By any standards Guyana born E.R. Braithwaite’s accomplishments during the course of his 104 year life time were considerable. By turns an educator, diplomat, social worker and Royal Air Force pilot, his most notable accolade came with the publication of the 1959 autobiographical novel “To Sir, with Love,” which later became a major motion picture starring Sidney Poitier. The author and Cambridge University graduate died on Dec. 12, in Rockville, Md., of cardiac related disorders.
Born in 1912, in what was then British Guiana on the northern coast of South America, Braithwaite was shaped by the rigorous educational foundation (modeled on the Edwardian “public” English school system) he’d received in his native land. This later impacted the teaching methods he utilized in his fateful career in the 1950s, instructing semi-literate White students in the working class section of London, England. By 1940 he’d migrated, first to New York City where he studied at that metropolis’s city college in the bough of Manhattan, then on to the United Kingdom with the out break of World War II.
During that conflict he served as a pilot in the R.A.F. (an experience he later recalled being remarkably free of discrimination). Mustering out with the armistice, he enrolled at Cambridge where he earned both a Bachelor’s and Doctoral degree in physics. These academic achievements however, did not translate into gainful employment, and this learned man eventually settled for a posting at a secondary school in London’s East End, where he served from 1950 to 1957.
He later recalled his place of employment as “…a mangy schoolhouse beside a bomb-racked, rotting graveyard, and a smelly classroom with forty-six foul-mouthed youngsters.”
Initially rebuffed by his charges due to their issues with authority and race, Braithwaite eventually won them over with a credo of mutual respect, and by exposing them to the outside world, via outings to museums and the like. Moving on to social work within the foster care system, he found time to write about his experiences resulting in his first of five novels, which set him on the literary map in 1957, as his publishing debut went on to be translated into 25 languages, and a certified bestseller. He then transitioned to the international arena as a human rights advocate, educational consultant, and by 1966 an Untied Nations representative for the newly independent state of Guyana.
The movie version of “To Sir with Love” did not impress its author, possibly because director James Cavell sanitized the story to appeal to cinema-goers, transitioning it from the 1950s to the “swinging 60s” then in vogue with the media, and down playing the racial tension, especially minimizing his interracial romance with a fellow faculty member. None-the-less, it was a rousing success due to the star power of Sidney Poitier and the casting of Scottish actress and pop sensation Lulu as one of Braithwaite’s students. She also sang the eponymous title song, which became the number one hit on Billboard’s Hot 100 record chart.
By now Braithwaite was a global figure, and was able to visit South Africa in 1973, when its apartheid regime lifted its previous ban on “To Sir with Love.” His celebrity status gained him privileges there beyond those of its native African population-while not on the same level of the ruling White hierarchy. The hypocrisy of this “honorarium” proved fodder for his 1975 memoir, “Honorary White.”
White none of his work had the impact of his first offering, Braithwaite was a prolific writer whose output dealt with the thorny issues of existing in a callous condition due to racial intolerance. Be that as it may, it gained him entry as an academic in higher education, and teaching positions at New York University and Howard University, enabling him to settle in the Washington, D.C. area.
Edward Ricardo Braithwaite is survived by his companion, Genevieve “Ginnete” Asi.