A Cursory Review of Peter Abrahams’ Tell Freedom
Peter Abrahams’s Tell Freedom is an autobiography that narrates the author’s experiences in apartheid South Africa. Peter, also Lee, tells his personal story, the story of his family, and of the communities in the streets where he lives at different times, under the spell of apartheid. The narration, Tell Freedom, reveals the different ways and manners in which the diverse South African races – generally, the blacks, the coloureds, the Indians, and of course the Europeans (whites) – are affected by the segregationist South African government policy. It shows the sufferings of the non-European population, as well as the few important redeeming spots amidst the colonial oppression. There are the handful sensitive and sensible Europeans; and there are the very few non-whites who are highly successful. The optimism and Christian faith of the majority non-white masses amidst the apartheid ordeal are underscored. In addition, a short revision of historical roots of the European colonialism in the country, South Africa, is included in the narration.
In Vrededorp, after the early death of his Ethiopian father and his mother finds it difficult to care for Lee’s sick older sister, Natalie, the three-year-old boy is taken away to Elsburg by Auntie Liza to stay with her for a while. When he is seven, Lee is taken back to live with his mother, Angelina. Angelina at a point cannot afford their narrow and dark two-roomed apartment rent, and she moves with Lee and Auntie Bettie, an older aunt, to lower Vrededorp, the 15th Street. There they live for a short while in an old drover’s, also an un-electrified two-roomed house.
Lee has lived running minor errands, and as a street child, getting involved in stealing coals, stealing from Indian traders’ stalls and begging together with a notorious little gang of boys.
Lee has to go and stay with Auntie Mattie, her mother’s elder sister, in Upper Vrededorp, the 21st Street: Angelina relocates to Grandma Pietersen’s residence in Upper Krugersdorp, the town where Angelina actually works at a restaurant. Both Harry and Maggie, Lee’s half brother and sister respectively, have lived with Aunt Mattie, her daughter, Catherine, and her servant, Danny. , Unable to pay her rent, Auntie Maggie also moves the household to Lower Vrededorp, the 16th Street. Catherine marries Jacob Loff. Similarly, Maggie moves with her fiancé, Chris Fortune, to City and Suburban. When Auntie Mattie is arrested on her illegal liquor, skookian trade, and jailed for two weeks, Peter comes over to Maggie’s place in City and Suburban.
Peter has worked for Auntie Mattie, selling firewood in the Vrededorp neighbourhood and the neighbouring towns, including Fordsburg, the whites’ quarters. Peter has also worked at a smithy collecting tins for three shillings a week. He is registered in a poorly equipped Vrededorp school by a kind Jewess, Sarah, the secretary at the smithy. Peter can now read and write well in the English language. The fourteen-year-old boy now has enlightened aspirations.
Subsequently, in City and Suburban, Peter sells newspapers and carries bags at the market. He works at a hotel but is stopped by Maggie after two weeks, because of his deteriorating health. An educated man at the market finds out about Peter’s literacy and connects him with Peter Dabula, director of the Bantu Men’s Social Centre. Peter’s education improves at the centre, working as a typist office boy. He goes ahead and schools at the missionary Diocesan Training College, in Grace Dieu. Thereafter, Peter comes to Johannesburg, works at the University’s Race Relations Institute and, simultaneously, studies at the nearby St Peter’s Secondary School. His literary interest having become cultivated, Peter now writes notable poems for The Bantu World newspaper; he has intellectual friends among the university Marxists which include Europeans. In 1938, his 19th year, Peter stops at St Peter.
Linked with Goolam Gool, a Coloured Marxist and wealthy doctor, in Cape Town, Peter learns more about South African nationalist movements. He teaches without a salary the very poor folks of Cape Flats. But for health reasons, he leaves and embarks on his plan to go to England. He fails to secure a passport because of his pedigree. Determined, he travels to Durban in a three-month journey, trekking and boarding vehicles in parts. Ultimately, a police sergeant in Durban recognizes the popular Coloured poet and helps Peter join a ship crew to go England.
Tell Freedom has a linear chronological plot. Plot devices such as digressions, suspense and premonition are absent, but there are minor flashbacks in the narration. Divided into three books, the first is about Peter’s early childhood, teen years and his earliest exposure to elementary education. Peter starts his adolescent life in City and Suburban, a place where his intellectual rebirth begins, in Book Two. Peter becomes independent in Book Three, leaving studies in Johannesburg and venturing into his world. As consciously portraying a socio-historical milieu, the narration is laden with sensitive descriptions of individuals, peoples and places, accomplished with simple diction. The syntax of Tell Freedom is loose and terse (point-direct); and figurative language is not prominent in the narration. In addition, the panoramic perspective richly compensates for the narrower or limited first-person narrative technique, yielding an objective and persuasive story.
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