How to sock it to your oppressors: tips from two 20th century black poets

For many people, colonialism is hard to talk about. 

It’s the sort of word that necessarily comes with a mixed bag of emotions, with the nature of this ambiguity split between those born of ‘Colonialist’ and ‘Colonised’ ancestry – and their offspring generations. 

Among those whose ancestors were Colonialists (i.e. the majority of the Western world and – in more recent times – Japan), some may feel a certain embarrassment – or even, guilt – over their ancestral history of aggression, driven, as it were, by the sort of cultural-racial superiority and economic self-interest that continue to prevail – despite the moral outrage they regularly inspire – in the post-WWII world. 

Painting from Le Figaro of French commander Cousin-Montauban leading a charge during the Second Opium War in China, 1860.
The Second Opium War, 1856-1860

Of course, there are others who may consider colonialism a ‘triumph’ in the grand scheme of human civilisation. After all, we now live in a world that’s very much the legacy of European imperialism, and in broad terms, average global living standards have continued to rise (albeit with many still left behind). 

The fact that I’m writing this post in English – the digital lingua franca – attests to the deep mark that Anglospheric dominance has left on human experience. 

 

Is ‘colonialism’ evil? 

The history of ‘white colonialism’, then, is likely to induce feelings of guilt and pride in equal measure. 

And there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Colonialists pillaged, plundered, exploited, killed, and were responsible for the torture and death of millions; they also exported the conditions and resources necessary for nation-building to many parts of the world.

My point, then, isn’t that colonialism is justifiable or excusable by any moral stretch of the imagination, but rather that there’s good, bad and ugly to every aspect of human history. 

So, even with colonialism, it should be possible for us to celebrate the good (literature, art, technology, constitutions etc.) it’s created, while condemning the bad and avoiding the ugly (slave trade, territorial expansionism, capitalist exploitation, racial supremacy etc.) it has engendered. 

 

What is ‘postcolonial’ identity?

But for descendants of the ‘Colonised’ camp, the ambiguity they feel is perhaps even less clear-cut. It’s likely to be less retrospectively oriented (i.e. reflecting on the past), and more rooted in the present; specifically, with how to shape a sense of self having been a historical ‘recipient’ of colonialism. 

Academics call this the ‘postcolonial’ identity, and this identity is often more complex than what a simple ‘Master versus Slave’ framework or ‘Stockholm syndrome’ interpretation will yield. 

In fact, one could argue that there are many different ‘postcolonial’ identities. For instance, African-Americans whose ancestors were slaves would see themselves very differently from Asians whose land was colonised and turned into treaty ports. 

Also, one’s race or birthplace doesn’t necessarily determine this ‘identity’, which usually has more to do with one’s cultural affinities and value systems – both of which can be colour- and geography-blind. 

How do you form an identity when your education and values are essentially the products of Western colonialism, but your roots and race are ineradicably those of the ‘colonised’ nation? 

How does one reconcile the Colonialist and the Colonised’s versions of history, and how does internalising the ‘historical victor’s’ narrative affect the way ‘victim tribes’ see themselves? 

Also, is it somewhat ironic for postcolonial subjects to see colonial language as their ‘mother tongue’, and does this awareness complicate – or even, destabilise – the postcolonial subject’s sense of self? 

To understand the struggle of shaping postcolonial ‘identities’, let’s read John Agard’s ‘Checking Out Me History’ (2004) and Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’ (1978) – two poems which differ in historical focus, but nonetheless share surprising echoes of resonance and resistance. 

 

Reading ‘Checking Out Me History’ (2004) by John Agard

John Agard is an British Guyanese poet whose works are regularly studied as part of the British GCSE English Literature curriculum. His poem ‘Checking Out Me History’is a patchwork quilt of allusions, peppered between ‘white-dominant’ and ‘black-marginal’ threads of history – 

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The historical narrative that’s taught at Anglospheric schools is so often the ‘white-dominant’ one, but for the non-whites, this version of history seems to have wilfully erased the achievements of black and marginal communities. 

It’s no surprise that in Eurocentric eyes, society and culture are largely built upon the achievements and efforts of Caucasians. By alluding to white heroic figures in the dominant stanzas, Agard shows us that this belief is held up as the mainstream narrative. 

Britain doesn't know how blessed it is' | Financial Times
John Agard (PC: Financial Times)

Clash of allusions

Such allusions include the English entrepreneur Dick Whittington as chronicled in the folklore of “Dick Whittington/and he cat”, the French inventor Jacques Charles and the Robert brothers “who discover[ed] de balloon”, the English naval hero Admiral “Lord Nelson” and his victory in the Battle of “Waterloo”, the Italian explorer “Columbus” and his discovery of the Americas in 1492, the English nurse “Florence Nightingale and she/lamp” (she was known as “The Lady with the Lamp”) and “Robin Hood”, the Medieval outlaw known for his acts of vigilante justice in service of the poor. 

Agard, however, challenges the legitimacy of this ‘whitewashed’ history of success, which he counter-poses by bringing in a set of ‘black’ heroic characters that have been left out from history textbooks. 

What about “Touissant L’Ouverture”, the speaker implicitly asks, “dem never tell me bout dat”; and how about “Nanny de maroon”, whom “dem never tell me bout” either; and “dem never tell me bout Shaka/de great Zulu” or “de Caribs and de Arawaks too”. 

Indeed, blacks have their own version of Florence Nightingale as well, but “dem never tell me bout Mary Seacole”, the British-Jamaican nurse who had set up a makeshift hospital to nurse soldiers wounded in the Crimean War. 

Given the similar nature of these achievements to those of their white sisters and brothers, why aren’t these black heroes and heroines also featured in history books?  

lonely love & hip hop GIF by VH1

Democratising ‘black’ and ‘white’ spaces 

Left out as his black ancestors may be from the Anglospherically sanctioned version of history, Agard fills up this historical lacuna by granting them the textual record they deserve.

As such, he uses his poem as an alternative space to archive their forgotten achievements. 

Formally (and typographically), the poet grants his ancestral narrative the spotlight by placing it in indented, italicised stanzas, which chronicle in greater detail what Toussaint, Nanny de maroon and Mary Seacole – black heroes and heroines – have done for humanity. 

This same level of attention, on the other hand, isn’t given to the white historical characters, who are only ever alluded to by their names, alongside an iconic reference to their achievements (e.g. “Columbus and 1492”, “Florence Nightingale and she lamp”). 

Perhaps Agard thinks that they’ve taken up enough of the limelight in mainstream British education. 

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We know from reading the 4th indented stanza that Toussaint L’Ouverture, originally “a slave”, eventually became a sort of “Black Napoleon” who fought in the Haitian Revolution and resisted the imposition of slave trade. As a result, he became a national “beacon” for the Haitian people. 

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General Toussaint L’Ouverture (PC: New York Public Library)

In the 6th stanza, we find out that “Nanny de maroon” was a figure with vision and courage – a “see-far woman/of mountain dream” and a “fire-woman” who struggled “to freedom river”.

This is a reference to Nanny of the Maroons, a Jamaican woman who led a mutiny against British Colonialists in the early 18th century. The fact that Nanny defeated white colonial forces to protect her homeland – Jamaica – is surely worth recording for the benefit of posterity, and yet it isn’t at all mentioned in mainstream, white-dominant history. 

In the penultimate indented stanza, we’re also told that “Mary Seacole”, came “From Jamaica” and “travel[led] far/to the Crimean War”, where she defied British edict and “brave[d] the Russian snow” to heal the battle-wounded. 

Mary Seacole Statue Unveiled in London – Repeating Islands
The Mary Seacole statue in London

But why, then, are most children today only taught the heroic acts of Florence Nightingale (who also contributed her efforts during the Crimean War), when Mary Seacole made similar efforts in the field of nursing?

The reason, Agard implies, is that Nightingale was white, whereas Seacole was black.

Seems simple enough, but of course, grossly biased and illogical. 

In “Checking Out Me History”, then, Agard does more than just ‘checks out’ – or even “carves out” – his native history. He addresses what has always been a skewed version of ‘History’ by widening the existing scope of what history constitutes – most of which is dominated by white Caucasians.

As such, Agard equalises historical representation and restores his black ancestors to their rightful place in the pantheon of human heroes. 

checking out me history John Agard quote

Reading ‘Still I Rise’ (1978) by Maya Angelou  

As one of the world’s most accessible poets, Maya Angelou deserves a lot of credit for communicating a version of the black female experience and perspective to the rest of the world. 

After all, empathy, while critical for the understanding of other views, is not always that easy to acquire.

As much as we’d like to step into the shoes of another person, it can be challenging if their background and experience are worlds apart from ours. 

In this sense, Angelou had a knack for drawing that empathetic gap closer between reader and speaker, which is why her works tend to resonate among a wide and diverse readership that extends beyond geographical boundaries. 

In her poem ‘Still I Rise’, the speaker comes across fiery, vocal and irreverent, as she communicates a singular message – she will rise above her ancestral past of slavery and victimhood to become her own, dignified self. 

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In this poem, the speaker refuses to be boxed in by social expectations of how a black woman should behave; indeed, she will not be the meek, silent, “broken” soul who lives under the looming shadow of racist oppression.

This is a view she challenges throughout the poem, specifically, by interrogating an imaginary, white (implied), addressee with a barrage of straight-shooting, rhetorical questions –

“Does my sassiness upset you?” 

“Did you want to see me broken?” 

“Does my haughtiness offend you?” 

“Does my sexiness upset you?” 

These questions tell us that by being black, she’s expected to not be sassy, complete, haughty or sexy, all of which are behavioural traits that convey self-assurance – certainly not something that a historical ‘victim’ would (or should) feel. 

And yet, Angelou’s speaker uses various metaphors to re-fashion and transform her identity from one of victimhood to one of victory. 

Celebrate Maya Angelou | Teaching Tolerance
A portrait of Maya Angelou (PC: Teaching Tolerance)

Defiance over deference 

Contrary to the stereotype of blacks as an impoverished bunch, the speaker “walk[s] like I’ve got oil wells/Pumping in my living room” – a reference to the idea of being rich as an oil tycoon, which historically would likely be a ‘colonialist’ who owns resources and exploits them for commercial gains. 

Contrary to the historical role of blacks (and other ethnic minorities) as mine diggers and whites as the mine owners, the speaker “laugh[s] like I’ve got gold mines/Diggin in my own backyard”, in effect assuming the role of a black mine owner and thus, reversing the conventional socio-economic hierarchy between the whites who own power and the blacks who are subject to such white power. 

In the 7th stanza, the speaker implies that traditionally, black females were expected to hide their sexuality, lest they tempt white males into any sort of immoral behaviour (because it’s always the black woman’s fault). 

Now, however, she will not cower in the face of this injustice, and so she “dance[s] like I’ve got diamonds/At the meeting of my thighs”, suggesting a defiance with which she puts herself out there as open spectacle, and also teasing with the idea that her liberated sexual self could be a moral hazard for the greedy white man, who understands on the one hand that he is not to violate the speaker, but is nonetheless drawn to the possibility of being intimate with an attractive, black woman. 

Come At Me Homer Simpson GIF

It’s not all boldness and defiance, though. The metaphor in the line “I’m a black ocean” in the 8th stanza reveals a degree of emotional conflict, too. 

On the one hand, the speaker seems to suggest a willingness to accept “a past that’s rooted in pain” by subsuming and “bear[ing]” it as part of the historical “tide”. Angry and disdainful as she may feel towards her oppressors, her capacity for forgiveness is boundless like the scale of the ocean. 

But just because she forgives doesn’t mean she’s entirely without threat; her presence comes with the baggage of “history’s shame”, the memory of which bubbles beneath a composed veneer, like a turbulent, “welling and swelling” ocean that is as black as her skin.   

 

‘I rise, I rise, I rise’ 

Finally, the similes in the lines “But still, like dust, I’ll rise” and “But still, like air, I’ll rise” deserve some attention. 

Do the particles of dust and air actually ‘rise’? Or rather, do they float, or suspend? 

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Technically, perhaps a bird or an avian creature would be more apt as a vehicle for comparison here. But the speaker’s message isn’t really the idea of a new or reborn identity that’s symbolised by ‘rising’, but a reminder that she and her people, in spite of the long-standing oppression they’ve suffered, will always remain, resilient and ubiquitous as they are, a natural presence in the world wherein they have their rightful place. 

You can’t get rid of us, and we will prevail with our heads high, our strides wide, and with this awareness, the speaker reiterates – “I rise”. 

The final three lines of the poem form an anaphoric sequence with “I rise/I rise/I rise”, and is perhaps a play on Julius Caesar’s famous declaration of triumph upon winning the Battle of Zela – “I came, I saw, I conquered” (veni, vidi, vici). 

With this, Angelou, like Agard, creates an alternative (black) version of victory that counters the narrative of colonialist (white) achievement.

Ultimately, her speaker emerges triumphant against a history of systemic oppression, in which her people have been “trod”, “shot”, “cut”, and “kill[ed]” by white violence for centuries.

still I rise Maya Angelou quote

 


I hope this post is helpful for anyone who’s studying Angelou and Agard, or poetry of African-American and Afro-Caribbean authorship.

Do you think poetry has the power to challenge mainstream history? What are your views on the way marginal and black identities are shaped in literature?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, so comment down below! 

 

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