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.
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.