Edward Ricardo Braithwaite, author of one of the best known books by a Guyanese – ‘To Sir With Love’- was yesterday conferred with a National Award, the Cacique Crown of Honour.
The 100-year-old author is in Guyana, serving as the patron of the Inter-Guiana Cultural festival.
“I am surprised because I did not expect an award. I don’t know that I have done anything to deserve the award but, I am grateful for what the award represents,” Braithwaite, who served as a diplomat in the formative years of Guyana’s independence, told members of the media following a simple investiture ceremony at the Office of the President yesterday. The Government Information Agency (GINA) reported that President Donald Ramotar conferred the award on the author.
The award came the morning after Braithwaite joined a live audience to witness a Guyanese re-enactment of the play at the National Cultural Centre (NCC). GINA said that Braithwaite spoke with admiration about the way in which the play was tailored to suit the Guyanese audience and hailed the director and cast for an admirable job.
‘To Sir With Love’ was made into the popular 1967 film starring Sidney Poitier. The book is based on Braithwaite’s experience as a schoolteacher in the East End of London some years after he attained a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate in physics at the University of Cambridge. Braithwaite, a former student of Queen’s College, and then the City College of New York, became a member of the Order of Service of Guyana. He was honoured for his outstanding contribution in the field of literature and effective service as a diplomat, GINA said. The award is conferred on individuals or institutions for outstanding service or achievement.
President Ramotar said he was honoured to bestow the Cacique Crown of Honour on “a man who has made us proud and has made Guyana’s name famous by his writing.” He also made reference to Braithwaite’s tenure as a diplomat and the distinction with which he served, GINA reported.
The Sunday Stabroek arts columnist, Al Creighton, on the occasion of Braithwaite’s 100th birthday in June, wrote that Braithwaite owes his fame and later achievements to the writing and publication of ‘To Sir With Love.’
“Braithwaite’s fame was based on the fact that To Sir With Love was made into a very successful and popular movie with top flight actor Sidney Poitier and a chart-topping theme song by Lulu. It was this that brought the writer to the world’s attention and caused the BBC and a wider audience to take an interest in his other novels and publications. This chain of accolades and recognition led to him being demanded by universities, caused him to be honoured with doctorates, and placed him as ambassadorial representative for his native country,” Creighton wrote.
“Yet, his achievements go deeper because of the cause and subjects of his writings and their contribution to issues of race, and the creation of a wider international audience that was prepared to listen to him,” he said.
“The background to the famous novel is well known. Despite the highest level of his qualifications in Physics he was unable to land a job in Britain. That was, to make things worse, in spite of his service to the United Kingdom as a pilot in the Royal Air Force during World War II. He served for six years. He took a job as a teacher at a London East End school notorious for poor performance and misbehaviour in a depressed inner city environment. He went reluctantly into what was considered a graveyard for teachers and was able to reform wayward teenagers and win the respect of the cynical,” Creighton wrote.
“He decided to write to exorcise his reaction to racial discrimination and instruct a readership through his experiences. This also led him into another service as a social worker during which he also championed the cause of not only blacks, but also white Londoners in depraved conditions. His second novel Paid Servant (1962) came out of this experience with the London County Council. He internationalised his concerns on the subject of race by writing about the apartheid conditions in South Africa which led to the banning of his publications in that country. However, his status and acclamation influenced the South African government to lift the ban and he visited the country in 1973, enjoying the official hospitality of the state. Ironically, this gave him further material for another critical book on apartheid called Honorary White (1975),” he said.
Creighton said that according to information supplied by the National Library (Guyana), Braithwaite had a series of important appointments arising from his experiences and publications. He was Human Rights Officer for World Veterans Foundation in Paris (1960-63); and Lecturer and Education Officer with UNESCO (1963-66). His exploits in the service of his nation also brought him further notice. He was the first Guyanese to hold the post of Ambassador to the United Nations in 1967 which led to his election as President of the UN Council for South West Africa in 1968.