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CHECKIN' OUT ME HISTORY


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Click to hear me history...irie xoxox




Introduction to the poem


Colonialism often tells two stories – that of the colonist (those taking over) and that of the colonised (those who were already there). American history books are full of heroic stories of the early settlers and how they struggled to build the greatest nation of earth and where the Native American people were little more than tragic and unfortunate bystanders in the America story, but read a little deeper and you will see that the process of colonialisation in America was a bloody and at times evil affair. The same process can found in Africa where wealthy European nations like England, France, Spain, Holland and Belgium sought to exploit the natural resources, slave labour and precious minerals found in these countries. New technologies allowed European imperialism to spread very quickly and today it is hard to find a developing country that has not be affected by colonialism.

What makes this subject so complex and emotional is that many of those people who were colonised saw their homes, history and culture swallowed up by the new colonial culture. Over time these people have lost their rightful place in history, they have quite literally been rubbed out of the history books, often at the end of gun or hangman’s rope. Many writers and artists working out of parts of the world that have experienced colonialism are now trying to connect to what has been lost by exploring the echoes of a lost or damaged past – songs, social history, folk stories, oral histories, painting, music and dance. History rarely offers us 'facts' about the past and it is important to remember that history is often written by the victors or 'winners' which makes it a very political subject that has to be interrogated to be understood.

When Agard writes 'bandage up me eye with me own history / Blind me to my own identity' the image he presents is of a person being blinded of their own history, their own background. Moreover, the image of the bandage connotes injury and the violence implicit in the word 'blind' suggests that the speaker in the poem has been forcibly restricted from accessing or understanding their own history which is why he or she is 'blind to their own identity'. In other words - how can you know who you are without knowing your own history?

Analysis

The poem is written in dialectical non-standard English, where the poet has tried to capture the natural sounds and phrases of a
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Nanny de Maroon (leader of a slave revolt on Jamaica)
unspecified Caribbean dialect. This is important because one of the major themes of the poem is that of personal identity, of which language and dialect is an important component. Every community on earth has words, phrases, accents and dialects which help to attach people to a particular place. For Agard this is particularly important since his poem ‘checking out me history’ relates how the speaker has been taught all about English and European history, but not his own African history and his use of a Caribbean dialect is another way of expressing his individuality and cultural heritage (background). The poet quickly establishes an ‘us’ and ‘them’ narrative structure which he uses to criticise his European education and the lack of black history in his schooling. He explains how he has been taught about such iconic British historical events as the Battle of Hastings (1066) and major fictional characters like Dick Wittington, but not Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of a revolution on the island of Haiti led by slaves who eventually overcame their French colonisers and established Haitian independence.

He goes on in a similar manner explaining how he has learnt about ‘de man who discovered the balloon’ and ‘de cow who jump over de moon’ but not about Nanny of the Maroons, a Jamaican national hero who escaped from a life of slavery and formed the Jamaican Maroons, a community of runaway slaves who became a guerrilla army freeing other slaves and destroying plantations.

Similarly, the speaker explains that while he has been taught about Lord Nelson, Columbus, Florence Nightingale, and Old King Cole, he has not heard a word said about Shaka or Mary Seacole, a Jamaican nurse who saved the lives of countless wounded soldiers during the Crimean War. Originally she applied to the London War Office in the hope of being sent the front lines where she could apply her skills as a nurse and healer, but incredibly was refused. Not to be deterred she packed up her things, borrowed some money and went anyway, quickly establishing herself as one of the great heroines of the war, hence her nickname ‘Mother Seacole’. Sadly, she returned to England almost penniless and while she was publicly honoured alongside Florence Nightingale, another selfless nurse of the Crimean War, she only survived through the charity of friends and was largely forgotten after her death.

The speaker’s point is either that his black cultural heritage and history has been unfortunately skimmed over or perhaps more worryingly, left out on purpose. Why one history and not the other, when European history during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries is so intimately connected to colonialism? Haiti was one of the first Spanish colonies and sadly one that saw much bloody shed and misery – the native people, who generally came to be known as the Arawak, were almost entirely exterminated and sold into slavery in the first few decades of conquest. That it was also the site of the first Black Republic seems such an important historical event that the speaker feels to ignore is a crime against reason. Equally, Jamaica was a British slave colony where wealthy plantation owners used slave labour to produce sugar in vast, insanely profitable quantities. A minority of wealthy men became stupendously wealthy exploiting the misery and labour of slaves. The British Empire and economy would never have become so powerful without slavery and it was slave colonies like Jamaica that allowed England in particular to become the most powerful trading nation in the world. So why is it, then, that the speaker has been taught such apparent trivia as the man who invented the balloon or the nursery rhyme ‘the cow who jumped over the room’ but not about Nanny of the Maroons, a famed Jamaican freedom fighter who overcame impossible odds to help free her people? The layout of the poem also sees the black history segments offset, indented and italicised which indicates either that these events have been left out or that they need to stand out. The tone of the poem is assertive with a sense of indignation, but not without a playful, childlike quality.
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Shaka, the great Zulu king!

The BIG idea behind this poem is that knowing who you are has a huge amount to do with where you’re coming from. For the speaker in this poem there is an obvious and powerful identification with black history, particularly that of the Caribbean and he feels that despite the gaps in his education he is going to start ‘checking out me own history / I carving out me identity.’

Colonialism and English lessons

One of the ‘tools’ of colonialism is education. It is no mere coincidence that one of the first things that colonists do when they have established a colony is start ‘educating’ the local inhabitants. In the case of the British colonies this meant that the native inhabitants were taught English and British history, took lessons in the English language, were conducted in Christian prayers and were often severely disciplined if they transgressed. In fact English lessons in the colonies were extremely political events designed to transform a native inhabitant into an English colonist of sorts, but often without any legal rights or protection. Perhaps this is why the speaker in the poem writes about ‘Dick Wittington’, ‘The Cow Who Jumped Over the Moon’ and the ‘Dish That Ran Away With the Spoon’, all common stories taught to young students in the English classroom.


A Higher tier response to the poem (Aim for the A/A*)

Dem tell me
Dem tell me
Wha dem want to tell me
Rhythmic in its repetition. The short lines call attention immediately to “Dem” in an accusatory tone.
Bandage up me eye with me own history
Blind me to me own identity
The accusatory tone gets specific and more intense with the longer rhythmic lines. The speaker accuses “Dem” of telling him things that caused him to be blind to his own history, his own sense of self. “Bandage up me eye with me own history” suggests insult to injury in the sense that the accused caused the blindness, then used the listener’s “own history” to cover up the blind eye. In all, the accusation is of a deliberate, cruel attempt to mislead.
Dem tell me bout 1066 and all dat
dem tell me bout Dick Whittington and he cat
But Toussaint L’Ouverture
no dem never tell me bout dat
The speaker cites British history alongside British folktale or fairy tale possibly in an attempt to say (for him) one was not distinguishable from the other. And the emphatic, double negatives—“no” and “never”—in the last line change the sing-song rhythm of the two previous lines.
Toussaint
a slave
with vision
lick back
Napoleon
battalion
and first Black
Republic born
Toussaint de thorn
to the French
Toussaint de beacon
of de Haitian Revolution
The story of Toussaint sounds like a chant almost. And the chant suggests more than one voice—it is oratory, and plural.
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
Once again the seemingly derogatory pairing of history and nursery rhyme / fairy tale.
Nanny
See-far woman
of mountain dream
fire-woman struggle
hopeful stream
to freedom river
Like the lines telling Toussaint’s story, these lines have a plural, oratory sound. But the story is told in fragments, and ends with the un-rhythmic line “to freedom river.” The story is not linear and complete (in reference to the way it sounds) like the story of Toussaint told above. This adds an additional quality to the storyteller. It also befits the story of a “see-far” woman, a visionary woman? The fragmentation creates a mystery, a puzzle, and asks you the listener to see in another dimension, and to recognize an unconventional heroine—not a fairy tale, but a more believable tale of a woman with supernatural powers perhaps. This may suggest a specific addressee as well.
Dem tell me bout Lord Nelson and Waterloo
but dem never tell me bout Shaka de great Zulu
Dem tell me bout Columbus and 1942
but what happen to de Caribs and the Arawaks too
The speaker, in a possible effort to give the accusation wider appeal, points out the exclusion of an integral part of the people of much of the Caribbean and the Americas from the historical narrative he was told.
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
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John Agard

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
The hard-hitting (sounding) “go,” “no,” and “snow,” grab the reader’s attention to the speaker’s crescendo moment in the poem. It is a noticeably loud moment particularly because the woman’s defiance is immediately followed by the speaker’s concluding defiance.
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
In the resolution, he speaker tells us the reason for the address—that he has reclaimed his power, that he can see for himself now. The poem ends on a triumphant note in that sense. The triumph is anti-climactic of course (although complete in a poetic sense) since we are long aware before the end that he has checked out his own history.



Here is a very high band, higher tier response comparing two poems: Look at what it does well and compare that to your own essay writing: what could you do to improve your textual analysis to this standard?


Compare the ways the central characters are presented in

“checking out me history” by John Agard and “Case History:

Alison (head injury) by U. A. Fanthorpe.



The poems “Checking out Me History” and “Case History: Alison”
both use many different techniques and linguistic features in evenly
effective and successful ways to present their central characters
throughout their piece. “Case History: Alison” relies mostly on the
tone set in the poem to convey its characters’ attitude and
message, whereas the poem “Checking out me history”, relies more
on structural techniques and the language featured to put across its
own characters’ different views and ideas.

The ambiguous tone that “Case History: Alison” is flooded with is
shown through the confused emotion in the poem. Alison is happy
about her past life and who she used to be; “a bright girl she was”,
but she regrets what has happened and who she has become; “shall
never get over what I do not remember.”, These two diverse
feelings of reminiscence and regret suggest why there may be two
main characters in the poem instead of one and why they contrast
so much. It also helps show the confused and uncertain voice and
the helplessness of character after the “injury”.
However, the clever use of dialect in “Checking out Me History”,
shows us that the central character in this poem is very proud of his
culture and his roots which along with his dialect have fitted
together to become a huge part of his identity and distinguishes him
as an individual. It also implies that he is not willing to change in
order to conform to society. The lack of punctuation grabs our
attention as not just a way in which the character/writer has chosen
to “rebel” but instead as a representation of the fact that a poem
without punctuation is just like written history without black people;
incomplete. This implies that the character feels that black people
are just as important to history as punctuation is to a piece of
writing. Both these features in the poem show the character’s lack
of regard for the Standard English language and his nonconformist
attitude.
The poems mutually employ metaphors and similes to help stage
their central characters, In “Case History: Alison” the character
describes herself as being “Enmeshed in comforting fat”, This
indicates that her being fat is comforting for her; she feels it
protects her and makes her feel safe by hiding her away from the
real world. The fact that she is comforted by the fat may also imply
that she believes Her “new” self is just like fat; reliable and stable
and she knows she can count on her new self just like a person
relies on fat to provide energy.
Although “Case History: Alison” does not ultimately rely on structure
and Diction to portray the central characters’ thoughts and feelings
like “Checking out me History, the way the writer has played with
personal pronouns and third person pronouns all the way through
the poem emphasises the fact that the head injury has made Alison
feel that she is not the same person anymore.
The use of third person as well as personal pronouns show that the
character has a split personality and it also highlights the irony of
the poem because although she is referring to her old self using
third person she is still the same person that she was before. This
emphasises the fact that she feels she can never be like she used to
and that the person she was and the person she is now are no
where near alike.
Even though the structure of the poem does not grab our attention
immediately the way it Starts with a personal pronoun “I” and ends
with third person “she” shows the character’s uncertainty towards
who she is; it may represent the confusion of a person with a head
injury. Also, Instead of starting from the past and leading up the
present day, the character has done the opposite and has told the
story of who she is and then who she used to be before the
accident. The fact that she has ended it with mentioning her past
indicates that she feels her past self is gone and that her past life is
over.
Both poems use different techniques to create a sound that
influences the way the thoughts and feelings of their central
characters are presented. “Checking out me history” uses repetition
and no punctuation to create an ongoing sound which implies that
black history is also on going and black people are still making
history repetitively. Whereas, in the poem “Case History: Alison”,
there is an absence of regular rhyme, but there is half rhyme, for
example, “morning” and “mourning” this links in with the fact that
She’s also only got a part (half) of her memory or that she only
remembers half of her life and that the missing parts don’t mean
anything to her; like how she can not remember the death of her
father, even though she knows she should be mourning like her past
self must of done and felt something for his absence but because it
is missing from her memory it has left her feeling indifferent.
From this we can see that these two poems both present their
central characters very effectively in a way that engages the reader
and portrays their characters’ thoughts, feelings, and emotions
clearly and effectively. This means the reader is able to understand
and even in some cases relate to the characters staged in the
poems.