre-European or colonial past, and when you can do that – because in Africa the missionaries essentially wiped the slate clean and wrote, so you began where they wanted you to begin. This is the most pernicious thing – I mean I don’t want to go on to my pet thing, which is the arrogance, the monumental arrogance, that presumes that we control the earth.
It’s like saying I own my mother. We’re all into this thing, that the earth belongs to us, we can do whatever we want to it, we can segment it and we are little creatures on this earth. The earth is our mother. And the longer you operate on this wrong premise everything you do is fraudulent. You can’t start from a wrong premise and come out on the side of the truth.
We were nearer to the truth in tribal times, with the tribal attitude to nature, you couldn’t buy or sell the earth, because you can’t buy or sell your mother.
[I wanted to hear more about how Abrahams had escaped the occupation of the mind he described – a process more usually referred to as ‘decolonisation’ of the mind. As he put it “They occupied your mind and you really thought you were free when you weren’t free or you were free only on their terms.” How had he quite literally changed his mind? Several times Abrahams lamented the fact that it had taken him so long to realise that he could have been freed of this mindset and worldview long ago. It was the worldview of the conqueror, I suggested. “Yes, but where did these wretched conquerors get this ridiculous worldview and why,” he asked.]
AP: That’s an interesting question. Have you found the answer to it?
PA: NO. That is not MY problem. That is THEIR problem. My problem was how to UNSHACKLE; and the only thing I’m angry about is that it took me so long, which shows how deeply they had entrenched this fraudulent view of the nature of things in me. The nature of things is not as they say it is – just one god up there, who decrees everything. We do not own the earth. The earth owns us.
To say that makes me equal with any animal on this earth. I have a special relationship with trees and birds and bees and all creatures, but I am not in control of them. And if I cannot learn to live with them I will not survive for long because Nature has its own rules and it’s much more important to learn how to live with them.
If we cannot live by the natural rules of Nature then we’re redundant, and like other species who have been wiped out at other periods we will be wiped out. It’s a matter of time.
Now, it’s taken me so long to get there… why? Because of this obstructionist Western civilisation. I think if I’d been left alone to evolve, in my own way, primitive, backward, everything else you want to call it, I wouldn’t have gone on this wrong path.
AP: Hmmmm, but then you wouldn’t have come to Jamaica…
PA: No, but then there wouldn’t have been any need for me, or anybody else, to be transported to Jamaica as slaves in order to work plantations.
AP: But do you think migration is a good thing on the whole?
PA: Migration is neither good nor bad, it’s a natural thing in the scheme of things – birds, fish, everything migrate in that way. And we all own nothing, because we’re all owned by Mother Earth. Now, I’m angry, I should’ve known this 50 years earlier, I would’ve been so much more useful. I would’ve had another 30 years of useful research and study to indulge in rather than dismantling. We’ve been so encumbered by this, I get impatient and angry at the bloody Western civilisation that has given me so much bad baggage and taken away so much good baggage.
AP: On the other hand you do talk about how English although a colonial language was a big facilitator…
PA: Well, given the situation in which we are, if we weren’t in that situation, if we were in a normal – whatever normal is – situation we wouldn’t have had the need for it. Just as you wouldn’t have had famines necessarily.
PA: Look back and see how pre-European families, managed to remain relatively small you know…
AP: Yes, but then on the other hand, I’m thinking of India now, when you look at our traditions, some of them were pretty tyrannical, especially towards women…
PA: No, if you go back further than the Raj or further than them, go back beyond the time of Genghis Khan, what did we have on the earth?
AP: I think that if we did do that we’d find that women were being oppressed in the name of the family…
PA: That’s just the Jesus myth. About Adam and Eve, that Eve corrupted Adam…
AP: But we didn’t have the Jesus myth in India in those times…
PA: Just say to yourself, if the past were not what we say it is, what would it have been? I can’t answer that but having unshackled myself enough to know that there is a past where the relationship between the nomads who came on the scene out of Africa and out of Asia, and the earth was different, totally different from the one we understand today. Now suppose we had taken a different path maybe we wouldn’t be awaiting Armageddon as we are now. We’re ALL waiting for the end – these… what do we call these damned stupid Christians… the end of timers? Their prophecies are all wrong.
AP: So you’re not a religious man?
PA: I’m a very religious man, but I’m a religious man in a very complex construct. Where did it come from? Is it an accident? If it’s an accident, it’s the most beautiful accident EVER but something has to cause the accident. The nature of things makes one religious – not the white-bearded guy in the sky but a divine force that created. I’m religious in that sense.
AP: Did you come to Jamaica in search of a place where you and Daphne could live as an interracial couple without problems? Had Norman Manley portrayed Jamaica as a multiracial paradise?
PA: Langston Hughes said “I’m looking for a place in the world/ where the white shadows will not fall.” And his own answer was: “There’s no such place dark brother, there’s no such place.” But Manley said Jamaica was a possibility.
AP: Isn’t it a myth though that Jamaica is a racial paradise? Even today it’s a place where light skin is valued above dark skin to the extent that people are bleaching themselves as a result.
PA: And yet it is a microcosm of the relations between the lighter and the darker races of man, it is a suggestion of what is possible. In that sense it is still…when people seem to come to terms with the nonsense of colour they become nicer people. But in terms of this racial thing which is not of our creation, though that doesn’t make us virtuous – when it comes to that… the accommodating nature of Jamaica… in other words the stranger can come in, and if the stranger behaves himself, he can become accepted. I’m a Jamaican, in fact, because the people of Jamaica are so accommodating.
AP: I’m thinking that, yes, they are accommodating but there is one sort of stranger that they’re not at all accommodating toward and that’s the homosexual, whom they regard as a stranger. How do you view this problem? Because this also seems to be a widespread problem in some African countries where there’s this intense hostility toward homosexuals. How do you explain what’s happening in places like Uganda?
PA: This is a peripheral question. It shields other more serious problems. You see what happens in the bedroom is not really supposed to be a big social problem. What happens in the bedroom is between two people. In the animal kingdom homosexuality is so commonplace it seems to be natural. And our attitudes to it are the outcome of our own social problems. Why does it happen in nature? Because they’re lesser animals? What bullshit! This is like I own my Mother… the same argument.
AP: Are you following the current xenophobic attacks in South Africa?
PA: In South Africa itself you have these tribal animosities in the mines – the abnormality – it is an abnormal situation to have men from all over the place move away from their women in order to work in the mines. I come from this region, he comes from that region, and the whites, the mine owners in those days, encouraged this: you know the old divide and rule separatism – you’re a Zulu, you’re a Xhosa, you’re a Pedi whatever your tribe is, they encouraged these animosities and periodically we had eruptions. When I was a boy in Johannesburg we had this terrible eruption in which I think the Xhosa set about attacking another tribe and they chased each other from the mines all the way up to the slums of Johannesburg – with these… Buthelezi’s cultural weapons – like the knobkerrie, that piece of wood with a knob at one end, it’s a deadly weapon.
We’ve had these eruptions a long, long time and the apartheid government was encouraging it, not overtly but covertly so that you have your Bantustans – one nation of Zulus, another nation of Xhosas, other nations of Sotho’s, Pedi’s, whatever tribe, so that we would be numerically fragmented. You see part of the struggle was a numbers game and the whites were forever trying to turn themselves into a majority and this is a reflection of this mentality: when I don’t have a job, and you come from outside and take my job, am I supposed to love it?
It’s happened before. The only place where it was curbed, controlled from the top, was Nyerere’s country, Tanzania, where it was policy from the very beginning, which makes him one of my favourite Africans of all time. He just wiped out tribalism and told his people why.
AP: But how do you wipe out tribalism?
PA: He said we are all one people, he taught them – he was a teacher. He taught them from the very beginning we are all one people, we don’t recognize tribe… and when your teacher tells you that, you take it, and this teacher was also a national leader. So this is what makes Nyerere so very special – special in the same way that when the ANC didn’t have much resources Nyerere funded [the organisation] in exile. In Tanzania he set up a radio station for them, oh he did much more than could have been expected.
[Abrahams thought the Rastafarians of Jamaica could sue their government for being systematically discriminated against and brutalised in the 1950s and 1960s along the lines that the descendants of the Mau Mau were suing the UK government for the atrocities meted out to them.]
AP: Were you here when Haile Selassie visited Jamaica?
AP: You don’t mention it at all in the Coyaba Chronicles.
PA: No, it’s not worth it.
PA: The old crook, the thief, he stole so much. Aaaargh. You see my father came from Ethiopia – I get bad vibes about these people who until recently swore that THEY were not black. So if you’re not black then I don’t recognise you because I don’t know what else you are. Oh I met the old character. Oh yes, they made sure that I did. So we stared at each other, and there was recognition and he said nothing, so I said nothing – so he said nothing, so I said nothing. And then I moved on.
AP: Are there any photos of these events? Of your meeting and so on?
PA: Daphne kept some, I didn’t. I’m not very interested and that’s the truth. I’m not really interested in myself. I am interested in the struggle of the people and once the South African thing was over I lost the intense interest I had for the South African struggle. Because now they’re on their own terms. But it is the overall – you know, the generation I belong to, I’m in part of the generation that cared about humanity, the human condition and the fate of man – are we really destined just to [makes whooshing sound and sweeps hands] like the dinosaurs when there is a climactic change? Leaving nothing around and if that is so, then how do you behave with the dignity of the immortal when you know that you’re not?
This was one of the things that Bertrand Russell came up with – to know that you are no more important than a grain of sand and still behave as though you’re an immortal person? With dignity, with charity, with love, compassion – otherwise everything is meaningless and Russell had to unshackle a lot of things to get there. So this is not a racist thing, I’m not saying this is a case of only the black, I think that this is a case of what is the best that is possible in humanity. How do we retrieve, or retain the best qualities in human existence, so that we won’t be remembered only, if at all, like… there were dinosaurs once, there were humans once…
AP: What are your views on the so-called Al Quaeda network and so on? I came in and found you watching Al-Jazeera so you’re clearly abreast of what’s going on.
PA: Bin Laden, you see, has made his contribution. You see when an idea takes root and the idea that the Arab people have a right to run their own affairs has been so obliterated for so long and then you see, the Nasserite revolution it was a revolution for kings and potentates and dictators, but the idea that the Arab people have a right to decide – Bin Laden contributed to that, as well as books and poetry in Arabic that we don’t listen to or read or care about. This has been brewing for a long time, and Bin Laden injected the Jihad into this political thing and when the time came you had the beginning of this still-running Arab revolution, what Al-Jazeera calls the Arab awakening.
Well this is going to go on for the next 10 years. They won’t admit that Bin Laden had anything to do with it, because he wasn’t directly involved, but how do you know how an idea works? The people who walked with Jesus Christ – did they think the thing was going to end where it is with some goddamned German in Rome being the Holy Father? But the idea – now only a better idea – can replace that and for the moment there is no better idea than the Arab reawakening. The Americans as is usual for them are trying to manipulate it.
AP: Do you foresee Obama’s Presidency as some sort of triumph of racial transcendence?
PA: No, it’s simply a triumph for the American military industrial complex’s ability to adapt. They can now take over a black and transform him into a part of the American military industrial complex, the people who control America. He is now part of that. They’ll allow him certain progressive things but he’s their man, the moment you’re elected to that position you become a prisoner of it or if you’re not an acceptable prisoner they’ll wipe you out, they’ve done it with the Kennedys. Getting rid of Obama is no problem – as long as he’s useful to them they’ll keep him.
Annie Paul is a writer and critic based in Kingston. She is Associate Editor of Small Axe and one of the founding editors of the Caribbean Review of Books. This interview first appeared in print in Chimurenga Vol. 16: The Chimurenga Chronic (available here).
Set in the week 18-24 May 2008, the Chronic, imagines the newspaper as a producer of time – a time-machine – which travels backwards and forwards, to place these events within a broader context and thereby to challenge the logic of emergencies and immediate needs that characterise contemporary African media.Buy the Chronic