The poem is highly personal to Jackie Kay’s experience. It was included in a memoir she wrote titled Red Dust Road. ‘Pride’ describes the speaker, the poet herself, coming to a new understanding of who she is and where she comes from and feeling pride in her heritage. The same kind of pride she has seen men and women in Scotland experience in their specific clans.
‘Pride’ by Jackie Kay is about having pride in one’s identity and a woman’s extraordinary meeting with a man on a night train.
In the first part of the poem, the speaker begins by describing herself on a train during a nighttime journey leaving Euston station. She meets a black man on the train with whom she has an instant connection. She feels as though he can see into her mind and her past.
To an extent, this proves to be true. They speak, and he explains that she is Ibo or that she comes from a specific tribe in Africa. This is highly relevant to the speaker, who is on a journey of self-discovery. They converse further, and he makes her feel as though her identity is something to be incredibly proud of. When the poem concludes, it becomes clear that the speaker has imagined this entire interaction.
You can read the full poem here.
The main theme of the poem is identity. The speaker, Jackie Kay, imagines an interaction with a black man on a train. The man helps her understand who she is and gives her a new pride in her heritage that she didn’t have before. The poet was inspired to write this piece by her own longing for a meaningful identity she could call her own and an understanding of who her birth parents were.
Structure and Form
‘Pride’ by Jackie Kay is an eight-stanza poem that’s written in free verse. The stanzas vary in length, from two lines up to nineteen. The poet uses a variety of literary techniques, including assonance, consonance, half rhyme, and even a few examples of full rhyme to hint at rhythm without fully structuring the poem with any specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern.
Throughout this poem, the poet uses a few different literary devices. They include:
- Metaphor: a comparison between two things that uses neither of the word “like” or the word “as.” For example, the poet compares her eyes to dark pools.
- Simile: a comparison between two things that uses the word “like” or the word “as.” For instance, the poet writes, “the stranger and I looking at each other, / a look that was like something being given.”
- Repetition: the use of the same literary device multiple times. For example, the man on the train repetitively asserts that the speaker is Ibo.
- Alliteration: the use of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “same speed” in stanza four.
When I looked up, the black man was there,
staring into my face,
as if he had always been there,
as if he and I went a long way back.
He looked into the dark pool of my eyes
as the train slid out of Euston.
For a long time this went on
the stranger and I looking at each other,
a look that was like something being given
from one to the other.
In the first stanza of this meaningful poem, the speaker begins by describing herself on a night train that is currently departing from Euston station. All of a sudden, when she looks up from her seat, she sees a black man staring at her.
He stares at her with a look that makes her feel as though he’s always been there and that the two of them have known one another for a long time. This isn’t true, but the speaker immediately senses a connection between them that she can’t deny.
They stared at each other for a long time, a fact that the speaker uses a simile to compare to the exchange of “something” between the two. They were each giving the other something in their presence and in their stare.
The poet describes her eyes as “dark pools.” This is a lovely metaphor that suggests mystery and depth. It easily connects to the book in which the poet included this piece, Red Dust Road. It is a memoir in which Jackie kay recounts her journey to find her birth mother and father.
At this point, it’s unclear who this man is and what connection they share. It takes several more stanzas for the true meaning of the poem to be revealed.
My whole childhood, I’m quite sure,
passed before him, the worst things
through the English countryside,
past unwritten stops in the blackness.
While the two stared at one another, the speaker felt as though the man could see into her soul. It felt as though her entire life was laid out before him. He could see the worst things she’s ever done as well as the biggest lies she never told. He has this imagined insight into her personal history that has a purpose in the third stanza.
The name of the book, Red Dust Road, is also included in the stanza. She sees the man as a boy walking on the red dust road (traveling a road in Africa) just as she’s traveling, seeking out her birth parents and information about her African identity.
The man speaks to her halfway through the stanza, telling her that she’s “Ibo.” This is a reference to a specific tribe in Nigeria. He expresses his belief in her identity quite emphatically. He thumps the table and repeatedly asserts that she is “an Ibo!”
The speaker is, of course, surprised by his exclamation and his assertion. This is representative of the revelatory insights that Jackie Kay was hoping to receive on this journey of discovery. She wanted to know who she was and where she came from after being adopted into a Scottish family. This type of revelation, coming suddenly out of the blue, would probably have been very welcome.
That nose is an Ibo nose.
Those teeth are Ibo teeth,’ the stranger said,
in the lower part of my jaw.
The third stanza continues the man’s words as he declares that each part of the speaker’s face screams out an Ibo heritage. This includes her nose and teeth. At first, readers might be confused as to whether the man sees her features as a positive or a negative. But, the speaker reveals that she’s able to interpret from the man’s tone that Ibo features, like those he says she has, are the best and the most perfect to possess.
Again, this assertion about her identity is idealized. Of course, someone seeking out the true nature of their heritage would want to believe that they came from somewhere good.
The other people on the train, the poet says, were drawn to the exchange the two were sharing, especially considering the liveliness the man brings to an otherwise dark night and seemingly dreary journey.
One of the most important lines of the poem is in this third stanza when the speaker describes how with a few words, the man was able to transform her face into a map. He was able to see everything about her, including the name of her village in Nigeria, in her facial features. The ease of his recognition also suggests the way that Jackie Kay felt different growing up in primarily white Scotland.
As she always likely felt, this exchange is confirming for her that she screams out the difference in just her appearance. It’s very clear to this man that she’s not Scottish and is different from the others on the train.
I told him what I’d heard was my father’s name.
Okafor. He told me what it meant,
Tell me about the Ibos.
The speaker engages with the man, telling him what she knows about her father. He shares the meaning of her father’s name, adding more meaning to her search for identity.
She asked the man to tell her about the Ibos as a people. As she watches him, it seems to the speaker that the man is transforming, becoming someone important to her, someone who helped her connect to her past and her people.
He could’ve been her “brother, my father as a young man, / or any member of my large clan.” She is already feeling connected to people she would very much like to meet.
His face had a look
I’ve seen on a MacLachlan, a MacDonell, a MacLeod,
There would be none of this corruption.
When the man talked about the Ibo people, he had to look on his face that the speaker could recognize from her knowledge of various Scottish clans. That was pride. He decides that they should eat together, sharing a “spicy meat patty,” and he tells her, in simple language, about the Ibos.
As one might’ve expected, the man only has praise for this African clan. They’re small, clever, reliable, faithful, and true, and if they were in charge of Nigeria, there would be “none of this corruption.” (This is an allusion to the contemporary political moment in Nigeria.) Once again, the speaker receives an idealized image of who her people are and, by default, who she is as well.
And what, I asked, are the Ibos faults?
I smiled my newly acquired Ibo smile,
‘Faults? No faults. Not a single one.’
The sixth stanza is only five lines long and is the second shortest of the poem. She asked the man if the Ibos had any faults. But, the man asserts emphatically that no, they have “not a single one.”
When she describes herself in these lines, she writes about her “newly acquired Ibo smile” and her “gleaming Ibo teeth.” She’s embracing her new identity quite willingly and happily. The man has given her something that she’s always wanted.
I saw myself arriving
the trees heavy with other fruits,
the bright things, the flowers.
The seventh stanza is quite long, stretching to nineteen lines. The man explains the Ibo’s kindness and loving attitude by describing what he thinks would happen if she went home to Nigeria. They would be huge celebrations, he thinks, and if anyone from her family was still alive there, they would welcome her with open arms.
It is easy for the speaker to get lost in this imagined scenario. She sees herself walking down the red dust road in Africa, admiring the trees and other bright things, like flowers, around her.
I saw myself watching
the old people dance towards me
My grandmother was like me exactly, only darker.
The speaker can see herself at a distance, watching old people dance for her and dancing herself in a way that she never knew she knew how to. This moment of revelatory meaning helps make her feel complete. It’s this kind of connection that she seeks out on her journey throughout this book.
She imagines that she might even be able to speak their language and that her grandmother might still be alive, looking just like her but only darker. She fits in with them well and acquires the elements of culture that she’s been lacking throughout her life.
When I looked up, the black man had gone.
Only my own face startled me in the dark train window
The final two lines of the poem are incredibly important and reveal something that casts the entire poem in a different light. It’s revealed that the black man was only in her imagination.
In front of her, it’s only her own face startling her in the “dark train window.” She was only looking at her reflection the whole time, imagining what it would be like to be recognized and have any amount of understanding about who she is and where she comes from.
The purpose is to explore how important it is to know who one is and where one comes from. While often pride is painted in a negative light, pride in one’s heritage and people is important.
The woman on the train journey in this poem is Jackie Kay herself. While she may have invented this imagined interaction with a black man on the train, the feelings and desires are all her own.
The message is that everyone wants to feel as though they belong. Jackie Kay loved her family, but, as is the case with many adopted children, she couldn’t help but want to know who her birth parents were and where she came from.
The tone is direct. Although the topics explored in the poem are very emotional for the poet, the speaker relays her interaction with this imagined black man in clear and straightforward detail. Despite this, the descriptions of her inquiries and of herself after she learns about her heritage imply a new sense of pride in her heritage.
If you enjoyed this poem, you should also consider reading some other Jackie Kay poems. For example:
- ‘Darling’ – was inspired by Kay’s experience of losing a close friend.
- ‘Divorce’ – explores the impact that divorce has on children.
- ‘Got You’ – a poem that explores sibling rivalry and love.