Book: To Sir, With Love

To Sir With Love
Also a popular 1967 film

Great story, poor character development.
185 pages, ★★

Rick Braithwaite, a black military officer from Guyana (then British Guiana), receives a horrible shock after leaving the army. Even though he was highly respected as a soldier in British uniform, dozens of employers now reject him because he’s “too black”. Finally, one school accepts him despite his skin colour.

I strongly believe that racism is rooted in classism. Braithwaite summarises the views of the British on page vii:

“The few West Indians who did occupy the streets of England would, despite the prejudice they endured, have far more in common with white, working-class people than with this Cambridge-educated former [army] officer.”

Reading that, this speech/song sprung to mind.

Racism is also a scapegoat for classism. This is strongly supported on page 37:

“It is true that here and there one sees Negroes as doctors, lawyers or talented entertainers, but they are somehow considered ‘different’ and not to be confused with the mass.”

Most strikingly, when people of different races are of the same class (such as in some universities), racial oppression simply melts away. It doesn’t matter what race you are as long as you’re rich, well-connected and well-read. However, when people of the same race are of different social class, the symptoms of racism emergeostracism, bullying, derision, and so on. Classism, not racism, is evidently the root of these problems.

The U.S. now has programmes like Troops to Teachers, which fast-track army veterans like Braithwaite into teaching positions. Veterans provide the discipline, respect and structured lifestyles that are considered elixirs for America’s dilapidated high schools.

I have one complaint: this novel has too many superfluous characters. So many characters, so little interaction. See the character map below.

To Sir With Love Character Map
So many characters, so little interaction! Click to enlarge.

Important characters are also introduced at the last minute, as and when they’re needed. We never really get to know any of the characters other than protagonist Braithwaite, and some characters exist only for one paragraph. The characters aren’t the highlight of this novel, though. The most important aspect is the message that racism exists, and that it can be transformed.

To Sir With Love should be compulsory reading for schoolchildren. It’s easier to relate to than the other school-time favourite, To Kill A Mockingbird, yet the two books’ treatises on racism are of equal caliber. The accompanying discussion also provides a valuable lesson for kids. ★★

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