in A Level, AQA, English Literature, Poetry

‘Checking Out Me History’ is an incredible poem. While I was writing it, it led me to think about my own personal history and cultural influences, and I encourage you to do the same! It’s like going down a historical rabbit hole, as you learn more about the history of your ancestors you also discover more about yourself and the formation of your own character and identity. Agard’s main message is that we are only taught a small fraction of history in schools, and that may not always be directly relevant or useful to us. We should all embark on our own personal journeys of self discovery by uncovering out own personal histories.

This analysis is tailored towards students at GCSE, iGCSE and above, particularly on the following exam boards: AQA, OCR, WJEC/Eduqas, CCEA, CIE, Edexcel. However, it’s also useful for anyone studying the poem at any level.

Thanks for reading! If you find this page useful, you can check out our full English Language and English Literature courses.

AQA Power and Conflict Poetry

Unseen Poetry

AQA Power and Conflict Poetry Analysis


Checking Out Me History 

Dem tell me 

Dem tell me 

Wha dem want to tell me 

Bandage up me eye with me own history 

Blind me to me own identity…

(Full poem unable to be reproduced due to copyright restrictions)

John Agard

VOCABULARY 

To check out – to investigate 

With vision – this phrase has a double meaning, it can mean physically being able to see, but more likely Agard intends to use it metaphorically – in this sense, it means having the insight that others do not, or having a clear sense of purpose and drive to progress. 

Black Republican – a ‘Republican’ is a member of a Republican political party, in this case, the one which was in power in Haiti (St Domingue) at the time that Toussaint L’Overture rose to power. Agard says that he was the first Black Republican because he was the first black member of this political party, demonstrating his intelligence and political skills. 

Thorn – a sharp spike, such as those on a rose bush. Agard may be thinking of the phrase ‘thorn in the side’ when he describes Toussaint as a thorn to the French, meaning that he was a constant cause of pain and discomfort.

Beacon – a shining light, often used metaphorically to describe a light of hope 

Zulu – an African tribal culture and language 

Caribs – American Indian people who originated from South America and later inhabited the Lesser Antilles – islands in the Caribbean Sea which were later taken over by the Spanish, French, Dutch and British. 

Arawaks – another group of indigenous people who inhabited the Greater and Lesser Antilles, they are now viewed to be extinct and most Arawakan languages are no longer spoken. 

Guyanese Dialect:

Me – my 

Dem – Them / They 

Bout – about 

Dat – that 

He cat – his cat 

De – the 

She lamp – her lamp 

STORY/SUMMARY 

(Stanza 1) They tell me, they tell me what they want to tell me, bandage up my eye with my own history and blind me to my own identity, they tell me about 1066 and all that, they tell me about Dick Whittington and his cat, but Toussaint L’Overture, no they never tell me about that.

(Stanza 2) Toussaint, a slave with vision licked back Napoleon’s battalion and he was the first Black Republican when he was born, the French called him Toussaint the thorn, he was Toussaint the beacon of the Haitian Revolution.

(Stanza 3) They tell me about the man who discovered the balloon and the cow who jumped over the moon, they tell me about the dish that ran away with the spoon, but they never tell me about Nanny de maroon. 

(Stanza 4) Nanny was a far-seeing (visionary) woman with a mountain dream,  a woman of fire who struggled in a hopeful stream towards the river of freedom. 

(Stanza 5) They tell me about Lord Nelson and Waterloo, but they never tell me about Shaka the great Zulu, they tell me about Columbus and 1492, but what happened to the Caribs and Arawaks too? 

(Stanza 6) They tell me about Florence Nightingale and her lamp, and how Robin Hood used to camp, they tell me about old King Cole who was a merry old soul, but they never tell me about Mary Seacole.

(Stanza 7) From Jamaica she (Mary Seacole) traveled far to the Crimean War, she volunteered to go, and even the British said no, but still she braved the Russian snow, a healing star among the wounded, a yellow sunrise to the dying soldiers. 

(Stanza 8) They tell me what they want to tell me, but now I am checking out my own history, I am carving out my own identity. 

SPEAKER/VOICE 

The speaker is Agard himself, a poet who speaks from his own personal viewpoint about his mixed heritage and culture. He is playful, yet critical in tone as he points out the failure in education systems to present an unbiased and whole perspective on history and culture. Often in schools, we are only taught about the historical figures who were on the winning side of history, or who pertain to the dominant culture – in this case, a Western or ‘Eurocentric’ culture. There are many heroes and important historical figures who go unsung and unremembered, so Agard seeks to celebrate some of these in his poem – we could therefore say that it also has a celebratory tone that runs as a counterpoint to the criticism. There are two voices in the poem, distinguished by the different rhythms and styles of the stanzas (see ‘structure’ for more info on these). 

LANGUAGE 

Guyanese dialect – as an Afro-Guyanese poet, Agard uses his own native dialect to speak honestly and openly about his culture and heritage – instead of trying to conform to Western standards of grammar and spelling, he speaks more comfortably in his own way, asking the Western reader for once to listen and learn on his own terms, and to try hard to understand and keep up with him. This is a reversal of the normal situation, wherein school Agard would have been told that his dialect was ungrammatical and inferior to ‘standardised’ grammar. He talks of this dialect as showing his ‘linguistic heritage’ because it is a form of Creole that mixes English, French and African influences together to create its own distinctive style. He also says that the use of this dialect demonstrates a ‘pride simultaneously in language but also in history’ because history and language are closely related and each contributes to the formation of the other. 

Demotic, conversational style – another outcome of the language used in the poem is that it creates a demotic style – one that feels colloquial, personal, and informal. 

Anaphora – ‘Dem tell me bout’ / ‘but dem never tell me bout’ – these lines run like motifs throughout the poem, underscoring the important distinction that in history we are always told about certain things, whereas other things are left out. Agard asks us to do our own searching, to discover our own histories and cultures, and not just stick to textbooks or a standardised curriculum. 

Epithets – ‘Toussaint L’Ouverture’, ‘Toussaint de thorn’ ‘Toussaint de beacon’ – the figure of Toussaint is given different titles, or epithets. His original name was Toussaint Breda, so these are all nicknames given to him later in his career. An overture is a musical term for an opening or an introduction to a greater piece of music, so the title suggests that Toussaint was the introduction to something even greater than himself – in this case, the independence and freedom of the Haitian people from French colonisation. We are told that the French called him ‘de thorn’, a suggestion that he was painful and destructive in their opinion. However, the Haitians call him ‘de beacon’, a shining ray of light that symbolises hope or glory. This shows the double nature of history – that a heroic figure from one perspective could be deemed a villain from another. 

Plosive alliteration – powerful plosive sounds such as ‘dem’, ‘bout’, ‘dat’, ‘Black Republic’  create an emphatic and strong rhythm to the poem, underscoring its political message as they create a voice similar to a public speaker delivering an impassioned political speech. 

Metaphors – ‘a healing star/ among the wounded / a yellow sunrise  / to the dying’ – Mary Seacole is metaphorically described as a ‘healing star’ and ‘yellow sunrise’, emblems of hope and positivity that reflect the spiritually and physically healing work that she did during the Crimean war. 

STRUCTURE / FORM 

Two voices – there are two voices in the poem, with distinctly different tones; one speaks in a nursery rhyme, the other tells true history. The rhyming voice is musical, but also quite lighthearted in tone as if it only talks of history in an entertaining way. The second voice is structurally very different from the first, it is offset from the margin of the page and italicised to emphasise its difference in tone. This makes it perhaps more serious and emphatic than the first, which feels more whimsical. These contrasting voices underscore Agard’s message about the difference between the history which we are taught, and our own personal histories that make up who we are – both culturally and genetically. 

Irregular stanza and line length – the irregularity of the lines and stanzas, coupled with a constantly changing metre and rhythm create a disjointed poem that shifts tone and mood as it progresses. Yet there is also a consistency to the structure of the poem, reinforced by the anaphora ‘Dem tell me bout…’ ‘But dem never tell me bout…’ which is repeated at the beginning of the nursery-rhyme like sections. This form, coupled with its ABAB rhyme scheme is similar to a calypso – a Caribbean form of poetry that is close to music and sounds lighthearted but is often used to deliver a strong political message – Agard himself half-sings the poem when he recites it and has described the process of poetry writing as similar to music: ‘a text becomes like a musical score’.  Certain concepts in the poem are also emphasised by the use of the rhyme scheme, such as the final rhyming couplet at the end of the poem, which harmonises the abstract nouns ‘history’ and ‘identity’. 

CONTEXT 

Agard is an Afro-Guyanese poet (born in 1949 in Guyana, West Indies), he moved to the UK in 1977, at 28 years old. His poems explore the effects of colonialism (when countries expand their empires by taking over other countries) on culture and identity. 

Guyana used to be called ‘British Guyana’, and it was colonised by the British Empire – so English culture and language had a lot of influence over the people there. In many ways, people from the Caribbean feel culturally close to British people because of this shared history. The problem he has is when certain cultural backgrounds are considered superior to others – many other Caribbean writers explore this theme in their work too, suggesting it is sadly a common experience for people of that background to face racial prejudice. 

Agard’s mother was Portuguese, whereas his father was Afro-Caribbean, so he is of dual heritage (or ‘half-caste’ as he calls it in another poem). In this sense, Agard feels he must be sensitive to Western and non-Western perspectives on history, in order to fully understand his own complex cultural heritage. 

1066 – the Battle of Hastings took place on 14th October 1066, and is commonly taught as an important moment in British history. The Anglo-Saxon army, led by King Harold Godwinson, lost to William, Duke of Normandy. Late into the day-long battle, Harold was killed and the English soldiers were left without a leader, allowing the Normans to win. William became known as ‘William the Conqueror’ and he took over England, this event led to the English language and culture is merged with French for hundreds of years to come. 

Dick Whittington and his cat – this is an English folk story loosely based on real-life merchant Richard Whittington. In the legend, Dick Whittington was an orphan boy born in rural poverty and he walked to London to seek his fortune; he had a cat who was very good at hunting, he made a fortune by selling his cat, marries a rich merchant’s daughter and eventually becomes a knight and three times the Lord Mayor of London. It is a ‘rags to riches’ story that celebrates perseverance and resourcefulness, but as Agard points out, it is the kind of story that is told very much from a Western British perspective – children are taught fairy tales such as the one about Dick Whittington from a very young age, but they are never taught other cultures’ stories and histories. 

Toussaint L’Ouverture was the nickname for Toussaint Breda, a man who was born a slave in Saint-Domingue (now named Haiti). His father had grown up a free man in Africa before he was captured and turned into a slave, and Toussaint managed to educate himself whilst on a slave plantation – there is some debate as to how he did this, perhaps with the help of his godfather Pierre Baptiste. Toussaint famously stated: “I was born a slave, but nature gave me the soul of a free man.”. Toussaint became the leader of the 1791 slave rebellion against the French. He switched allegiance to the French after that when the new Republican government abolished slavery, leading to Agard’s description of him as the ‘first Black/ Republican’. Over the next few years, he gained increasing political power in Haiti until he was finally able to name himself ‘Governor-General’ (President for life) of the country. In 1802 he was invited to a parley – a political meeting – by a French General named Jean-Baptise Brunet on orders by Napoleon (the French political leader at the time). They tricked him and arrested him, and brought him back to France where he was imprisoned and eventually died some months later from starvation. In 1904, Haiti finally became independent, naming Toussaint as ‘the Father of Haiti’ for his contributions to the revolution. 

Checking out me history
Photo by George DeBaptiste. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Haitian Revolution – a successful revolt that started in 1791 and ended with Haitian independence in 1804. Led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, ex-slaves, Spanish, British and even some French residents of Haiti fought against French colonial rule to the point where they regained independence. It was the only slave rebellion to succeed in creating a country that was ruled by non-whites and free from slavery, seen as a turning point in history. 

Nanny de maroon – a woman who was born in the late 1600s in Ghana, Africa. She made her way to Jamaica – though whether she was brought as a slave there or not is unclear as she mostly was documented in oral traditions, which all have slightly different accounts of her. She led a group of formerly enslaved people called the Windward Maroons to rise up against their British oppressors and created her own Jamaican Maroon community which was closely based on the traditional native communities in African tribal culture from which most of the slaves had been displaced. Over a 30 year period, she is credited with freeing over 1000 slaves.  

Lord Nelson and Waterloo – Horatio Nelson, a famous naval officer who won many battles against Napoleon and the French – most notably his victory at the Battle of Waterloo. He had a reputation for being bold and brave, losing an eye and later an arm in various battles. He was killed by a French sniper in the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), and it is widely thought that his efforts in this last battle prevented Napoleon from invading Britain.  Waterloo was the last battle of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), a series of battles led by Napoleon in an effort to maintain and expand the French Empire and assert its dominance over other European powers. Napoleon was finally defeated by the British Duke of Wellington and allied European and Russian forces. 

Shaka the great Zulu – a Zulu (African tribal) King who ruled from 1816 to 1828. A great political and military leader who gained and maintained political power through military coups and strategic assassinations. He expanded his empire through battling and conquering tribes, leading to the rise of the Zulu Empire. 

Columbus – an Italian explorer operating in the 1400-1500s, widely credited with discovering America (although this is incorrect as it was in fact discovered by Amerigo Vespucci, hence its name). Christopher Columbus made four voyages to the Americas, opening up connections and trade links that enabled Europeans to colonise North and South America. 

Crimean War (1853-56) – a conflict between Russia and an alliance of Great Britain, France, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire. The causes of the war began over Christian minorities in the Holy Land (then part of the Ottoman Empire), as well as a more general backdrop of European countries expanding and empires fading. 

Florence Nightingale – also known as ‘the Lady of the Lamp’, a woman who managed and trained nurses to care for wounded soldiers during the Crimean War, becoming a hero in Victorian Society. 

Mary Seacole – a British-Jamaican woman who set up the ‘British Hotel’ during the Crimean War as a place for soldiers to heal and recover. She was an astute businesswoman, and came from a long line of doctoresses in Jamaica who used herbal remedies to heal people – she had no formal training as a nurse and was rejected by the War Office when she applied to be a nurse in the Crimean War. So, she traveled there herself and set up her own establishment for healing soldiers, being refused funding she was forced to raise funds off her own back and fell into several periods of hardship after the war. 

Statue of Mary Seacole by Martin Jennings in front of St Thomas’ Hospital, London. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Robin Hood – a famous ruffian who ‘robbed from the rich and gave to the poor’. A legendary outlaw who may have been based on a real-life figure in the 13th Century, he led a group of Merry Men who lived in Sherwood Forest and terrorised the local noblemen and the wealthy. 

Old King Cole – a British nursery rhyme from the early 1700s, featuring a King who may have been real, or only fictional. The rhyme goes like this: 

Old King Cole was a merry old soul,

And a merry old soul was he;

He called for his pipe, and he called for his bowl,

And he called for his fiddlers three.

Every fiddler he had a fiddle,

And a very fine fiddle had he;

Oh there’s none so rare, as can compare,

With King Cole and his fiddlers three.

ATTITUDES 

In an interview about the poem, Agard criticises the ‘Eurocentric’ view of history that he was taught in classes at school – he remembers that the first line of his history book told him that “West Indian history begins in 1492 with the arrival of Columbus”. He also calls the poem ‘celebratory’, it is intended to celebrate some of the important historical figures that we are never taught about in schools – figures who were not European heroes, but from different ethnic and social backgrounds, who were perhaps written out of history or ignored because their actions did not fit into the white European agenda. 

History is written by the victors – there is a sense in the poem of the old phrase, originally uttered by Winston Churchill, that ‘history is written by the victors’, i.e. the history that we know and learn is all created and sustained by those who won battles and came out on top. We must always remember that history is for a large part selective and subjective, it is not only made of facts but also lots of opinions and perspectives – we tend to be taught the perspectives of those who won, as Agard himself puts it: in schools, we are taught a ‘Eurocentric’ perspective on the history. 

History is linked to the formation of identity and culture – the final line of the poem underscores the link between an individual’s identity and the history that he or she comes from. Our cultural backgrounds and beliefs are the result of historical and political events throughout time, and so Agard’s assertion ‘I checking out me own history / I carving out me identity’ demonstrates to us that if we delve deep into our own personal roots and heritage, we can gain a deeper understanding of who we truly are. The history that we are taught in schools in many ways seems objective and detached from ourselves and the present moment, but there is another more personal way to connect to our history and cultural heritage. The possessive and reflexive pronouns ‘me own’ emphasise the idea that a person has their own individual history. This leads the reader to conclude that we should all be in touch with our own histories and cultures, as well as being respectful of others’ cultural backgrounds too. 

THEMES 

  • History 
  • Legend and Myth
  • Imperialism and Empire 
  • Victims in war 
  • Identity 
  • Culture 
  • Cultural Conflicts 

POSSIBLE ESSAY QUESTIONS 

  1. Compare how poets present historical conflicts in  ‘Checking Out Me History’ and at least one other poem from your collection. 
  2. Compare the treatment of cultural conflict in ‘Checking Out Me History’ with at least one other poem from your collection.

Thanks for reading! If you find this page useful, you can check out our full English Language and English Literature courses.

AQA Power and Conflict Poetry

Unseen Poetry

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