Ezekiel Mphahlele (1919-2008), writer, philosopher, educator, activist, and exile is considered the Father of African Humanism. In 1977 he changed his name to Es’kia Mphahlele, so you many encounter his books with either name. His earlier autobiography (he wrote two), Down Second Avenue, is this post’s focus. But we will return to his short stories at other opportunities. His writings are especially noted as a bridge between African and Western literature.
Down Second Avenue was published in 1959, ten years after Cry, the Beloved Country, and thirty years before Kaffir Boy. His early memories of a father who beat his mother, long hours of work (he hauled laundry from white sectors for his granny to wash), and the constant fear of thugs and witchcraft corroborates the horrors which Mathabane recounts, but without the intense anger and bitterness. This may be because Mathabane was writing in his twenties and Mphahlele in his forties. His book is the more powerful for its restraint and the choice to reflect on fact rather than rely on raw emotion to communicate.
Second Avenue was where his mother took her children to live when she fled her abusive husband. Es’kia was twelve and recalls the transition from rural to slum in vivid detail, but as a learner, not a victim. He did not begin studying regularly until he was 15, but his love of learning drove him to an eventual PhD and many international awards.
His early accounts are sprinkled with humor, which balance the suffering of his life:
In the country it spelt heavy rains. And goats are impossible creatures to manage when it rains. The goats panicked and dashed about madly as if a huge flea had come among them. How often I cried aloud chasing the goats. If I caught one I belaboured the creature with a stick so that it yelled to the heavens for help. (p 27)
One of Mphahlele’s recurring themes is maintaining African culture while integrating positive elements of the West. He advocated that we “know our Africa intimately, even while we turn into the world at large.” (His position on this is different from Mathabane’s, who was outspoken in his rejection of any form of superstition.)
What I do know is that about eight out of every ten Africans, most of whom are also professed Christians, still believe firmly in the spirits of their ancestors. We don’t speak to one another about it among the educated. But when we seek moral guidance and inspiration and hope, somewhere in the recesses of our being, we grope around for some link with those spirits. (p 64)
Mphahlele recognized the inadequacy of the Christian veneer as he gradually awoke to the underlying, unBiblical injustice of the very people who claim to teach it. While he discovered ways to grow personally and spiritually, the many stories of black people disadvantaged by a system that had no interest in justice and used the Bible to defend injustice, he had an epiphany:
For years I have been told by white and Black preachers to love my neighbour; love him when there’s a bunch of whites who reckon they are Israelites come out of Egypt in obedience to God’s order to come and civilize heathens; a bunch of whites who feed on the symbolism of God’s race venturing into the desert of the ungodly. For years now I have been thinking it was all right for me to feel spiritually strong after a church service. And now I find it is not the kind of strength that answers the demand of suffering humanity around me. It doesn’t even seem to answer the longings of my own heart.” (p 178)
Without rancor, he peels away the façade covering the sad fact that the church and many missionaries colluded with a perverted world view which held a government in thrall. He gives recognition to Trevor Huddleston, a lone Anglican who stood aloof from the “white man’s total disregard of justice and other human values.”
A product of Bantu Education, Mphahlele identified it as a tool of oppression and acknowledged the significance of the Johannesburg Anglican Diocese which did the honourable and courageous thing: close down its schools rather than perpetrate a travesty.
Mphahlele also turned internally to the deep and emotional issues of living under apartheid. He verbalizes the futility of bitterness in this succinct metaphor:
I knew then what I had been looking for: a fatally beautiful lady called bitterness. I knew that I wanted to love her, caress her, kiss her; but not, in Swinburnian fashion, to be bitten to death by her. Only if I chased after her and loved her, could I strangle her. I could hang her up to dry and show her up to the mockery of the elements. (p 186)
Es’kia Mphahlele is a wealth of thoughtful, provoking challenges. He lived before apartheid was enacted, throughout its course, and lived to see it abolished after returning from exile to his beloved South Africa. He lived to encourage understanding and humanism, Ubuntu, among South Africans. We are the richer for his heritage.