My Reflections on Two Remarkable Men …. and Apartheid – By Guyana-born Steve Connolly

 Two Remarkable Men …. and Apartheid  —  Arthur Ashe and E.R. Braithwaite

  •  By Guyana-born, Steve Connolly

Two men, now both deceased, were known for feats of success far removed from the world of apartheid in South Africa.  Yet, in different ways, but almost at the same time, they each were drawn to the racial injustice of the South African government.  Both men were black, one Afro-American and the other Afro-Guyanese.

Both had university degrees and both had been in the military … one had fought spectacularly and dangerously in war.  Both had been frequent targets of racism.  Both had produced multiple books, one focusing on sport while touching on racism and the other taking direct aim on racism.  One smoked while the other never did.  One had married twice while the other never married but had had at least one long relationship with a female.           

In response to a question from me about this, he responded, “I never married but I had two close calls!”  One was an athlete while the other was more so an intellectual.  Both were strong protesters against racial discrimination.  One died at 49 years while the other lived more than twice as long.

The two men had never met.  For sure, one of them had known of the other.  It is not clear though that the ‘other’ had known of the former although he would have known of the movie product of the former.

Two remarkable men.  Who were they and what had been their common but separate interest and experience with apartheid in South Africa?  Here is my story of this.

***

Arthur Ashe

Arthur Ashe, in some circles is considered one of the top 30 tennis players of all time.  He had been the first black player to be selected for the U.S. Davis Cup team.  He is the only black man to win at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open.   He was a great fan of Jackie Robinson, the first black to become a Major League Baseball player.  He was an active civil rights supporter and had been jailed for publicly protesting apartheid in South Africa.  Posthumously, Ashe was awarded America’s Presidential Medal of Freedom.

 Related to his past, Ashe was fascinated by the issue of colour.  The dominance of light-skinned people in certain jobs and positions of power worried him.  Especially when it came to children who when growing up would not consider their chances

to be as good due to their skin colour.

Arthur had been following the apartheid situation in South Africa closely, with disgust.  Cliff Drysdale, Ashe’s friend, had moved to the U.S. as he had also greatly and openly disliked apartheid.  Ashe had first become emotional about the country in 1968 when South African tennis star, Drysdale, had told him that he would never be able to play there.

At the peak of his career in 1969, Ashe thought that he could make a positive impression and give hope to blacks in South Africa if he could demonstrate his tennis there.  His visa application was turned down, as it was to be in following years.  He was able to tour other African countries in 1970 and in 1971.

Ashe discovered and helped Yannick Noah in Cameroon who later became a world tennis star.  Finally, in 1973, South Africa, anxious to be permitted again to participate in the Olympics, allowed a visa for Ashe which he used to visit the country in November of that year.  The government had supposedly agreed to his three conditions.  Fans of his tennis games would not be segregated; he would not have to be subject to an ‘honorary visa’ and he would be permitted to travel anywhere in the country.

Upon arrival in the country, Arthur immediately began to notice outward aspects of apartheid.  Everywhere he went there were four bathrooms, two for whites and two for blacks.  Separate drinking fountains.  Separate buses and trains with separate stops.  Most pedestrians were black while whites rode in vehicles.  Separate theatres.  Separate counters in stores.  “Whites Only” beaches.

One time, Ashe noticed that a little black boy had been following him and he asked the boy why he was doing so.  The boy had replied that it was the first time, for him, that he had ever seen a free black man.  Ashe had almost been happy to see “Whites Only” signs everywhere.  For him, without them it would be like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower.

In the South African Open tennis tournament, while being hugely cheered by the black fans, Ashe lost to Jimmy Connors, renowned for his bad behaviour, in the finals.  Later, in 1975 when Ashe had beaten Connors in the Wimbledon finals, Connors shook hands with Ashe at the end of the game … after first spitting into his hand (so I heard from a Guyanese friend).  However, Ashe was able to win the doubles championship with partner Tom Okker from the Netherlands.  The government had refused to desegregate the stands.  The blacks had roared with delight when Ashe had beaten South Africa’s stars, Cliff Drysdale and Bob Hewitt in singles before meeting Connors in the final.  Yet, Drysdale, Hewitt and Ashe remained good friends.

 While in the country, Ashe had met with people at all levels of society.  He had not respected South Africa’s star professional golfer, Gary Player, as Player would not reveal his thoughts on apartheid.  He met with top educators, even with renowned heart specialist Dr. Christiaan Barnard and also with residents of black communities such as Soweto.

Arthur Ashe would return to South Africa several times.  He established the Black Tennis Foundation there.  He would use his learned knowledge of the country and of its unjust government to protest in various media and particularly in his future writings with Time Magazine and The Washington Post.  He participated in anti-apartheid events in the U.S.  He wrote at least three books including A Hard Road To Glory: A History of the Afro-American Athlete.

Ashe died in 1993 at only 49 years after obtaining HIV from a blood transfusion while undergoing a heart bypass operation.

***

E.R. Braithwaite

Eustace Edward Ricardo “Ted” Braithwaite may not have been as world renowned as Arthur Ashe but he was certainly renowned.  His renown had initially come from his book To Sir, With Love that focused on racial discrimination that he had experienced in the United Kingdom.  The book had been released in 1959 and was followed up by the movie of same name in 1967.  Most people of my vintage today will recall the movie but will not know about the author of the book behind the movie.  Most will recall Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson who broke the tennis colour barrier.

I had been most fortunate to know Mr. Braithwaite in his last ten years of life.  I had some enjoyable conversations with him while he was living in Washington DC.  I have all of his six books autographed and I also have the children’s book that he wrote.

Braithwaite had been fortunate and unique for a Guyanese in his era.  Both his parents had obtained degrees from Oxford University in the UK.  Interrupting his university studies in England, WW II inspired him to become a spitfire fighter pilot.  He told me that he had been a welcomed member within his all-white RAF flight group.  Subsequently, he had completed a masters degree in physics from Cambridge University.  It had been upon graduation that he had experienced severe discrimination when trying to find teaching employment … as described in his book To Sir, With Love.

Over his lifetime, he had been a teacher, lecturer, and an education consultant for UNESCO.  Braithwaite was Guyana’s first ambassador to the United Nations at the time of Guyana achieving independence in 1966 and also became Guyana’s ambassador to Venezuela having to deal with the endless border dispute between the two countries.

Braithwaite was a writer-in-residence for several American universities and also wrote short stories.  He was a man of great integrity.  His partner for many decades and at his end was Genevieve Ast, a Canadian francophone who had worked for CBC with Henry Champ in Washington DC.

In 1973, South Africa lifted the ban on Braithwaite’s book To Sir, With Love and he decided that he would like to visit the country to see if things were indeed improving from a discrimination point of view.  By this time, Nelson Mandela was in his eleventh year in prison at Robben Island that could easily be seen from Table Mountain at Capetown.  Braithwaite could not avoid being given an ‘honorary white’ visa that gave him more privileges than black people but not the full privileges of the whites.  I quote him …

The “Honorary White” thing was no better than a kick in the ass. 

The intention was the same.  To humiliate the black visitor;

to deny him the dignity of his blackness;

to remind him that in society he had no identity except that which

they, the Whites, chose to let him have.

 

 Later, during his visit, he would relate …

 I could have been riding comfortably too, as an Honorary White.  Thinking of it I felt the full impact of its debasement.  For all these years I’d been living proudly in my black skin, doing very satisfying things in it.

In this same skin  I’d spent a happy boyhood in Guyana, learning about ambition and pride and the  pleasure of competitive effort from parents and teachers and others, most of them in black skins like mine, some white but treating our black skins with respect.  In this skin I’d sat with other undergraduates in an English university, pitting my intellect against theirs, confident in my abilities.  In this skin I’d flown a fighter aircraft during the war, had known love, anger, despair, and success.  In this skin I had written my books, taught Whites, and represented my country as a diplomat.

This skin had always been good enough for me.  Men had admired my prowess in it, Women of many colours had found it beautiful.  Never before had anyone, anywhere, attempted to change it.  Yet now my colour was far more important than anything I might be or do. 

Piss on their Honorary White!  I’ll ride Black.

 By the time in December 1973 when he commenced his six-week visit, he had known of Arthur Ashe’s visit only the previous month.  And, of Ashe’s tennis victories, of the hope that Ashe had given to his race and of the disgust that Ashe had expressed as a result of his visit.  Assuredly, against his wishes, Ashe would also have been given an ‘honorary white’ visa.

Hotels could not take in non-whites without obtaining a special license from the government.  These were infrequent situations.  Braithwaite had been assigned an Information Officer to tour him around to only see the more positive aspects of things.  Fortunately, he was able to get away at times to taste reality … such as visits to Soweto, a ‘homeland’ ghetto for blacks not far from Johannesburg.  At times, he had been followed by the Security Police.

As had Ashe, Braithwaite was disgusted with what he experienced.  For the most part, blacks were not permitted in Johannesburg at night.  Each black had to possess a ‘Book of Life’ … a sort of passport booklet containing all possible information about the person.  Job reservation laws permitted only whites to perform desirable work such as electricians, bricklayers, plasterers, etc.  Blacks were not permitted to own property and had to pay rent for the “stink holes” they lived in.  White taxi drivers could not pick up non-whites.  School was compulsory for whites and optional for blacks.  Blacks were not allowed in white theatres.  Blacks and whites could not drink alcohol together.  Blacks were not allowed to strike.  Whites were not permitted to talk to blacks in public.  Twenty million black people were totally controlled by four million whites.

Braithwaite knew that all of his five books had been banned.  The movie To Sir, With Love had also been banned but still had been shown privately at first.  Then it had been shown in white theatres with many edited cuts.  Moviegoers had liked it nevertheless.  Hypocritically, the government had prescribed the uncut book for the Training School for whites.  Braithwaite had not liked the movie as he had not been consulted and had found it to be too sentimental.  Unbelievably, the South African government still had a ban on the famous children’s book Black BeautyAlso, incredibly, South Africa’s motto was “Unity is Strength”.  Segregation and inequality do not make for unity.

In reality, Braithwaite had taught in the poverty area of London’s east end at the Greenslade Secondary School.  When he had parted from the school, he had been beloved by the students and by his fellow teachers.  He told me that he had been so grateful to receive a gift box of 500 cigarettes from the students.  Each cigarette had been labelled: ERB the cover of the box was engraved: To Sir, With Love.  Of interest, Braithwaite’s handwriting is very elegant, just as had been printed with his gift.

Surrounded within a country of hate, anger and menace during his visit, he had been deservedly aggravated about his visit to South Africa and commenced to write his sixth book, Honorary White.  Excellent reading, it was published in 1975.

Edward Ricardo Braithwaite died at 104 years in 2016.

***

After 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela was freed in1990.  He immediately began to negotiate with the government to end apartheid.  In 1991, the government commenced to dismantle this curse that had existed for the most part of 50 years.

                Steve Connolly,     British Guiana born

                February 2020,      Black History Month

Postscript

 Antiguan Sir Vivian Richards, aka “Master Blaster,” was one of the best cricket batsmen ever.  He had been captain of the West Indies cricket team with numerous achievements in the sport.  I have read that in the late 1980’s he had been asked to play cricket in South Africa for US$500,000.  He turned it down for all the obvious reasons, one of them being that he would have to suffer the indignity of carrying an ‘honorary white’ visa.

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Comments

  • Clyde Duncan  On February 4, 2020 at 11:35 am

    Eddie in the UK wrote:

    Informative article celebrating black heroes of our time!

  • wally n  On February 5, 2020 at 3:40 pm

    Agree completely, my favourite is Godfrey Cambridge, used every opportunity he had to promote GUYANA, for many years I never knew he was born in the US to GUYANESE parents. His history is very interesting.
    I stole one of his lines his father used on him, “GUYANESE, NEVER SATISFIED
    WITH SECOND PLACE” (para)-

  • Trevor  On February 7, 2020 at 12:04 pm

    Trump wants South Africa to return to Apartheid, and once supported a terrorist group called Sudlanders to wage genocide against the non-whites.

  • Clyde Duncan  On February 10, 2020 at 4:38 pm

    Godfrey MacArthur Cambridge (February 26, 1933 – November 29, 1976) was born in New York City to Alexander and Sarah Cambridge, who were immigrants from British Guiana.

    His parents, dissatisfied with the New York Public School System, sent him to live with his grandparents in Sydney, Nova Scotia during his primary school years.

    When he was 13, Cambridge moved back to New York and attended Flushing High School in Flushing, Queens.

    In 1949, Cambridge studied medicine at Hofstra College, which he attended for three years before dropping out to pursue a career in acting.

    Source: Wikipedia [and wally n]

    • wally n  On February 11, 2020 at 12:02 am

      THANKS…..Tip of a giant iceberg

  • Clyde Duncan  On February 10, 2020 at 4:52 pm

    On November 30, 1924, Shirley Anita St. Hill was born in Brooklyn, New York to Ruby Seale and Charles St. Hill.

    Her mother was a domestic worker who immigrated to the U.S. from Barbados; her father, a factory worker, was originally from Guyana.

    Shirley Anita Chisholm (née St. Hill; November 30, 1924 – January 1, 2005) was an American politician, educator, and author.

    In 1968, she became the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress, and she represented New York’s 12th congressional district for seven terms from 1969 to 1983.

    In 1972, she became the first black candidate for a major party’s nomination for President of the United States, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, as well as the first woman to appear in a United States presidential debate.

    In 2015, Chisholm was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom

    – Shirley Chisholm Book:

    Unbought and Unbossed: Expanded 40th Anniversary Edition

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