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June 19, 2021
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Peter Abrahams and his Ethiopian identity

Peter Abrahams (1919-2017), a South African-born writer of international reputation penned powerful works about the injustices of apartheid and institutionalized system of racial oppression. His early work Mine Boy (1946) was the first to depict “the dehumanizing effect of racism in South Africa on black and mixed-race people and was the first South African book written in English to win international acclaim”.

Mr. Abrahams was born March 19, 1919, in Vrededorp, near Johannesburg. His father was from Ethi­o­pia and his mother was of mixed French and African parentage, making their three children “colored,” according to South African racial classifications then in force.

In Tell Freedom (1954), a compelling memoir of his youth, Abrahams relates about his Ethiopian father, who settled in Johannesburg to work in the gold mines, and about his death when Peter was quite young, leaving the family destitute in “the worst slum in the world”. Excerpts.

My father came from Ethiopia. He was the son of landowners and slave-owners. He had seen much Europe before he came to South Africa. In after years, when my mother talked about him, she told wonderful stories of his adventures in strange parts of the world.

I recall a time when she made me recite, like a catechism, my father’s family tree. It went something like this: I am Peter Henry Abrahams Deras, son of James Henry Abrahamas Deras whose name at home was Karim Abdul, son of Ingedi (e) of Addis who was the son of somebody else who fought in some battle who was the son of somebody else, who was the son of somebody else who was with Menelik when he defeated the Italians….’It went on for a very long time. And the ‘Deras’ or ‘De Ras’ was the family title.

My mother was the widow of a Cape Malay (a product of the East Indies strain of the Colored community ) who had died the previous year and left her with two children. She was alone except for an elder sister, Margaret. My mother and her two children were living with her sister, Margaret, when she met the man from Ethiopia. Margaret was the fairer of the two sisters, fair enough to “pass.” Her husband was a Scot. He worked on the mines. They had a little girl with blond hair and blue eyes. They lived in 19th Street, Vrededorp. And there, in the street, the two brown children, my brother, and sister, played with their cousin, the little white girl with blonde hair and blue eyes.

To this street and this house came the Ethiopian. There, he wooed my mother. There, he won her. They married from that house. They found a house of their own further down the street. They made of it a home of love and laughter. From there they sent their boy and girl to the Colored School above Vrededorp. From there the Ethiopian went to work on the mines each morning. To that house, he returned at the end of each day. In that house, my sister, the third child in the family, was born. And there, early on the morning of 19th March 1919, I was born.

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