E R Braithwaite (1912–2016) was a Guyanese-American writer, teacher and diplomat, best known for his semi-autobiographical book To Sir, With Love (1959) which was adapted into a successful film in 1967 starring Sidney Poitier. He wrote a number of books exposing racial discrimination in post-war Britain, all of which were inspired by his personal experiences.
Eustace Edward Ricardo Braithwaite was born in 1912 in Georgetown, British Guiana (now Guyana), to Oxford-educated parents. He attended the elite Queen’s College Guyana and the City College of New York. He volunteered for service with the RAF in 1940 and served as a fighter pilot during World War Two. After the war he studied at Cambridge, leaving with a master’s degree in physics in 1949.
Expecting to enter straight into the higher levels of his chosen profession of engineering, Braithwaite was unprepared for the intense racism he experienced on leaving the RAF. It became clear to him that, while his skin colour had not been a barrier to him becoming an RAF pilot, the chances of him building a life in post-war Britain — the country he had fought for — looked slim. After spending 18 months being rejected for jobs in engineering, he reluctantly took up a teaching position in a rough but progressive school in the East End of London in 1951.
This was not the London of Chaucer and Erasmus romanticised in Braithwaite’s own school days. The poverty and squalor of post-war east London were a huge shock to him, as were the ‘soiled and untidy’ children with their ‘careless and unscholarly’ attitudes. But he grew to love the school, the children, and the staff, and the experience inspired his first book, To Sir, With Love. The book tells the story of Ricky Braithwaite, Guyanese teacher in an East End school who transforms a class of unruly working class kids and falls in love with a white teacher. His later book, Reluctant Neighbours (1972), while dealing with racism in America, also reflects on this period of Braithwaite’s life, giving a detailed and angry personal account of racism in Britain.
Braithwaite left his teaching job in 1958 and worked for a time with the London County Council as a welfare consultant specialising in immigrant families from the Caribbean. This job inspired his second book, Paid Servant (1962), which was dramatised in 2011 for BBC Radio 4, starring Kwame Kwei-Armah.
The recognition he gained from his publications resulted in Braithwaite obtaining a number of important positions. In 1962 he was appointed education consultant to UNESCO in Paris; he served as Permanent Representative of Guyana to the United Nations in New York from 1967 to 1969 and subsequently as Guyana’s Ambassador to Venezuela. In 1973, he visited South Africa, recording his disgust at apartheid in his book Honorary White (1975). Spending many years writing and lecturing, he taught at New York University, was writer-in-residence at Florida State University from 1976 to 1977 and at Howard University from 1998 to 2004. Having settled in the US, he marked his 100th year, in 2012, by visiting Guyana where he received the country’s highest honour, the Cacique’s Crown.
E R Braithwaite’s To Sir, With Love captures an era, highlighting the realities of racism and the disillusionment of non-white migrants in 1950s Britain. Writer and filmmaker Hanif Kureishi, who has long recognised the book’s power and relevance to audiences past and present, was commissioned by the BBC in 2015 to write a new screen adaptation of the novel.
Further information about the life of E R Braithwaite can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.