Edward Ricardo Braithwaite was born in 1920 in the former British Colony of Guiana (now independent Guyana.) Both his parents were middle-class Caribbean intellectuals and were educated at Oxford. Braithwaite attended an elite school in British Guiana and then studied engineering in New York. In 1939 he went to England for post-graduate study and volunteered for service with the Royal Air Force in 1940.
To Sir With Love opens after the end of WWII and the author’s demobilisation. At this time Britain had an urgent need for people with an electronic background and Braithwaite was confident he would find work in this area. However, after a string of employers rejected his application for work purely because of the colour of his skin, he became bitter and disillusioned.
As a boy he had grown up British in every way and it was without hesitation that he signed up with the R.A.F. and was ready to lay down his life for the preservation of the ‘British Way of Life.’ As a West Indian Colonial, his ties to Britain were strong but the reality was that ‘it is wonderful to be British – until one comes to Britain.’
‘I am a Negro…I had believed in freedom, in the freedom to live in the kind of dwelling I wanted, providing I was able and willing to pay the price; and in the freedom to work at the kind of profession for which I was qualified, without reference to my racial or religious origins…’
It was very interesting to read his comparison of prejudice in the USA to that of what he experienced in Britain.
‘I reflected on my life in the U.S.A. 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 fervour, using every constitutional device available to him…In Britain I found things to be very different. I have yet to meet a single English person who has actually admitted to anti-Negro prejudice; it is generally believed that no such thing exists here…The betrayal I now felt was greater because it had been perpetrated with the greatest of charm and courtesy.’
In many respects the war had been an equaliser. Communal fear and terror had promoted communal virtues but now that the war was over and economic recovery was taking place, those virtues were dissipating. After eighteen months without work Braithwaite became bitter and disillusioned, a state he described as a cancerous condition, but a chance encounter with a kindly, wise, older man in a London park changed the course of his life. The elderly man struck up a conversation with the reluctant, truculent younger man and in the end encouraged him to take up teaching. Braithwaite did so and his experience in a school in the slums of the East End of London makes up the substance of his book.
This passage reminded me so much of Charlotte Mason’s ideas of education and her belief that every child should have a liberal education, regardless of their background and capabilities:
‘Assembly was a simple affair without religious bias or emphasis. It began with a hymn and prayer in which every child joined…the invocation for guidance, courage and Divine help was for each and all. After prayer the Head read a poem, La Belle Dame Sans Merci. The records which followed were Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu and part of Vivaldi’s Concerto in C for two trumpets.
They listened, those rough looking, untidy children; every one of them sat still, unmoving and attentive, until the very echo of the last clear note had died away…they were listening, actively, attentively listening to those records…their bodies were still, but I could feel that their minds and spirits were involved with the music.’
To Sir With Love is an inspiring and articulate true account of a man who rose above bitterness, dealt with his own arrogance and prejudice, and enabled a bunch of feral teenagers to embark on adult life with dignity and hope. A book well worth reading and a great story for a future (or present) teacher to immerse themselves in.