Jamaican British explores Antrobus’ torn identity, being drawn and opposed to the two halves of his heritage: British and Jamaican. Born from a British mother and Jamaican father, Antrobus had the influences of both cultures while growing up. In this poem he explores this contrast, focusing on the push and pull between his identities during his own search for identity.
Jamaican British Structure
The poem is 17 lines long, being split into 16 pairs and then one final line consisting of one word. The pairs of lines are split off, forming individual stanzas. There is no rhyme scheme within the poem. A lot of the poem’s emphasis is generated from the repetition of ‘Jamaican British’ which, in some form, is present in every pair of lines. This poem forms part of the Edexcel GCSE poem set, all of which are analysed here.
You can read (and listen to) the full poem here.
Jamaican British Analysis
The opening line focuses on the fact that other people try to have a say on Antrobus’ own identity. ‘Some people’ seems alien to the reader, the vagueness of the undefined people seeming cold. These people who have no relation to Antrobus try and speak for him. This is a focus on the ignorance of some people. Especially considering Antrobus focus on the physical in these lines, ‘Angelo nose. Hair straight’, he is explaining that people see certain characteristics and extrapolate that he could not possibly be Jamaican. This instant stereotyping is typical to the ignorant, with the confused disapproval of Antrobus being palpable here.
The short sentences in these lines are representative of this ignorance, the blunt manner in which Antrobus writes reflecting the brusque narrative of the people ‘deny[ing]’ his mixed heritage. The language reflects this structure, ‘no way’ and ‘deny’ being classic comments he receives about his appearance.
In these lines we have the first case of ‘Jamaican British’ mentioned, a motif which is repeated throughout the poem. The constant coming back to his identity is integral to the poem. Indeed, this a poem of searching for identity, represented by the constant reference to his dual heritage. Moreover, the repeated phrase also reminds the audience of his heritage, this being a reaction to the people ‘deny[ing]’ his mixed race. In a poem of identity, Antrobus centralises his verse on this duality.
Antrobus focuses again on the ignorance of the ‘English boys’. They assume that he means his skin is ‘black’ when he says ‘Jamaican British’. The extrapolation showing a lack of understanding.
The caesura in line 4 forces a pause in the line. The decision to place the comma between the two words ‘Jamaican, British?’ cleverly divides the two identities. The English boys don’t understand he can be bother things, driving a caesura in the line to represent their lack of understanding. For the British Boys, he is either ‘Jamaican’ or ‘British’, they cannot understand being both.
The use of the rhetorical question could also be interpreted as a moment of surprise from Antrobus. The poem showcases the search for balance in his identity, this moment embodying his own confused tone.
Antrobus explores two lists of three terms within these lines, both culminating with ‘Jamaican British.’ The first set of descriptors describe his Jamaican heritage, the second his British. Yet, these two lists are connected by the repeated ending, showing that is is not as simple as black or white. He is both of these identities, the history being one in the same, a part of him. Repetition helps to blur the line, linguistically breaking down the separation of the identities.
Antrobus references two Jamaican dishes, ‘Callaloo’ and ‘jerk chicken’. These, compared to the British who can’t correctly serve them further the separation. Food is an incredibly important part of culture, with Antrobus pointing out the difference here.
The caesura before ‘they enslaved us’ elevates the impact. Indeed, Antrobus is exploring the history of the conflict between his identities. This is not something minute to Antrobus, it is a point of global history that intertwines with his personal identity. The distinction of ‘they’ and ‘us’ further the separation between his identities. The poet cannot settle into being both due to the social and historic differences. It is a poem of back and forth, with Antrobus not ever really resolving his own questions.
These two lines shows the rejection of both identities. At school he ‘fought’ with a boy who then labelled him ‘Jamaican’. Yet, at home he rejects being Jamaican, telling his father he hates ‘all dem Jamaicans’. This moment of anger in the poet is solidified by the harsh end stop after the disconnected ‘- I’m British.’ The poet wrestles with his identity, being neither British or Jamaican, but both simultaneously. This is something the poet struggles to understand and come to terms with. Again, the reflection of identities, both separated from the main line by a hyphen present Antrobus as being simultaneously both identities. It is a poem is reflection and repetition.
The joviality of the father instantly presented by ‘laughing’ depicts him as a warm figure. The father understands what Antrobus is grappling with. He tells Antrobus that he cannot hate something that he is, it is a comment of self-acceptance. They then fly to Jamaica, using Antrobus’ British Passport. The total blending off cultures continues within these lines.
A mention of a typically British location, ‘Kensington’ reflects the previously referenced ‘Jamaica’. The grounding in different environments embodies Antrobus’ mixed heritage, being a part of both of these worlds.
The mixing of ‘Ja-English’ is a form of linguistically connecting the two identities. It is here in the poem that it seems as if the two poles of Antrobus are starting to blend. Yet, this name is given to him by another, he still has not accepted his own identity.
Antrobus uses enjambment to connect the final two lines. On first reading the line space between ‘Jamacian/British’ present a separation of the two identities. Yet, due to the enjambment, these words flow onto and into eachtoher. It seems that this is a moment of connection, rather than separation. Although Antrobus still has not totally found his balanced identity, he has made steps to process who he is, drawing the two poles of his identity closer and closer.
About Raymond Antrobus
Born in 1986 to an English Mother and Jamaican father, Raymond Antrobus is a Jamaican-British spoken word poet. He focuses on the themes of identity, his experience being deaf, and heritage. Since beginning to before poetry in 2007, he has become acclaimed for his moving work. He has been awarded the Ted Hughes Award and the Rathbones Folio Prize. ‘The Perserverance’, published in 2018, features some of his best work.