Checking Out Me History – John Agard

I have long been a fan of John Agard’s poetry [somewhere I have my own Half Caste poem done from a Yorkshireman’s point of view; flat caps and all] and when I saw this in the list today it made my heart jump and my mouth smile that smile that tells me I am going to enjoy this.

But then I tried to read it and although I understood it ….. a little ….. I was left thinking how a group of 15 year old students might take it if from certain parts of the world. So, to analyse it properly, I think we need to hear the man himself, reading his poem. The following video has him do that for 2 minutes and 14 seconds and then there is nothing for 3 minutes, so turn it off when he ends it and come back to this analysis, which I shall now complete and add later.

Here is the video…

Analysis

Like any good John Agard poem, this is written in a mixture of Standard English and Nonstandard, or Creole English. But as you no doubt heard on the video clip, he means this to be sung in places as well, as he and the reader get to grips with the idea that what we deem to be history is not necessarily that of the Caribbean man. We live in different parts of the world, in different cultures, with different faiths, beliefs, practices and ideologies, so we need to learn each others’ way of living and understand it so we can live together more peacefully.

The word “Dem” for example is the nonstandard version of “them” so readers have to understand that this is the island way of speaking where he hails from, the language he is used to using. If he was from the Philippines for example, then it might be written in Tagalog, which is similar in that it uses some English words, but mixes the local language of the place and time. He is saying that “Dem” refers to the people in authority, then and now, back in the times of slavery and of now. The masters, for that is what they called themselves, stated what was considered as “history” and it is also true that the old adage is true as well, that “history is written by the victorious.”

So, to the poem, which reflects a single character speaking about his own cultural identity. This is an island man very much akin to the poem of the same name by his wife. He is saying that he has been told what his history is. But, he wants to “check out” or investigate his own understanding of his genealogy and history. The white rulers of so long ago set down in words that there are certain dates to know about, like “1066” and subjects like “Dick Whittington and his cat” when learning history in school or in the home.
But Agard is arguing that this is only a one sided view of history. He is saying that this is not enough, for he was never told when he was growing up of the more important aspects of his own historical and cultural background. To him, this one sided teaching he has received has in effect, “blind [ed him] to [his] own identity.” It has made him a half taught individual with little concept of his own culture. He uses the example of “Toussaint L’Ouverture” [look this up] to say that this is one thing he has not been told about. Then we get the explanation of who this is and why he considers it important to know. He says that “Toussaint” was “a slave with vision,” who “lick back Napoleon battalion.” Clearly, this person and the heroics mentioned here is an important factor in Guyanese/Haitian culture but this is the sort of thing that British History lessons do not cover. It is a criticism therefore, of how we teach our children about the world. It is a criticism of what we consider to be important to teach our children.

Then he uses a second person in the form of “Nanny de maroon.” To this English teacher,this is the second name I have never heard of and I have studied cultures across the world, so here we see Agard proving his point, that again, this is something, or someone, worthy of inclusion into an educational package when growing up, or indeed, at a later stage of a person’s education. He is asking us to consider why he has not been taught these things. He is proud enough to say that he has learnt about “Lord Nelson and Waterloo” but to never be taught anything about “Shaka de great Zulu” is wrong, especially when British education does at times cover people like “Columbus and 1492.” In a way, he is saying that we should not be that choosy, that we should know about all the different people across the world who have fought or stood up for a cause, who are famous in their own countries, for when we do that, we can learn to live a life where we understand each other a little more. Simply knowing about a few individuals makes for a person who knows very little.

He uses the example of the “Caribs and de Arawaks” to make his point. Again, this writer knows very little about what happened to these people. He knows who they are and from what part of the world they hail, but does not know the finer details about how they were treated by their oppressors at their time of conflict in their history. It is an interesting comparison he is making too because most of us know about “Florence Nightingale” and her actions in the Crimean conflict, as well as nursery rhymes like “ole King Cole” and how he was a “merry ole soul” but we are sadly lacking in knowledge about “Mary Seacole” simply because she is not considered by an educational system to be of merit.
Now that is a pity, for she was from the Caribbean herself, travelled to the Crimean conflict even though she was advised not to and was, in Agard’s words, “a healing star among the wounded, a yellow sunrise to the dying.” The use of these beautiful metaphors here is brilliant in describing her actions. She has to be as important as Florence Nightingale but is forgotten, because she was black. This is a theme to Agard’s other poems so it is not a surprise to see it here.

This theme of inherent racism within institutions like countries, is continued throughout the poem as we see Agard telling us that he was in his childhood, taught about what the British wanted him to know about, what they considered to be important. But he adds a note of defiance at the same system he has helped over the years when he adds that “dem tell me wha dem want to tell me, but now I checking out me own history.” This is him saying that it is okay to teach our children what we think is important in terms of our history, but what is more important is to be as culturally diverse as possible. Simply keeping it to the white victor is not enough. Our children need to be taught something of other identities, something of other cultures, so that mutual understanding can be sought by everyone, so that we can all live as individuals in a multicultural setting.

He adds at the end that he is now, in his own time and at his own pace, “carving out [his own] identity” because he is learning now about what he considers to be important, so this poem ends up being a rally cry to us all to be learners in the modern world, to be people who are not prepared to simply accept what we are taught, people who question the authenticity of what we are taught, people who say to themselves, “today I carve out my identity.”

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