EDITORIAL: Icons recognised outside of region
LONG BEFORE RIHANNA or Usain Bolt, Caribbean people have been making a name for both themselves and their region on the international stage. One such personality was E.R. Braithwaite, the Guyanese writer whose works, which often dealt with black-white relations, made him an internationally acclaimed figure.
Braithwaite, who died this week in his adopted homeland of United States at age 104, used his skills with words to react to the racism he encountered because of his colour. His epic novel To Sir, With Love, written in 1959, achieved a most remarkable feat when it not only became an international best-seller, but was adapted for the big-screen and made into a tear-jerker of a movie starring Sidney Poitier. While audiences loved the sentimental movie, Braithwaite knew the screenwriter did not capture its true essence.
With his feet firmly planted, Braithwaite remarked: The movie made it look like fun and games.
For most Barbadians over the age of 60, regardless of colour, that book and the movie are both well known, and gave a glimpse into what West Indians had to endure in post-war Britain. Even though his other books did not achieve the same type of phenomenal success, two others, Paid Servant and Honorary White, also reflected on his experiences in London and as a visitor with special rights to the apartheid-era South Africa.
Braithwaite, an Afro-Guyanese who went to Britain and fought in World War II as a RAF pilot, discovered after returning to civilian life that merit and ability were not the guiding standards in that society then. His privileged background in Guyana did not matter – both his parents were Oxford graduates while he gained a PhD in physics from Cambridge University – as he found many doors closed to him because of he was black.
This Guyanese icon had a dogged determination which he exhibited throughout his life. He excelled as a schoolteacher in a tough English working class area at a time when life was made very difficult for West Indians who had gone to rebuild Britain in the late 1940s and early 50s; he became a successful author, and when Guyana gained independence served as its top diplomat in Caracas, ensuring peace between these two South American neighbours with a long-standing border dispute.
But Braithwaite, like so many outstanding Caribbean cultural figures who have had to gain their successes beyond this region – whether Edward Braithwaite, Samuel Selvon, Andrew Salkey, V.S. Naipaul, Derek Walcott or George Lamming – was never given the acclaim he deserved within the Caribbean. Even Guyana was late in honouring him.
Today, many in the region may not be aware of his tremendous contributions.
But this is the story of a region which easily overlooks its true icons. Such is the case with E.R. Braithwaite, whose exceptional contribution to the literary landscape is held in esteem internationally. The tributes are a clear indication.