Checking Out Me History – John Agard

Dem tell me
Dem tell me
Wha dem want to tell me
Bandage up me eye with me own history
Blind me to my own identity
Dem tell me bout 1066 and all dat
dem tell me bout Dick Whittington and he cat
But Touissant L’Ouverture
no dem never tell me bout dat
Toussaint
a slave
with vision
lick back
Napoleon
battalion
and first Black
Republic born
Toussaint de thorn
to de French
Toussaint de beacon
of de Haitian Revolution
Dem tell me bout de man who discover de balloon
and de cow who jump over de moon
Dem tell me bout de dish run away with de spoon
but dem never tell me bout Nanny de maroon
Nanny
see-far woman
of mountain dream
fire-woman struggle
hopeful stream
to freedom river
Dem tell me bout Lord Nelson and Waterloo
but dem never tell me bout Shaka de great Zulu
Dem tell me bout Columbus and 1492
but what happen to de Caribs and de Arawaks too
Dem tell me bout Florence Nightingale and she lamp
and how Robin Hood used to camp
Dem tell me bout ole King Cole was a merry ole soul
but dem never tell me bout Mary Seacole
From Jamaica
she travel far
to the Crimean War
she volunteer to go
and even when de British said no
she still brave the Russian snow
a healing star
among the wounded
a yellow sunrise
to the dying
Dem tell me
Dem tell me wha dem want to tell me
But now I checking out me own history
I carving out me identity

Analysis

There is a deep sense of irony in this poem, right from the title onwards, because when asked recently, by their teacher of English, swathes of students could not tell me what certain things were in this poem, like what happened in 1066, or who Dick Whittington was, or even Mary Seacole. Only one student out of three classes was able to answer all three questions. Now when you see this, as a teacher, you immediately begin to question your colleagues in the History Department (would that be another title maybe?) until you realize that they do not know about these things because the curriculum is set up just to teach children about certain things in British, or even, English history. 

This is what the great poet, John Agard, rails at in this poem, the inner conflict of how he can be British, but how he and successive children can only be taught the typical, racist, white ruled, white dominant parts of our history. So think back to recent times and ask yourself these questions. Can you remember statues being ripped down and thrown into the rivers or seas on the news? Were you watching the news? Do you even read newspapers or even online news content? Can you remember what BLM stands for? Does the Black Lives Matter movement lead you to support or even loathe the whole idea? If none of this so far has made a dent in you, then you are massively narrow minded and without the right knowledge to be able to live in this modern and multicultural world. 

This is where racism is bred, in the ignorant people of our towns and cities of this nation!

Agard rails against such a one sided education system that teaches about one thing and not the other, about white culture and not black and I say God bless him for doing so! Here is the man speaking in perfect Standard English, just in case you felt he wrote this poem because of the way he speaks. 

Such a belief would be racist in its entirety to begin with. 

He writes his poem in this way to show the difference and divergence between cultures, to show the difference between the white history and black history. One is taught and the other is ignored and if you think I am wrong, then go through the names in his poem and ask yourself do you know who they are? My bet is that the answer will be, in the large part, not a lot. 

So Agard begins by saying that “dem tell me wha dem want to tell me” referring in the first part to teachers of English history, but more so towards those who set up the curriculum, the government politicians who say what we teachers must teach in our subjects. To add clarity, ten years or more ago, we used to have a section in our GCSE English poetry called “Poetry From Other Cultures,” which was solely a time spent learning these poems for the exams, as well as widening our knowledge of being British, but now, even those have been santized out of the curriculum, to make it so that other things are studied. 

It is wrong! 

Agard says they do this so as to “bandage up me eye with me own history.” Now, imagine putting a bandage over your eye – what happens? You can only see in what we might call ‘Tunnel Vision,” or can only see a part of the world that is open to you, because the rest, the important rest, has been blocked by someone, or something, in an attempt to make you see one thing above all else. This is what Agard is saying when he says he is being blinded to his “own identity” because his History teachers taught him about “1066 and all dat” or concepts or legends like “Dick Whittington and he cat,” but the thing they ignored, which was most important to him in understanding his Britishness, was ignored; history about people like “Touissant L’Ouverture” (Google him) who he says, was “a slave with vision” who kicked back at the establishment at the time and led the Haitian Revolution when they fought for power from the French Imperial rulers. 

Agard repeats this by adding the name of “Napoleon,” who we all know about, surely (what? You don’t know who he is? Shame on your History teachers) so as to share how important Toussaint was in the history of Haiti. This is the culture of Agard’s homeland, because he was born near to there, in British Guiana and so, he is able to relate how Toussaint became the “thorn to de French” or a “beacon of de Haitian Revolution,” a man to look up to and to learn about, but in Britain, he is a non-entity, never spoken about. This is the conflict here in this poem; the differential attitudes white British people have towards those from the Caribbean and especially, their history. This is why TV programmes like Who Do You Think You Are are important to watch whenever a celebrity from Caribbean culture is featured. We can learn so much from those episodes.  

Then Agard mentions how he learnt in English schools all about “de man who discover de balloon and de cow who jump over de moon” and how “de dish run away with de spoon,” all of them nursery rhymes intended to teach young British children certain things, but somehow, Black characters from history were never seen, heard of or spoken of and when they were, it was often as a butt of a joke, like the Gollywog (Google a picture and see). I wonder if in fifty years time, people will speak and read about the likes of Barack Obama, or Martin Luther King Jr? It is the same kind of hypocrisy that is being discussed here, in this poem. We call ourselves British, but we ignore at least fifty percent of others who are British, in favour of one thing or another; the epitome of what being British actually might mean. One could argue that is white nationalism at its worst.

But then, Agard mentions someone called “Nanny de maroon,” who we find was a “woman of mountain dream,” which is again, something typical white English GCSE students are unaware of. So I ask you now, as students, to Google the life out of this poem, so as to learn about all these people. It will help your understanding of the poem, but also of the wider world and its history and identity. She was a “freedom river” for her people, just like “Lord Nelson and Waterloo.” 

We know about Waterloo, don’t we? Please tell me that is a yes! 

But just as much as we know about Nelson and Waterloo, we know very little about people in African history, like “Shaka de great Zulu.” We might know about Christopher “Columbus and 1492” but are we aware of who or what the “Caribs and de Arawaks too?” All of these are valid questions, because Agard is pointing out that our understanding of history is a one sided history written by those who won the battles, the Victors of previous conflict. If you are not sure what I mean, ask yourself who wrote your History books you have read so far. The answer is that it is usually from someone whose side won the war, or conflict. 

Then we come to a very well known name, or at least I thought so till I asked those three classes about her. Just who was Florence Nightingale? If you do not know the answer, then get reading, because those who read the most score the highest GCSE grades. There is a proven correlation between the two things. Agard says “dem tell me bout Florence Nightingale and she lamp,” the lady who went to the Crimean (near Russia) War, as a nurse and comforted many a battle scarred British soldier. But, says Agard, when they were teaching him about Florence Nightingale, “dem never tell me bout Mary Seacole, from Jamaica,” who travelled “to the Crimean War” because “she volunteer to go” even when “de British said no.” 

Google Mary Seacole and see for yourselves. She is an important figure in British history, but is ignored for one reason; the colour of her skin. She was told she could not go because those in charge, who were white, had a very dim view of black people. We think we have moved on and become enlightened, don’t we? But ask yourself another question. Why, in 2022, do we need a movent like Black Lives Matter? 

See it now? We Brits have always been inherently racist to the core! 

Agard says that “she still brave the Russian snow, a healing star among the wounded, a yellow sunrise to the dying.” She gave comfort to the dying souls in the Crimea at the time, was a friendly face to those who needed one and yet, she has been whitewashed out of British history. (I used white-washed, on purpose) So Agard says, “dem tell me wha dem want to tell me, but now I checking out me own history” because “I carving out me identity.” What he means by this is simple. He now, as an adult, has the right to access any information and learning on what he sees being British is all about and it is his desire now, to shape and carve out his identity, because he is British, yes, but he is also so much more than that! 

As to the language of the poem, I shall leave that to others, but know this. Poems like this are written to be performed, so enjoy what follows and see how he meant the words to be stressed. Perhaps, even underline the key words where he stresses more the depth of the word.