‘Checking Out Me History’ is a modern poem by the Guyanese poet, John Agard. Agard was born in Guyana (then British Guiana) in 1949 and spent his childhood in the South American country. In 1977, he and his partner Grace Nichols moved to Britain to pursue dreams of being professional writers. John Agard received the Queen’s Medal for Poetry in 2012 and his poetry frequently appears on the GCSE curriculum. He chooses to discuss issues of cultural identity, issues of race and power in his poetry.
The title of the poem reflects the subject matter. The poem is clearly written from the perspective of someone from a Caribbean culture, as the title is written in a Creole dialect. The words ‘Checking Out’ seems to make the idea of looking at history less formal, the poet is doing this in his own time rather than the more formal ‘studying’ of history we do at school. The word ‘me’ shows that he is looking into a more personal aspect of history than might be expected in a formal setting. One might suppose this will be a poem about family history or ancestry but it is instead about the whole of Caribbean and African history, long neglected in schools.
‘Checking Out Me History’ is a poem of two sides. Agard wants us to be aware of both the things he was taught at school and the things he did not learn in the mainstream curriculum that he feels are important. He uses the physical separation of the stanzas and the font styles to indicate which culture he is referencing. The sections written in regular font refer mostly to the British Colonial education of his youth. The lines are longer and more regular in form although the rhymes used are simplistic, implying the lack of importance Agard associates with these things.
Agard has used elements from his own Caribbean culture throughout the piece. He rejects European syntax and English pronunciation throughout the text, choosing to write instead with a Caribbean, Creole dialect. He also rejects mainstream and traditional forms of poetry in favour of a much more fluid form of verse, without punctuation. The verses use many of the signposts of oral poetry tradition, reflecting the Afro-Caribbean situation. In many countries it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write. The oral tradition markers include repetition and chorus use, as well as strong rhythms and a chanting, lilting style. These are emphasised when Agard performs his poetry himself.
The italic verses are more varied and show a level of sophistication of thought, rhyme and rhythm. They are chant-like, reflecting the oral nature of much Caribbean cultural material. Repetition, another oral poetry technique is also used. Use of metaphor is reserved for the figures from black history rather than those from British culture. Agard also introduces nursery rhyme and folk figures into his discussions of British culture, making the historic figures like Florence Nightingale and Lord Nelson seem more trivial.
Ideas and Language
The poem ‘Checking Out Me History’ is both an angry and assertive poem that links the history one is taught in school with a sense of cultural identity or lack thereof.
Agard talks of ‘dem’ and ‘me’, clearly separating himself from those who taught history at school. Agard references both the blindness he felt at knowing nothing of his own culture: ‘Bandage up me eye’ and ‘Blind me to me own identity’ and the light and vision he ascribes to learning about people from the Caribbean. A bandage should be healing in nature but here it is used to hide the truth from the poet. The use of ‘bandage’ perhaps refers to the fact that colonialists felt they were doing this (giving a European education) ‘for the good of the people’. He refers to Toussaint de beacon’ and Mary Seacole as the ‘healing star’ and ‘yellow sunrise’, all images of light and warmth and healing. Seacole is described at being like a heavenly body, linking her to the greater universe. Mary Seacole’s defiance of the British is referred to as a heroic action: ‘even when de British said no’. She is shown to be more sensible and brave than the British who tried to prevent her from reaching Russia.
While Agard shows anger at his lack of Caribbean education, he ends the poem on a positive note. He is determined to learn about and embrace his own history. He refers to the need to learn about his history in a permanent way. He may be dismissive of the European history, calling it ‘all dat’ but he is ‘carving out’ his identity through learning about his own history. The term ‘carving’ suggests the strength, determination and permanence of his actions.
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