“Sharps an Flats”
“Sharps an Flats” is a letter from a son to his mother. Writing from the grave, he asks her to listen to him. He tells her the story of his death and how he was stabbed for speaking Latin by the boys in his neighborhood. He implores her to smile and to know that one day they will be reunited and at peace together. He reminds her that love conquers all.
In “Sharps an Flats,” Agbabi explores the violence to which immigrant children are exposed to in contemporary England. She tells the story from the point of view of the slain boy, J. J’s trouble begins when he is caught speaking Latin in his neighborhood. J’s choice of the Latin language over the vernacular of the neighborhood opens him up to the violence of the other boys. The boys see J’s language choice as pretentious, as if he has higher class aspirations and J’s affinity for language sets him apart. He speaks like a thesaurus and writes long stories (lines 7-8). He sounds like he could belong in a higher class neighborhood (see ‘battlin like a rich kid’ in lines 21-22). But J doesn’t fully understand what he is saying when he speaks Latin. In line 19 he says, “I had no idea what I woz chattin.” The boys in the neighborhood view the use of Latin as a symbol of class aspiration, but for J, perhaps Latin is simply another foreign language for an immigrant child to learn in an effort to attain cultural acceptance.
“Sharps an Flats” is an adaptation of The Prioress’s Tale, Chaucer’s version of a blood libel. These false anti-Semitic stories claimed the Jewish people ritualistically murdered Christian children, particularly young boys, in a reenactment of the crucifixion of Christ. These tales were
strongly situated in English culture by the mid 13th century, provoking anti-Jewish sentiment and violence provoking anti-Jewish sentiment as violence by through stories of Christian children’s martrydom (Heng, 55-58). In Chaucer’s tale, the little clergeon, a young school aged boy, is killed as he walks through a Jewish neighborhood. The devil encourages the Jews to kill him for singing the Alma Redemptoris, convincing the Jews that this singing is an affront to their religion. The Jews kill the clergeon and hide his body. However, the Virgin Mary blesses the boy and enables the boy to continue to sing even though his throat has been cut. The clergeon’s mother is then able to find his body and he is buried by the church. The Jews are subsequently tortured and killed (Chaucer and Benson, 913-914).
Like The Prioress’s Tale, “Sharps an Flats” is the story of a boy’s life cut short by violence. But “Sharps an Flats” is also a story of the enduring legacy of that life. Agbabi’s J is analogous to Chaucer’s clergeon, but is also reminiscent of Damilola Taylor, a young Nigerian boy who moved with his family to England and was subsequently stabbed on his way home from the library. He bled to death in a stairwell of a neighboring building, unable to make it home. After his death, his family established the Damilola Taylor Trust, to help underprivileged youth in London and to ensure that Damilola’s death was transformed into something that signified hope and life for the community. (For more details on Damilola’s death, see the annotation in line 29. For information on the Damilola Taylor Trust and the work they do to support the youth in South London, visit www.damilolataylortrust.co.uk) In associating J with Damilola, Agbabi explores the violence that migrant children experience in their neighborhoods. It also helps define how these boys have power in death that they didn’t have in life. Alive, these children were less socially visible. In death, their words and image reverberate around their communities, inciting change and offering a lingering example of how the community should operate. Perhaps the reminder that love conquers all is a call to live a life centered on love, not one centered on hate or revenge.
Sharps an Flats As a musical reference, a sharp indicates the raising of a musical note by half a step on the scale, while a flat indicates the lowering of a musical note by half a step. Depending on your perspective, a sharp of one note is also the flat of another. Alternatively, a sharp could also indicate anything sharp that pierces the skin, such as a weapon used for cutting or stabbing. In addition to the aforementioned musical reference, flat can also refer an apartment, suite of rooms or story of a residential building.
Missy Eglantine This is a reference to Chaucer’s Prioress, named Eglantine. Like the Prioress, Miss Eglantine sings well, places a heavy emphasis on her appearance and speaks French.
Yet speak…redemptoris mater! At this point in Chaucer’s The Prioress’s Tale, the body of the dead clergeon lies before the alter and is about to be buried. The Abbot sprinkles his body with holy water and the clergeon continues to sing O alma redemptoris mater. The clergeon explains that the Virgin Mary, in deference to his constant devotion to her, placed a grain upon his tongue which allowed him to sing to her faithfully even in death. This consequently allows his mother to find his body. When the grain is removed, the Virgin will then take the clergeon to Heaven, never to forsake him, as reward for his devotion.
2 Mix, As in a mix tape, is a compilation of music, often homemade, edited to play continuously. Originating in the 1980’s, mix tapes were originally made on cassette tape, then CD, and now are produced as digital playlists. The use of beat matching, edits and fades blends the songs together, allowing a seamless stream from one to the next.
3 fade switch Fade button on audio equipment. A method of editing songs to play continuously. Significant here as a plea from J to his mother, asking her to listen to the entire song before moving onto or fading into the song of mix.
4 perfect pitch The ability to accurately identify, sing or play a note without a reference note.
4 pitch To tell a story, especially an untruthful one, to sell by persuasion, to pit one party against another competitively
6 score A line, groove, or cut. A musical composition. A tallying or reckoning, a record or account, a debt. In slang, a gain, often sexual or drug related, robbery, a grievance that requires retribution.
9 Alma redemptoris A Marian hymn written by Herman Contractus of Reichenau, and sung as part of Catholic worship. Originally, this antiphon was sung from the first Sunday of Advent through the feast of Purification (February 2nd). This devotional antiphon to Mary was popular in England at the time of Chaucer’s writing The Prioress’s Tale, which depicts a young boy who sings this hymn religiously, and is consequently ritualistically killed by Jews for his singing.
13 caned Cockney rhyming slang for intoxicated or stoned. To take or use recreational drugs
15 dead line A line that is immovable. A line demarcating territory, often around a prison, beyond which prisoners can be shot. A time designated for submission of material due, as for publication.
16 stuck up Haughty, aloof. Also, past tense of stick-up, to rob or threaten, to hit forcibly.
16 red line Having a red lining or color. Containing words, colors or marks in a red color. Here, quite literally, his throat has a red line on it due to physical trauma. Red-lining is also a term used to describe the economic discrimination against poorer black communities by financial corporations, by denying them the same access to financial instruments, such as mortgages, that they would supply to more affluent socio-economic groups.
18 Mater From the Latin, mother.
21 battlin Battling. Likely a reference to rap battling, a style of rapping that includes bragging, boasting, insults, and putdowns to real or imaginary opponents. ‘Battlin like the rich kids’ could possible mean he was putting on aspirational class airs.
23 boys in blue Police, authorities
29 Do Re Mi Fa An exercise for the voice in which the sol fa syllables are used. Dating back to the 11th century, the sol fa syllables were devised by a monk named Guido of Arrezo. in order to help other monks memorize the Gregorian chants, he assigned the syllables to the positions of the scale, each one representing a different note. The syllables come from a latin hymn, the Hymn to St. John. The fixed succession of notes gave the names to the scale – Ut (which became Do) Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti, resolving on the Do an octave higher
29 spar A thrust, a boxing match. A wordy contest or dispute. Also, someone you engage in a match or contest
29 Damilola In 2000, Damilola Taylor, a ten year old Nigerian immigrant, was stabbed on his way home from the public library near his home in Southeast London. He bled to death in the stairwell of a nearby building, with a severe cut to his thigh made from a broken bottle, twisted in the wound. Like the clergeon with a grain on his tongue, Damilola had a marble lodged in his airway, deliberately put there to prevent him from making noise. A bystander tried to perform CPR on Damilola, but was unsuccessful due to the lodged marble. Four boys were initially tried for Damilola’s murder. This trial, the first of three, ended in acquittal for all four suspects, due to witness credibility issues. The second trial began after new evidence was brought forward, and three new suspects were charged. This trial ended in mistrial. Finally, in a third trial, two brothers, Daniel and Richard Preddie, who were charged in the second trial, were found guilty of manslaughter and sent to prison. They were aged 12 and 13 at the time of the crime. Agbabi references this highly publicized, well known trial in “Sharps an Flats,” just as Chaucer references little St. Hugh of Lincoln in The Prioress’s Tale. The legend of St. Hugh of Lincoln was well known in Chaucer’s time, in part because of the folksong ballads and poetry that circulated around the topic. These stories are examples of blood libels, false antisemitic stories that featured the ritualistic torture and killing of Christian children by Jews. In the ballad of St. Hugh, while playing with friends, St. Hugh accidentally kicks a ball over a Jew’s garden wall. In an attempt to retrieve the ball, he is coerced inside, laid on a table and stabbed to death. That evening, his mother searches for him, and although he is dead, she hears him calling to her from the well where his body was disposed. Chaucer bases many aspects of The Prioress’s Tale on this ballad. Some aspects that most blood libels share are the death of a young boy by stabbing at the hands of the Jews, confusion and misinformation surrounding the accused and the abilities of the deceased to influence their communities, even after death.
33 Love conquers all The latin phrase for Love conquers all. The Prioress wears a brooch with this inscription: “And theron heng a brooch of gold ful sheene,/ On which ther was first write a crowned “A”/ And after, “Amor vincit omnia.”” (Chaucer and Benson, I.A.160-162.) However, her brooch uses the Latin word for romantic, erotic love, rather than the latin world for love of humanity, as one would expect a nun to wear. Here, it also represents the tension between the vernacular of the boys speech and the choice to not use Latin where it would be appropriate, and the earlier choice to use Latin where it was misplaced.
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