Half-Caste – John Agard



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Half-Caste – John Agard

This is a poem about asserting your identity against others who would ‘bring you down’. John Agard was born in Guyana in 1949, with a Caribbean father and a Portuguese mother (he is of mixed race). In 1977, he moved to Britain, where he became angry with people who referred to him as ‘half-caste’. Realising that most people who say this do so without thinking about what it really means, he tells off people who use this term without thinking.

The poem’s content starts by sarcastically ‘apologising’ for being half-caste – ‘Excuse me standing on one leg I’m half-caste’. He is not really apologising. This is satire – although the poem starts by apologising for being half-caste, Agard MEANS exactly the opposite.

The next section of the poem argues that mixing colours in art, weather and symphonies does not make a half-thing When he says: ‘Yu mean when Picasso mix red an green is a half-caste canvas’, he is arguing that mixing colours is a GOOD thing, and makes things better! You could say the same for blood and cultures.

He then writes how he must be able only to listen with half-a-ear, look with half-a-eye, offer us half-a-hand, etc. – a sarcastic, even angry, denunciation of the word ‘half’ in ‘half-caste’. He writes: ‘I half-caste human being cast half-a-shadow’ – here, ‘half-a-shadow’ has a sinister vampire-like tone, and the author seems to be pointing out that by using the word half-caste, people are saying that he is not really human, but inferring that there is something sub-human, even evil about him.

He finishes by saying: ‘but yu must come back tomorrow wid … de whole of yu mind’ – here he is pointing out that it is us who have been thinking with only half-a-brain when we thoughtlessly use the word ‘half-caste’. In this way, he challenges the readers to change their thinking, and come up with a better word.

As for the poet’s feelings, in early recordings of the poem, Agard sounds angry and bitter. ‘Excuse me standing on one leg…’ is said in an aggressive tone.

He objects to being called half a human being, and asserts that there is much more to him than we realise.

The words: ‘I half-caste human being’ show that he is insulted by the term ‘half-caste’.


His tone is challenging, even threatening (e.g: ‘Explain yuself wha yu mean when yu say half-caste’) as he asserts his identity as a whole human being and demands that readers change their attitudes.

In later recordings, Agard does not sound as angry – he even makes a joke of it, and he brings out the humour of phrases such as: ‘Excuse me standing on one leg’. Perhaps this is because fewer people use the term half-caste nowadays. But it may also be that sees the funny side to it himself.

For the poem’s structure, the poet uses short lines (e.g. ‘Excuse me’) and almost no punctuation (he uses ‘/’ instead of a full stop) to convey the direct and confrontational nature of the message. It makes the poem go quickly so it feels like someone ‘kicking off’ at you - pouring out his feelings at the reader.

One line is devoted to the Caribbean phrase: ‘ah rass’ – an expletive meaning ‘my arse’ – which makes this line of the poem very angry and aggressive, as though Agard has just got so angry explaining his argument that he cannot contain his anger any more.

He repeats key phrases such as ‘Explain yuself’ (four times) and ‘haaaalf-caste’ to hammer home his message.

The poem does not rhyme, but the words do have a Caribbean rhythm which is reinforced by the repetition of phrases like: ‘Wha yu mean’ and: ‘de whole of’; this reminds you of Caribbean limbo dancing and sense of rhythm

– perhaps Agard is asserting his Caribbean heritage, or perhaps it just comes naturally from his childhood in Guyana.

The poem has four sections, each with a different message so that – even though it is funny and angry – the poem gradually builds up its argument, step by step, that ‘half-caste’ is an unacceptable phrase and we ought not to use it.

The language of the poem is a mixture of Caribbean dialect and formal British English – the poet at one point says in Caribbean dialect: ‘Ah lookin at yu wid de keen half of mih eye’, but at another in BBC English: ‘Consequently when I dream I dream half-a-dream’. This very powerfully gets across the fact that Agard is of mixed heritage.

Agard uses direct speech (e.g. ‘I’/ ‘yu’) and many commands (such as ‘Explain yuself’) to point his thoughts directly at the reader, and to make the poem challenging and confrontational.

Agard makes use of metaphor, comparing ‘half-caste’ to art, the weather and music, which makes the poem a kind of parable – many teachers use analogy in their teaching to get the point across.

He also uses scathing humour – including the joke: ‘in dat case england weather nearly always half-caste’ – because humour can also help to give a point more impact.


My feelings

About this poem is that it has made me stop using the term ‘half-caste’, but it also makes me angry about abuse words which I suffer from people who use them thoughtlessly.


Half-Caste – John Agard

Excuse me
standing on one leg
I’m half-caste.

Explain yuself


wha yu mean
when yu say half-caste
yu mean when Picasso
mix red an green
is a half-caste canvas?
explain yuself
wha yu mean
when yu say half-caste
yu mean when light an shadow
mix in de sky
is a half-caste weather?
well in dat case
england weather
nearly always half-caste
in fact some o dem cloud
half-caste till dem overcast

so spiteful dem don’t want de sun pass

ah rass?
explain yuself
wha yu mean
when yu say half-caste
yu mean tchaikovsky
sit down at dah piano
an mix a black key
wid a white key
is a half-caste symphony?

Explain yuself


wha yu mean
Ah listening to yu wid de keen
half of mih ear
Ah looking at yu wid de keen
half of mih eye
an when I’m introduced to yu
I’m sure you’ll understand
why I offer yu half-a-hand
an when I sleep at night
I close half-a-eye
consequently when I dream
I dream half-a-dream
an when moon begin to glow
I half-caste human being
cast half-a-shadow
but yu must come back tomorrow
wid de whole of yu eye
an de whole of yu ear
an de whole of yu mind.

an I will tell yu


de other half
of my story.

Half-Caste – John Agard

Possible themes: Identity; Living between two cultures; Language and dialect, how people talk; racism.



Facts

Quotes/facts

Explanation/effects

Content







  1. The poem starts by ‘apologising’ for being half-caste

  2. He starts by arguing that mixed colours in art, weather and symphonies does not make a half-thing.
  3. He then listens with half-a-ear, looks with half-a-eye, offers us half-a-hand, etc.


  4. He finishes by pointing out that it is us who have been thinking with only half-a-brain

  5. Although the poem starts by apologising for being half-caste, Agard MEANS exactly the opposite

Excuse me standing on one leg I’m half-caste’

Yu mean when Picasso mix red an green
 is a half-caste canvas

I half-caste human being cast half-a-shadow’(nb ‘half-a-shadow’ has a sinister vampire-like tone of)

but yu must come back tomorrow wid … de whole of yu mind’

Born in Guyana (1949): Caribbean father & Portuguese mother = i.e. he is mixed race. He lived in Guyana until 1977, but in Britain since then…



= satire/sarcasm.

= argument that mixing colours is a GOOD thing – makes things better!

= sarcastic, even angry, at this demonization by the word ‘half-caste’

Carries the challenge to the readers to change their thinking about the concept ‘half-caste’

…which explains why he has shard identity, and views about being called ‘half-caste’


Feelings of the Poet







  1. Sarcasm – the poem is very funny, but Agard is bitter

  2. Insulted




  1. Challenging

‘Excuse me standing on one leg…’

    • I half-caste human being’

    • an I will tell yu de other half of my story’

Explain yuself wha yu mean when yu say half-caste’


Said in an aggressive tone

  • He objects to being called half a human being

  • There is much more to him than we realise

Challenges the readers to think about their attitudes










Structure







  1. Short lines

  2. Repetition of key phrases

  3. Little rhyme, but the words have a Caribbean rhythm which is

  4. There is almost no punctuation




  1. Four sections, each carrying a different message…

Including: ‘Explain yuself’ (x4) and ‘understand’

‘Explain yuself’/ ‘haaaalf-caste’

reinforced by the repetition of phrases like ‘Wha yu mean’/ ‘de whole of’.

Agard uses ‘/’ io ‘.’



Convey the direct/confrontational nature of the poem.

Hammers home its message.

= reminiscent of Caribbean limbo dancing
Carries the feel of someone ‘kicking off’ at you - pouring out their feelings at the reader.

…builds up the argument, bit by bit.



Use of Language







  1. The language is a mixture of Caribbean dialect and formal British English.



  1. The author uses direct speech and commands


  2. Use of metaphor,

  3. Scathing humour

Compare the Caribbean: ‘Ah lookin at yu wid de keen half of mih eye’ & ‘ah rass’, to the English: ‘Consequently when I dream I dream half-a-dream’.

e.g. direct: ‘I’/ ‘yu’’ and commands: ‘Explain yuself’

Compares ‘half-caste’ to art, weather and music.

‘Excuse me standing on one leg’/ ‘in dat case england weather nearly always half-caste



Picks up the idea of a person of mixed race

Makes the poem challenging and confrontational.

Makes the point in a parable

Humour makes the point more acceptable



YOUR feelings

Has it made you stop using racist terms? What abuse words do you suffer from people using thoughtlessly?






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