Checking Out Me History Analysis by John Agard

Checking Out Me History Analysis: The poem was published in a collection entitled Half-Caste and Other Poems (2007), a mixture of old and new poems concerned with the theme of race and cultural identity.

Along with poems about violence, relationships, politics, and grief, there are also humorous poems that explore everyday events from quirky or surprising points of view.

As one of a series of poems chosen to appeal directly to young adults, ‘Checking Out Me History’ deals with the topical issue of historical relevancy: ‘Dem tell me/Wha dem want to tell me’.

The speaker suggests that because black history and experience has been forgotten or ignored, what was taught to him was irrelevant. More importantly, it ‘Blind me to my own identity’. Only by finding out for himself about the historical and social achievements of black people can he develop a personal identity that reflects his cultural and racial roots.

This poem draws on Agard’s experience to make us look at the way history is taught, and at how we conceive our identity as we learn about cultural traditions and narratives.

It becomes clear that Agard had to follow a history curriculum biased towards whites, especially British whites so that he learned about mythical, nursery rhyme characters instead of living black people from the past.

Checking Out Me History Analysis

He challenges this view of history and cites some major black figures to balance the bias and create a basis for his own identity.

Structure and language

Structure

Checking Out Me History alternates between two structures, marked by two different fonts. The first uses the repeated phrase “Dem tell me” to indicate the white version of history, mostly written in rhyming couplets, triplets or quatrains.

Interspersed are the stories of three black historical figures: Toussaint L’Overture, Nanny de Maroon and Mary Seacole, told using abbreviated syntax with words missed out, shorter lines and an irregular rhyme scheme.

Sound

  1. Agard uses variations in spelling to suggest the Caribbean dialect, especially replacing ‘th’ with ‘d’. This stresses the importance of carving out his “own identity”.
  2. There is repetition – particularly of “Dem tell me” – throughout the poem, creating a sense of rhythm.
  3. End rhyme is heavily used, emphasized by adapted sections of nursery rhymes: the dish who ran away with the spoon, and Old King Cole, for example.

Imagery


  1. In the “Dem tell me” sections the poet refers to nursery rhyme characters and other non-historical people, like Robin Hood or the cow who jumped over the moon. Even “1066 and all dat”, which might appear to be a historical reference, is probably citing a humorous book (published in 1930) famous for its irreverent parody of histories of England. There’s a suggestion that the version of history taught to the poet is not exactly accurate even before you consider that black people have been completely left out.
  2. The sections on individual black historical figures contain stronger imagery, with the use of nature metaphors to powerful effect. Toussaint L’Overture is a “thorn” and a “beacon”. Nanny de Maroon is linked with a mountain, fire, and rivers. Mary Seacole is described in dramatic imagery as a “healing star” and a “yellow sunrise” to the patients she treats.
  3. All three are associated with light – “beacon”, “fire-woman” and “star” – suggesting that they play metaphorical roles, illuminating the poet’s true historical identity.

Attitudes, themes, and ideas


  1. What kind of tone does the poem have? Like the structure, the tone also divides into two. The “Dem tell me” sections have an accusatory, rebellious tone to them, created by repetition and short lines at the beginning. Whereas the sections on Toussaint L’Overture, Nanny de Maroon and Mary Seacole are celebratory in tone, emphasized by images of nature and using epic (out of the ordinary) vocabulary – words like “vision”, “see-far” and “star”.
  2. It is a poem that challenges us to consider the meaning of history, how we come to know about the past and accept versions of history. The poet might be provoking us to “check out” our own histories, particularly if they include periods or important figures not taught in schools.
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