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E. R. Braithwaite: the incredible life of the author of ‘To Sir, with Love’

Updated: 3 days ago

Windrush Month 2024 'Celebrating the Caribbean pioneers of the 1940s & 1950s' - exploring the lives and stories of the the early Caribbean people who came to Britain after the 2WW.


Eustace Edward Ricardo (ER) Braithwaite was born in Queenstown, Georgetown in the then British colony of British Guiana (now Guyana). He was one of five children. Both his parents were graduates of Oxford University and he described growing up surrounded by education, achievement, and parental pride.


Braithwaite was a studious child who attended the prestigious Queen’s College in Guyana (a secondary school modelled on the English public school) and, in 1940, earned a BSc in Physics from The City College of New York. He then moved to Britain to study and suddenly saw the English in a new light.


“I couldn’t believe my eyes. White porters in the college. White waiters in the dining halls. Barmen. Servants. In far off British Guiana they were served,” said Braithwaite. “All the whites in British Guiana were in managerial positions. I never associated poverty with white persons.”

Then Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and England declared war. Braithwaite and his fellow students heard a new word on the radio “blitzkrieg.” London and other British cities were being heavily bombed, and Britain desperately needed manpower to help defend their cities. So, in October 1939, they lifted their ‘colour bar’ in the military and the RAF began recruiting Black aircrew.


Braithwaite initially joined the Cambridge University Air Squadron and learned how to fly, then signed on as an aircrew cadet with the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1940. He described his time in the RAF as one where he didn’t experience any discrimination based on his skin colour nor ethnicity.


“I was at one with everything. A part of everything. Black and different as blonde was different from red. The colour of my skin was no weight on my shoulders. I was proud in my skin, not defensive of it. There was a war on, and I was a warrior. War drew the people together.”

After the war, Braithwaite resumed his studies and graduated from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge in 1949 where he earned a master’s degree in physics. But despite his qualifications and experience – Braithwaite was a Spitfire pilot and had graduated top five in his class at Cambridge – he couldn’t find work as an engineer.


Nothing prepared him for the brick wall of institutionalised racism he faced.


His credentials got him in the door. But once a potential employer saw his skin colour, they made excuses. One man chatted with Braithwaite about his background, his time in the RAF, and his research at Cambridge. Braithwaite dared to hope. [1]


Then, “Mr Braithwaite, I’m sure my colleagues would wish me to say that we are deeply impressed with your qualifications and your obvious abilities. Were the circumstances different we would be only too happy to appoint you a member of our staff. But we have a problem. All our employees are British, and we would face the reality of their almost certain reluctance to work with and perhaps under a person of colour…” [1]


He experienced that scenario over and over again for nine months. Finally, after his umpteenth rejection, he found himself sitting on a park bench contemplating his future when an old man sat down next to him. He started feeding the ducks and mumbling. Braithwaite ignored him but the old man turned to him and said, ‘how people could be hurt by other people and things, but mostly themselves, and that hatred solved nothing.’ [1]


Braithwaite lost it and replied “Look, why don’t you shut up? You white people are all the same. All this philosophical drivel has no meaning because, in fact, you are white and when you look out on the world you see it in a certain way. For Black people like me it has to be different…” [1]


They then fell into a conversation in which, a despondent and almost defeated Braithwaite told him of his difficulties in finding work. Finally, the old man said, ‘Why don’t you try something else? A man like you, with your educational background, shouldn’t think that physics is the end of the world,” and told Braithwaite that London City Council was desperate for teachers, that they’d welcome someone with his credentials. [1]


Braithwaite called the council the next day and they offered him a teaching job immediately. Braithwaite reluctantly accepted the job as a schoolteacher at St George-in-the-East Central School (now the Mulberry House apartments) in the Wapping area of East End of London.


“Making plans on the half-realized dream of achievement as a physicist. Dreaming. Then the bitterness of seeing the dream whittled away, bit by bit, day by day, into weeks and months, until the only place on the whole arid horizon was a mangy schoolhouse beside a bomb-racked, rotting graveyard, and a smelly classroom with forty-six foul-mouthed youngsters. White, English youngsters.”

His teaching career formed the basis of his autobiographical novel ‘To Sir With Love (1959),’ which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. It was later adapted into the sentimental 1967 movie of the same name starring Sidney Poitier. Although the movie was a box-office success, Braithwaite hated it.


In the movie, Sidney Poitier played the well-educated, middle-class graduate forced to deal with casual racism, violence and antisocial behaviour by a group of disadvantaged pupils. Hardest to bear was the self-hatred the racism brought out in him and the low expectations of colleagues for their charges. [2]


While in contrast, the Braithwaite’s book was a gritty and unsentimental account of how he gradually turned his class around through a mix of affection and respect. It also revealed his love affair with a fellow teacher – controversial at the time because the other teacher was white. Braithwaite criticised the movie adaptation for downplaying the love affair. [2] “I detest the movie from the bottom of my heart,” he said in 2007. “I don’t like it because the movie is about the classroom, while my book is about my life.”


The book also contrasted his experience of race relations in Britain with those in the US, where he studied before joining the RAF. He wrote: “The rest of the world in general and Britain in particular are prone to point an angrily critical finger at American intolerance, forgetting that in its short history as a nation it has granted to its Negro citizens more opportunities for advancement and betterment, per capita, than any other nation in the world with an indigent Negro population.” [2]


To Sir, With Love has been hailed as a seminal work for immigrants from the colonies to postwar Britain. In an introduction, Caryl Phillips wrote: “The author is keen for us to understand that the Ricky Braithwaites of this world cannot, by themselves, uproot prejudice, but they can point to its existence. And this, after all, is the beginning of change; one must first identity the location of the problem before one can set about addressing it.” [2]


In 1958, after nine years of teaching, Braithwaite turned to social work. He founded foster homes for ethnic minority children for the London City Council and worked as a welfare consultant for immigrant families from the Caribbean. That work inspired his second book, Paid Servant: A Report About Welfare Work in London published in 1962. Braithwaite’s writings in both books explore his challenges as an educated Black man in a society with few places for such individuals. [3]


After social work, he moved to Paris in 1960 to work for the World Veterans Foundation as a human rights officer. In 1962, he transitioned into a diplomatic career, after the United Nations appointed him as a lecturer and education consultant to UNESCO in Paris. Five years later, he became Guyana's Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York from 1967 to 1969. He was elected to the presidency of the United Nations Council for South West Africa in 1968. Later, he served as Guyana’s ambassador to Venezuela.


In the 1960s, European colonies in Africa gained independence, and there was increasing pressure on South Africa to do the same with Namibia, which was then called South West Africa. When the International Court of Justice dismissed a complaint in 1966 from Ethiopia and Liberia about South Africa's continued presence in the territory, the UN General Assembly took over responsibility for Namibia and established a governing council for it. In response to international pressure, South Africa attempted to legitimize its control of Namibia by creating a commission to administer the territory under apartheid. Braithwaite was appointed as the president of the UN governing council and heard firsthand accounts of the suffering caused by apartheid from witnesses.


In 1973, a friend in Guyana sent him a clipping from the South African Official Gazette announcing that the ban on Braithwaite’s ‘To Sir, With Love’ book had been lifted. On an impulse, he called the South African Consul General and asked if this meant he could travel South Africa. To his surprise, he was granted a visa to the country as an ‘honorary white’ which gave him far more privileges than allowed for the Indigenous Black South African majority population. A situation which he found detestable. During his six weeks in South Africa, he recorded his experiences and the horrors he witnessed in his third book, Honorary White (1975).


In the early 1970s, Braithwaite retired from diplomatic work to move into academia. He taught English Studies at the universities of New York, Florida State and the renowned HBCU Howard University in Washington, where he also served as writer-in-residence. His last academic appointment was as a visiting professor at Manchester Community College in Connecticut during the 2005-6 academic year. He also served as the college’s commencement speaker for that year and received honorary degrees.


Throughout his incredible life, Braithwaite continued to write novels and short stories well into his 90s! His other books included A Kind of Homecoming (1962), about searching for his ancestral roots; Choice of Straws (1965), a mystery novel set in London; and his first children’s book, Billingsly: The Bear With the Crinkled Ear (2014).


In his book Reluctant Strangers (1972), which records the increasingly contentious conversation between Braithwaite and a white American businessman, who grudgingly took the last seat on a train next to him. As their conversation progresses, the American becomes more and more astonished by Braithwaite’s life story. “Evidently you’re an exceptional man,” he tells Braithwaite.


“Funny thing is that inside myself I don’t feel exceptional. There are lots like me, strong in themselves, feeling they can do things. But perhaps they’re not as lucky as me. They’re denied the freedom, the opportunity and the right to give expression to what they feel.”

Braithwaite was a remarkable man. He was a Black man that grew up under British colonial rule, he endured the prejudice and institutional racism of post-war Britain, but through his sheer tenacity he was able to live a long and varied life. He was a teacher, diplomat, professor, and social worker, all whilst writing 22 books – memoirs, novels, and academic texts.


When Braithwaite turned 100 in 2012, he went back to his native Guyana to serve as the patron of the Inter-Guiana Cultural Festival. He was also awarded the Cacique Crown of Honour by the then President Donald Ramotar.


The following year, at 101, Braithwaite returned to Britain to attend the first live performance of the stage version of To Sir, With Love.


Eustace Edward Ricardo Braithwaite died on December 12, 2016, at the Adventist Healthcare Shady Grove Medical Centre in Rockville, Maryland at the age of one hundred and four.

 

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