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Q: Explore the theme of racism in the novel.
A: To Sir With Love, is a testimony, written by E.R Braithwaite. A book which centers on a teacher, who takes his occupation as a “sheer reality”, depicts his struggles on developing a relationship with his rude, disobedient and hostile students. In fact, it is necessarily not the fault of the students, as they expected Braithwaite to be inept, as his predecessors.
The theme of racism is prevalent in the novel. The first aspect of racism is explicit prejudice. The prejudice can be depicted through the scene which took place on the bus, from Aldgate to Greenslade. The woman’s refusal to sit with Braithwaite shows the seriousness and intensity of the problem of racism, in the 1950s. Not all of the Londoners were racial towards Braithwaite or all the coloured people, as it could be seen in the conductor’s supportiveness of Braithwaite and his ever growing irritation of the lady, who continued to show expressions of ignorance towards the situation.
Through Braithwaite’s soliloquy, it implicitly implies that the higher social class were more corrupted by society and discourteous to the coloured people than the middle or the lower social class. This can be shown through the sentences: “There were a part of the world’s greatest cities and at the same time common as hayseeds” and “courteous deference to a slim, smartly dressed woman” (shows she could afford money to buy alluring clothes).
Another aspect of racism prevalent in the novel is the use of language, used as a powerful weapon to express racism. This can be evident through the citations which were “black bastard” and “blackie teacher” were intended to be provoking. Denham, who cited the slur: “black bastard” was only said to gain attention from his peers and by standing up to the teacher, it would give him the characteristics of a leader; an individual who was brave and stood up for what he believed in. The following sentence: “He looked like he wanted a response, shows that the reasoning for his cite, was not for true intentionality or taunt, but to make the atmosphere of the class, heated, and to make Braithwaite resign from his occupation, and “gird up his loins”, as Weston described it.
Implicit acts of racism can be noted through two significant events and incidents – one being the event at Poisson D’Or and the other being the job interview for Braithwaite, as an engineer. In the restaurant incident, the mistreatment of Braithwaite, by the waiter dropping soup, and not on Gillian (who was white-skinned) and the appearance of a smirk, across the waiter’s mouth, shows the disrespect and intentionality of the act.
The gauntlet of eyes, as Braithwaite described it, implies that the customers saw the incident, but refused to stand up to the waiter – who had obviously attempted a wrongdoing. The waiter’s courage as to put his job on the line (as he may get fired), adds to the gravity of the situation. In the interview, the recruiter’s asking of irrelevant questions, instead of getting to the point, and the response: “Some of the supervisors working here are people we know and they do not like to be bossed by another man of colour”, in other words means, “We do not want Blacks to control us, Whites”.
Braithwaite who experiences racism implicitly, explicitly and verbally, is indignant. This can be noted in his soliloquy lines: “What a superior bitch!” (when the lady refused to sit next to him) and “I was always subject to explosive anger, but for years I have been making a determined attempt to exercise control of my temper” (when Weston called him: Black sheep). However, in later phases of the story, the acts of racism, he endures are converted from anger to hurt. This can be seen in the scene, where the class was discussing on whether Potter should fret for his action – disrespecting and cussing at a teacher. Braithwaite said Potter should definitely ask for forgiveness, whilst the rest of the class said that Potter was right in cussing, as because of the teacher (Mr. Bell), Buckley, got hurt.
Seales, a student in Braithwaite’s class, says: “Easy for you to say, Sir, you have never experienced a time where someone pushed you around” and Braithwaite responds to Seales: “I have been pushed around. I have been hurt, really hurt. I sometimes awoke to painful, quick remembering…” This implies that all the acts, in which he had easily ignored, or overlooked, at that time, struck a chord on him, in the long run; un-noticed. Braithwaite also is physically hurt, in one scene, where he was violently sick (through regurgitation), after the interview, and this could be seen in the lines: “I was violently sick”. This may suggest either he was struck by the racial attitudes of the staff or that his stay in cosmopolitan London, as an unemployed, couldn’t stretch for a further period of time, as he was running out of money to survive.
Not only Braithwaite was hurt, by racism directed towards him. In the Poisson D’Or incident, Gillian was angered and couldn’t dare to watch his partner or lover, experience indirect and implicit racism. This could be seen in the lines: “Let’s go, Rick”. In the bus incident, where the two women, made remarks on the three girls: Moira, Pamela and Barbara, who were all youthful, and standing with a black man. All the three girls, except Braithwaite responded and Pamela Dare stood up for Braithwaite. Her good-doing was brought out by her qualities, but enhanced by Pamela Dare’s love interest for Braithwaite. The evidence that Pamela Dare had a ‘crush’ on Braithwaite could be seen in the sentence: “When Gillian (Braithwaite’s girlfriend) came, all the girls were enthusiastic, talking about her clothes, except Pamela”. This meant she didn’t like Braithwaite going out with Gillian.
In the end of the story, some of the racially abusive people towards Braithwaite’s colour, changed and started getting to know him better and became friendlier. The best exemplars of these people are Denham and Weston. Since Denham cited to Braithwaite: “black bastard”, it makes him a racist, but in the last chapter of the story, where Moira indirectly says that: “We know it couldn’t be easy for you to deal with some of us, particularly (the some of us directed at Denham).
Denham blushes, showing that Braithwaite changed his rebellious attitude. Braithwaite’s thought: “Someday Denham may be a dependable and hard-working man, working in H.M overseas” shows the high expectations he has for Denham, as Braithwaite believes he changed, and he has some inner vivacious qualities, embedded in him. In Weston’s case, the offering of a cigarette shows that they were ready to make amends and to put all the bad events, which took place in the last term, aside and commence a new, fresh beginning.
Racism has not only had bad effects on the lives of the people discussed in the story. It is because of racism, Braithwaite landed the job as a Teacher, and was able to transform the lives of the students, who were free disciples into people who could function and live in the world, without conflict or disagreement. Braithwaite knew that schoolbook teachings could not be related and with no relation to their lives, it was useless, so he discussed with them freely about disclosed topics like relationships, and through the ignorance of the students’ taunts towards him and the careful teachings, and his knowledge of knowing their background – that they were students who were poor, were surrounded by social vermin, prostitutes and bad influences and went to bed, sometimes hungry, he was able to win the hearts of all his students.
The sentence: “Some of them grew strong within – They are all now willing to learn. They may turn out to be decent folk” shows how extensively Braithwaite evolved their character, and this sets in contrast to Weston’s opinion about them: “blithe spirits”.
In conclusion, racism was regarded as a significant and very present issue in the 1950s, than it is today, in London. Racism took place everywhere. This restricted careers and diminished dreams of all the coloured people inhabiting the city. To Sir With Love, is an autobiographical text, which truly reflects on the racial atmosphere of cosmopolitan London.