Clothing/Uniforms and Race In Braithwaite
Braithwaite. E.R. To Sir, with Love. NewYork: Jove, 1977.
—–. A Kind of Homecoming. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962.
—–. Paid Servant. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.
—–.Choice of Straws. Indianapolis: Bobs-Merrill, 1966.
—–. Reluctant Neighbors. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972.
—–. “Honorary White”: A Visit to South Africa. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975.
Selvon, Sam. The Lonely Londoners. New York: Longman, 1989.
For this project I intend to discuss E.R. Braithwaite’s construction of racial identity. I would like to investigate the general feeling of race during the 1950 in London through other novels such as The Lonely Londoners. My point in doing this is two-fold: (1) I think Braithwaite is trying to say something different than Selvon, and (2) I think both writers effectively pull the American ideas of race into their discussions of British racial tension.
In To Sir with Love Braithwaite writes: “I had just been brought face to face with something I had either forgotten or completely ignored for more than six exciting years—my black skin” (37). Not only did Braithwaite skin color somehow get masked by his R.A.F. uniform, but this was an exciting time in his life. The six years in his life when he was able to forget that he was black are looked back upon as exciting, but when he realizes that he is really black he “hurrie[s] into the nearest public lavatory and [is] violently sick” (38). If Braithwaite does not portray himself as a self-loathing black man, I do not think was ever such a portrayal in literature. What confuses me about this portrayal is that less than 50 pages later, he begins instructing his class about the great diversities of the human race! In one instance his race is invisible via his R.A.F. uniform; in the next he recognizes his race, but it makes him violently ill; and in the next he is proud of his homeland and using it to teach his students global geography. In The Lonely Londoners, Selvon, while telling story of intense racial prejudices, manages to maintain a pride in his race, so I am interested in how the two writers conceive race constructs differently.
Selvon also mentions the American side of racial tension, which comes into play in Braithwaite’s text as well. Braithwaite writes: “I reflects on the U.S.A. There, when prejudice is felt, it is open, obvious, blatant” (41). He continues by showing how white Americans discriminate against Blacks, but that Black men have some sort of recourse: they fight back. I think the struggle between these two texts is that Selvon portrays a London that is very discriminatory, like Braithwaite describes the U.S. My problem with all of this is that Braithwaite, with all the evident prejudices of British society at this time, would not even be allowed to teach in a school with white children in the U.S. no matter how bad off the children were.
I think my questions are best framed as: what is Braithwaite’s real stance on racial issues? How does he support the idea that his race disappears? How is his evocation of U.S. race relations help or hinder his construction of race in England? I plan to use a combination of theoretical texts, Braithwaite’s works, and possibly Selvon or if I can find one, a U.S. example of race…This part is up in the air.