Saturday, July 23, 2005

Fifty years on, To Sir With Love can be read as a narrative of triumph over adversity concerning one highly unusual man's eight-month-long experience of an inner-city school that enables him to grow and occasions some of the people he comes into contact with to put their prejudices on hold. But clearly it is more than this. The author is keen for us to understand that the Ricky Braithwaites of this world cannot, by themselves, uproot prejudice, but they can point to its existence. And this, after all, is the beginning of change; one must first identity the location of the problem before one can set about addressing it.

The author is also keen to remind us that in this postwar Britain, as in our own contemporary Britain, one wrong step and teacher "Ricky" is just another nigger on the street. To Sir With Love leaves the reader in no doubt about the degree to which British society has, for centuries, been wedded to prejudice. Reading it reminds us that in the early 50s, as tens of thousands of easily identifiable "others" were beginning to enter the country in an attempt to rebuild Britain after the ravages of the second world war, this deep-seated problem of unquestioned hereditary prejudice was waiting to greet them in the streets, in the work place and in institutions of learning.

--Caryl Phillips on E.R. Braithwaite's novel To Sir With Love, in this weekend's UK Guardian Review.

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