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Checking Out Me History: Power and Conflict Analysis

John Agard is a poet, playwright and children’s writer. He was born in British Guiana (now called Guyana) in the Caribbean, in 1949. He moved to the UK in the late 1970s. Checking Out Me History was published in 2007.

While countries in the Caribbean were under British rule, their education system was Euro-centric. This meant that school teaching focused on White European ideas, ignoring Black history and culture.

Agard mentions figures from Black history in the poem. Here is some information about them:

Toussaint L’OuvertureLeader of the Haitian Revolution, a successful revolt against the French colonisers in Haiti.
Nanny of the MaroonsNanny led a community of the formerly enslaved to fight against the colonial British in Jamaica.
Shaka ZuluKing of the Zulu Kingdom in Southern Africa and a successful military tactician.
Caribs and ArawaksNative tribes in the Caribbean who were killed by European colonisers.
Mary SeacoleA nurse, businesswoman and writer who helped soldiers during the Crimean War.

Poem Summary

The narrator remembers how he was taught British history at school, but not history that was part of his culture. He mocks some of the trivial nursery rhymes he was taught. In a more serious tone, he speaks of important figures in Black history. At the end of the poem, he says he is reclaiming his identity by learning the history he was denied at school. 

The poem’s key message:

The poem highlights how British colonisers exerted their power by not allowing people in the Caribbean to learn about their culture. The narrator shows that, by doing this, it takes away an important part of their identity.

Language

  • Agard uses non-standard phonetic spelling (the words are spelt as they would sound) to represent his own accent. This is shown in the lines, “Dem tell me/ Wha dem want to tell me”. This helps with the message that the narrator is reclaiming his culture because his language reflects Caribbean speech rather than Standard British English.
  • Figurative language is used to demonstrate the effect of Euro-centric education in the Caribbean. The narrator says the British “Bandage up me eye with me own history/ Blind me to me own identity”. The imagery of being “Blind” shows that the colonisers deliberately hid his culture from him. “Bandage” is ironic because bandages are usually used to help people, but here it symbolises the harm done to him.
  • A semantic field of light is used when describing key figures from Black history. Toussaint L’Ouverture is a “beacon” (a light in a lighthouse used for guidance); Nanny of the Maroons is a “fire-woman”; Mary Seacole is a “healing star” and “yellow sunrise”. These light images could show their importance to the narrator, helping him see his own culture and identity.

Structure

  • At the beginning, there is a very angry tone as the narrator repeats bitterly, “Dem tell me”.
  • At the end, he repeats these words. However, he then adds the triumphant words, “But now I checking out me own history/ I carving out me identity”. Unlike most of the poems in the anthology, this poem ends on a hopeful note. The narrator is able to reclaim the power that was taken away from him.
  • Agard alternates between British and Black history, allowing the reader to see their differences.

Form

  • The poem is written in the first person, so we directly hear the narrator’s emotions about the education he was taught.
  • When writing about the British history and nursery rhymes the narrator was taught, there is a song-like rhythm and rhyme. This shows his view that this was childish information, irrelevant to him.
  • When talking about figures from Black history, the line lengths are shortened and written in italics. This makes the tone more serious, showing the importance of this information.

Themes

ThemeAnalysis
State powerThose in charge of the education he received gave him a Euro-centric and one-sided view of history. For instance, he learnt about “Columbus and 1492”, but not the atrocities committed by colonisers who killed the native people of the lands. This choice of education is shown to be a deliberate act to “Blind” the narrator and others from the truth of their own culture. Taking away their identities is a cruel way that the state exerts its power.
AngerThe narrator’s bitter tone is apparent from the first lines of “Dem tell me/ Wha dem want to tell me”. He feels that a great injustice has been done in not teaching him more relevant information about his culture. When referencing the British nursery rhymes he was taught, his tone carries a mocking sarcasm, exemplified in “Dem tell me bout de dish ran away with de spoon”.
IdentityThe narrator sees history and culture as vital to a person’s identity. When he is denied learning about Black history, he sees this as being blind “to me own identity”. However, at the end of the poem, he finds his true identity by educating himself on history more relevant to his cultural heritage.

Key Quotes to Learn

QuoteWhy is it important?
“Dem tell me”“Dem” represents those in power, including the government and British colonisers, who dictated the curriculum. The narrator expresses his resentment towards these entities.
“Bandage up me eye with me own history”A bandage is supposed to be something that helps people to heal from an injury. It is used ironically here as he feels great harm has been done to him through the education he has been given.
“I carving out me identity”By learning about Black history, the narrator learns more about his identity. The metaphor of “carving” shows that he permanently changes how he sees himself.

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