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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Author of To Sir, With Love dies at 104

To Sir, With Love author ER Braithwaite dies aged 104

Author whose autobiographical novel dramatising his time as a black teacher
in east London in the 50s had a career that took in social work and
diplomacy as well as writing

Danuta Kean

Wednesday 14 December 2016 11.55 GMT

ER Braithwaite, the Guyanese author of To Sir, With Love, has died at his
home in Maryland at the age of 104.

Born in Guyana on 27 June 1912, Eustace Edward Ricardo Braithwaite was the
child of privileged parents, both graduates of Oxford University. His father
was a diamond miner while his mother raised the family. During the second
world war, he joined the Royal Air Force to fight as a pilot before going on
to Cambridge to read physics. He later said that he experienced no racial
prejudice within the RAF.

On graduating, he found himself barred from work as an engineer because of
racism. Unable to find an alternative, he took a job as a teacher at St
George-in-the-East school in London¹s East End, which was recovering from
the battering it had taken during the war. This experience formed the basis
of his autobiographical novel To Sir With Love, his 1959 book later adapted
into a film of the same name starring Sidney Poitier.

At the school, renamed Greenslade School in the film, the well-educated
middle class graduate was confronted 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.

Gritty and unsentimental, the book shows Braithwaite gradually turning 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. When the film adaptation was made in 1967,
Braithwaite criticised it, saying the love affair had been downplayed.

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: ³The
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: ³The
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

After teaching, Braithwaite moved to social work, finding foster homes for
children of colour. This formed the basis of for his 1962 book Paid Servant:
A Report About Welfare Work in London. He went on to write a further nine
books, a mix of novels, short-story collections and memoir.

A visit to apartheid South Africa in 1973, following the country lifting its
ban on To Sir, With Love, resulted in Honorary White (1975). The title was a
reference to his visa status, which granted significantly more privileges
than enjoyed by the native black population. The book had a mixed reception:
one critic described it as too soft on the apartheid regime, too hard on the
oppressed black population and too focused on the author.

After his social work, he moved to Paris to work for the World Veterans
Association, before transferring to Unesco and a diplomatic career that took
in posts as permanent representative of Guyana to the UN and Guyana¹s
ambassador to Venezuela.

From diplomacy, he moved into academia, teaching at the universities of New
York, Florida State and Howard in Washington, where he also served as

When asked in 2013 whether he had stayed in touch with students from the
London school, he admitted he had not, telling the Coffee Table blog: ³I
don¹t know if I changed any lives or not, but something did happen between
them and me, which was quite gratifying.²

Braithwaite¹s companion, Genevieve Ast, confirmed his death on Tuesday. He
died a day after being admitted to a medical centre in Rockville, Maryland.

© Guardian 2016

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