Checking Out Me History

John Agard


John Agard

Nationality: African

John Agard is a British playwright with Afro-Guyanese playwright.

He was chosen for the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2012. His collections include Shoot Me With Flowers.

When John Agard wrote ‘Checking Out Me History’ (published in 2005), however, he wanted a different voice to be the speaker of the poem — not the reader, and not necessarily himself either, but someone who didn’t already have one. ‘Checking Out Me History’ is filled with intentionally misspelled words which, when pronounced as they are spelled, force the reader to almost take on the accent of the true speaker. Based on the content of the poem, it is reasonable to think it is inspired by Agard’s African-Guyanese upbringing and his outlook on racial and colonial discriminations that made for common themes throughout his works.

One of the things that could be said to be lacking for the written word is the difficulty in relaying inflection. One of the most common things that can be heard about communication through text is how difficult it is to relay sarcasm through it. This also manifests itself in voice. For the most part, readers of any kind tend to hear the words they read in their own voices. In some ways, this is why poetry can be such a subjective art form — without any voice aside from the reader’s own, those readers are free to draw their own inferences and meanings from the text.

In terms of meaning, Checking Out Me History’ is a fairly straightforward poem; the voice is the most unique element, but it is filled with a rich historic context that makes up the bulk of the poem’s story, which is, in large part, a colonial story. On both “sides” of the British-colonial story are figures whose contributions to their home, culture, or people are significant, and Agard examines both sides to critique blind history and to shed light on some of the most influential historic figures whose names are overshadowed time and time again.

Checking Out Me History by John Agard

Checking Out Me History Analysis

Toussaint L’Ouverture

Lines 1-9

Dem tell me
Dem tell me
Wha dem want to tell me


But Toussaint L’Ouverture
No dem never tell me bout dat

The narrator of this poem is introduced through their voice, relayed through words such as “dem” and “wha,” better understood as “them” and “what,” which indicates to the reader immediately that English is not likely the native language of the speaker. So, when they refer to a “dem,” they are likely referring, as a whole, to the community whose language they speak. The reference to “blinding” them against their own identity suggests a colonial relationship between the speaker and “dem.”

Dick Whittington’s Cat is a reference to an English folklore story, suggesting that the narrator has been colonized by English culture. 1066, then, is a likely reference to the Battle of Hastings, a battle between the English and the Normans that resulted in the defeat of English (Anglo-Saxon) forces and significant cultural change for England. The narrator attended an English school and was taught about powerful, heroic figures in English history, but never, they note, about figures such as Toussaint L’Ouverture, a well-known leader of the Haitian Revolution that fought against and defeated racist colonial forces. It was a great source of concern for slavers and a great source of hope for slaves during its time, and L’Ouverture was a defining figure in the movement. And the speaker in Checking Out Me History’ notes that they never learned about such figures, but were only taught of the glory of England instead.

There isn’t an enforced structure that dictates the poem, but there is rhyme throughout much of it; in these stanzas, there is a loose rhyme at the end of the second and third stanza, without a syllable count to solidify any kind of structure. Even this isn’t an enforced structure; parts of Checking Out Me History’ change wildly in structure from those that precede them — such as the following verse.

Lines 10-21

A slave
With vision
To de French
Toussaint de beacon
Of de Haitian Revolution

The next set of lines reveals that the narrator knows exactly who Toussaint is, and also that he looks up to and respects the historic figure a great deal. The structure of the poem changes temporarily here, taking on a faster pace, and an almost chant-like quality when the rhyming begins to take hold (“Lick back / Napoleon / Battalion / And first Black / Republic born / Toussaint de thorn” — try reading it out loud). He points out, for instance, that Toussaint was able to defeat (“lick back”) Napoleon in battle, a strong contradiction to the highly respected image of Napoleon that would have been especially prominent in a colonial schooling environment. The speaker knows Toussaint as a beacon for hope, a light in the darkness. The language and structure of this verse is all that is required to indicate that the narrator believes it is far more important to learn about figures with vision and heart who fight for what they believe in, than to learn about folklore tales. And yet, this was part of the colonization process, and the narrator is speaking for those who do not know about the figures that they aren’t being taught in school.

Nanny the Maroon

Lines 22-31

Dem tell me bout de man who discover de balloon
And de cow who jump over de moon
Hopeful stream
To freedom river

These lines repeat the themes from the last few, but in a much more pronounced way. The reference to The Cow Who Jumped Over The Moon is especially noteworthy, being such a trivial and unimportant story that it pales in comparison to the vast majority of history from anywhere. The narrator notes in their school that they’ve learned about the man who discovered balloons (who’s name isn’t even mentioned, unlike the historic figures important to the speaker), but not about figures such as Nanny the Maroon.

Nanny the Maroon was a Jamaican slave born to the Asante people in the late seventeenth century. Today, she is a Jamaican National Hero, for her role in founding the Nanny Town community. She escaped from slavery with several close friends and fled to Blue Mountain, where she scouted out strategic locations to build communities for escaped slaves. Once British soldiers caught on and discovered the location of many escaped slaves, they brought down the might of their military onto the town. Nanny chose the location well, however, and the town proved impossible to capture, despite overwhelming numbers of odds in favour of the British. Finally, peace was agreed upon, and the community survived and thrived.

Nanny of the Maroons was one of the earliest leaders of slave resistance in the Americas, and one of the very few women to hold the role — and yet, the school would rather teach the speaker about nursery rhymes and English inventors. The second stanza in this section of Checking Out Me History’ highlights much of the perceived character of Nanny the Maroon, using nature-based imagery to bring a positive influence to the picture. She was a “hopeful stream” that led to a “river” of freedom, a fiery force with a mountain dream. These descriptions are designed to make freedom the most natural thing in the world. They very strongly capture the image of a determined, intelligent, influential woman and ask why no one learns about her. From the perspective of a culturally oppressed individual, this verse is inspirational and very saddening.

Shaka kaSenzangakhona

Lines 32-35

Dem tell me bout Lord Nelson and Waterloo
But what happen to de Caribs and de Arawaks too

For these lines, the histories of English fighters and battles continue. Lord Horatio Nelson, an officer of the British Navy famous for losing an arm and an eye before losing his life after continually fighting and achieving victory after victory during the Napoleonic Wars, is something the speaker learns about. The Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon was defeated and forced to abdicate his position as French Emperor is also mentioned. The verse mentions Shaka kaSenzangakhona, one of the most well-known monarchs of the Zulu people, and this suggests something on the history of the narrator, because Shaka never made contact with the European people. Unlike Nanny of the Maroons or Toussaint L’Ouverture, Shaka is a historic figure who revolutionized African communities alone, and is not a figure one would expect to learn about in an English school regardless (except perhaps in instruction concerning warfare, as Shaka’s greatest achievements were in his revolutionary fighting tactics). What this indicates to the reader is that the speaker is well educated and versed within their home community and feels distant; it isn’t that they’re only receiving one side of the colonial story, it’s that it’s the only story they hear, and they don’t like it.

The other thing this verse notes is that, unsurprisingly, the class learns about Christopher Columbus, and it is here that they do learn about other cultures — specifically the Carib Islanders and the Arawak peoples. Both groups were indigenous peoples native to the Caribbean, and both suffered enormously after European contact, vanishing entirely as ethnic groups, and only surviving in small communities thereafter.

Mary Seacole

Lines 36-39

Dem tell me bout Florence Nightingale and she lamp
But dem never tell me bout Mary Seacole

The history of the Crimean War, a natural topic in an English classroom environment, would be missing some of its significance if Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole were not mentioned — except that Nightingale was British and Seacole was Jamaican, and this makes all the difference. Florence Nightingale was a highly reputable and devoted nurse during the Crimean War, known for making rounds in the middle of the night (with her lamp) to care for wounded soldiers. Seacole performed a similar task, setting up a British-style hotel area near the battlefields so soldiers could recover their health in a comfortable and familiar environment. Both women came to great repute during the war among soldiers, who were grateful for their commitment — but the speaker is only learning about Nightingale, amidst nonsensical stories of Robin Hood and “ole King Cole.”

The line concerning that merry soul is such a lighthearted bit that it almost feels out of place. The line could easily be a part of an old cheerful song, and this is the idea — John Agard is juxtaposing the nature of what the speaker is learning with the nature of what they are not learning. Here it is more important to know that “ole King Cole was a merry ole soul” than it is to learn about one of the most prominent helpers in the Crimean War, who was more often than not overshadowed by Nightingale.

Lines 40-49

From Jamaica
She travel far
A yellow sunrise
To the dying

Once again we see that the speaker is very familiar with Seacole’s story, including the fact that she was rejected by the British government when she requested to go overseas to help England troops. This didn’t stop her — she traveled on her own, with her own money, and set up the hotel herself, and wound up destitute upon her return. Despite this, in one of the more abstract and poetic aspects of Checking Out Me History’, she is described as “a yellow sunrise / to the dying,” a metaphor that suggests she is daylight to those who are not going to see the light of day again. Similar to the earlier verse comparing Nanny of the Maroon’s desire for freedom to the natural world, this verse makes Seacole seem like an angel, and shows favour for her in the same fast-paced, chant-like way as the verses for L’Ouverture.

Checking Out Me History

Lines 50-53

Dem tell me
I carving out me identity

The final lines of Checking Out Me History’ reflects the first verse in nature, adding on two very important lines, wherein the narrator declares that they are unwilling to accept one side of the story of history, and are searching for themselves the truth behind what they are told in a classroom. This suggests that it’s possible that the figures examined in the poem are not conjured from the memory of childhood stories, but are rather being researched as the poem is being written, and as the narrator “carves out their identity,” and discovers who they are culturally, despite the desires of their colonizers. This nicely summarizes a central theme to the poem — reflected in the title, of carving out one’s own history, and deciding for themselves who they’d like to be. Much of colonial society was about being told what one’s place in the world was by someone else — in this verse, the narrator is breaking free.

Andrew Walker Poetry Expert
Andrew joined the team back in November 2015 and has a passion for poetry. He has an Honours in the Bachelor of Arts, consisting of a Major in Communication, Culture and Information Technology, a Major in Professional Writing and a Minor in Historical Studies.

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