Renowned Caribbean writer dies at 104

- Advertisement -

The New York Times is reporting that E. R. Braithwaite, a Guyanese author, diplomat and former Royal Air Force pilot whose book “To Sir, With Love,” a memoir of teaching in London’s deprived East End, was adapted into a hit 1967 film starring Sidney Poitier, died on Monday in Rockville, Md. He was 104.

Mr. Braithwaite’s companion, Genevieve Ast, confirmed his death to The Associated Press. He had taught English at Howard University, in Washington, and lived in the area for many years.

Mr. Braithwaite, who became a diplomat and represented Guyana at the United Nations and in Venezuela, wrote several books, many about racism in countries like South Africa and the United States, where he lived much of his life. But he is best known for “To Sir, With Love” (1959).

The book chronicled his efforts — as a courtly, Cambridge-educated military veteran who had been denied employment as an engineer because he was black — to motivate a group of unruly adolescents raised in a slum in early-1950s Britain, which was still slowly recovering from the austerity of the war years.

The students’ antisocial behavior, casual racism, penchant for violence and, worst of all, self-hatred horrify the new teacher, whose colleagues expect little of the pupils.

He takes them to museums and tells them about his childhood. Slowly, he gains their trust by showing respect and affection, which, for most of the students, have been in short supply. (The title of the book comes from an inscription his appreciative students wrote on a pack of cigarettes they gave him.) He also develops romantic feelings for another teacher, who, like the students, is white.

The memoir was praised for offering a sympathetic account of race and class without naïveté or excessive sentimentality.

Early in the book, Mr. Braithwaite recounts his disillusionment and struggles with joblessness after being passed over for work because of racial discrimination, contrasting his experiences in Britain with the years he had spent in the United States.

He wrote of America: “There, when prejudice is felt, it is open, obvious, blatant; the white man makes his position very clear, and the black man fights those prejudices with equal openness and fervor, using every constitutional device available to him.”

He added: “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.”

The book was timely, arriving as a wave of migration from the West Indies and South Asia began to transform British society, and as Americans were grappling with persistent segregation. That Mr. Braithwaite, a well-educated middle-class man from the colonies, was trying in the capital of the British Empire to look past the squalor and despair of the school, was not lost on critics.

“His job as an emissary of civilization was made almost impossibly hard by the fact that the English people he dealt with still believed in their own civilization and disbelieved in his,” the British poet and novelist John Wain wrote in a review of the memoir in The New York Times. “In fact, the urban industrialized world they lived in had long since robbed them of a natural way of life, plunged them into violence and hatred and robbed them of anything fit to be called a civilization.”

The movie, directed by the novelist and filmmaker James Clavell, was a box-office success, largely because of its star, Mr. Poitier, whose character is named Thackeray in the movie. (The theme song, sung by Lulu, also helped; it became a No. 1 hit.) But, perhaps to appeal to an American audience, it focused less on race.

“It is as discreetly played down as are many other probable tensions in this school,” the critic Bosley Crowther wrote in his review for The Times.

“When I saw the film, I was not impressed,” Mr. Braithwaite said in a 2013 interview with Coffee-Table Notes, a blog. “Something had been lost in the transition from book to film.”

In an essay, the novelist and playwright Caryl Phillips, who was born on St. Kitts and teaches at Yalewrote that the memoir put the plight of Britain’s postwar migrants in context, showing how “unquestioned hereditary prejudice was waiting to greet them in the streets, in the workplace and in institutions of learning.”

Eustace Edward Ricardo Braithwaite was born on June 27, 1912, in Georgetown, the capital of what was then British Guiana.

He studied at Queen’s College, Guyana, a prestigious high school, and at the City College of New York. He moved to Britain after working at an oil refinery in Aruba, off the coast of Venezuela. In 1940 he volunteered for service in the Royal Air Force.

He received a master’s degree in physics from Cambridge University in 1949. After leaving his teaching job, he worked with Caribbean immigrant families in London, the basis for his second book, “Paid Servant: A Report About Welfare Work in London,” published in Britain in 1962.

Mr. Braithwaite’s other books include “A Kind of Homecoming” (1962), about searching for his ancestral roots; “Choice of Straws” (1965), a mystery novel set in London; “Reluctant Neighbors” (1972), about a black man and a white man who share a short but fraught train ride; and “‘Honorary White’: A Visit to South Africa” (1975), based on a 1973 visit he made there to lecture.

Not all of his books were acclaimed. The scholar and critic Es’kia Mphahlelereviewing the South Africa book for The Times in 1975, said that Mr. Braithwaite had been too generous to the whites who sat atop the apartheid system, too hard on the impoverished blacks he encountered and too focused on himself.

“It is rather Braithwaite the man who holds our attention — Braithwaite man of the world and black man, who is outraged by the squalor and the injustice staring him in the face, driven to search for answers to his own dilemma as an Honorary White who must speak to impoverished blacks from a position of luxury and freedom,” Mr. Mphahlele wrote.

Along with his writing, Mr. Braithwaite had a record of public service. From 1960 to 1963, he was a human-rights officer at the World Veterans Federation, based in Paris; from 1963 to 1966, he was a lecturer and education consultant at Unesco, also in Paris.

From 1967 to 1969, he served as the first permanent representative of Guyana to the United Nations. He was later the country’s ambassador to Venezuela.

In addition to Howard, he taught at New York University and Florida State University, among other institutions. There was no immediate information on his survivors.

Mr. Braithwaite did not stay in touch with his London students, but was often asked about them.

“I don’t know if I changed any lives or not,’’ he said in the 2013 interview. “But something did happen between them and me, which was quite gratifying.”

- Advertisement -


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

11 + nine =