Wed | Aug 23, 2017

Carolyn Cooper | Miss Lou, our second national heroine!

Published:Sunday | August 14, 2016 | 8:00 AM

Why is it taking so long for some of us to see that Miss Lou is a national heroine and just needs to be given the official title? In Jamaica, we have five levels of national honours: Order of National Hero; Order of the Nation/Order of Excellence; Order of Merit; Order of Jamaica; Order of Distinction.

Louise Bennett-Coverley has already been inducted into the Order of Jamaica and the Order of Merit. She has been gradually stepping up in life. Is time to stop skanking and turn her into a top-ranking national heroine. That's a deliberate echo of Bob Marley's Top Rankin. He should also be acknowledged as a national hero. The Tuff Gong has carried Jamaica's name far and wide. Yes, he smoked kaya. So what?

The National Honours and Awards Act states that the honour of national hero can be given to "any person who was born in Jamaica or is, or at the time of his death, was a citizen of Jamaica and rendered to Jamaica service of the most distinguished nature". Both Miss Lou and Bob Marley have certainly done that.

So who decides which Jamaicans deserve to be named national heroine or hero? It's really the responsibility of the governor general. But he or she (the governor general can be a she) is assisted by an Advisory Committee whose duty is "to make such investigations as it thinks fit to determine persons, living or dead, upon whom may be conferred the honour of national hero; and to report to the prime minister the result of those investigations".

 

DERISION AND ABUSE

 

We now have one national heroine, Nanny of the Maroons. There was a big fight to include her. Some backward people even tried to say she never existed. She was just a myth. Professor Kamau Brathwaite, a poet and historian who was born in Barbados, wrote a book, Wars of Respect, which proved that Nanny was not a figment of black people's imagination.

Brathwaite offers an interesting explanation for the claim that Nanny used her bottom to bounce back the bullets from British soldiers: "There is no way that Nanny could have turned her back & done what they say she did. But she could have turned her back, lifted her skirt, & displayed the derriere as a symbol of derision and abuse, which is a very common feature of 'the culture', as you know."

Nanny would welcome Miss Lou to keep her company. And it would sweet Miss Lou to be up there with Nanny. After all, is long time now she wrote a poem called Jamaica Oman, which celebrates the heroism of Nanny and that long line of powerful Jamaican women who carry on her tradition of bravery and cunning.

 

CULTURE WAR

 

All our national heroes were awarded the distinction based on wars on the battlefield of politics. Nanny and Sam Sharpe for the fight against slavery; Paul Bogle and George William Gordon for the struggle against new forms of slavery in the so-called Emancipation period; Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante for their leadership of the movement for political Independence from Britain and their advocacy of workers' rights in the turbulent 1930s; and Marcus Garvey for his pan-Africanist vision to liberate us from mental slavery.

All these political struggles have been absolutely vital for our national development. But there are other influential elements we are not taking into account. It's time we had a national heroine in the field of culture and the arts. Of course, this does not mean that culture is not political. It certainly is. Politics is all about who has the power to do what.

There are arrogant gatekeepers in our society who think they have the right to tell us what is culture and what is not. What is civilised and what is backward. What is a 'real-real' language and what is 'corruption'. Miss Lou deserves the distinction of national heroine for all the hard work she has done over so many decades to help us emancipate ourselves from feeling ashamed of our culture, particularly our mother tongue, our heart language.

 

CLAUDE MCKAY'S INFLUENCE

 

When Louise Bennett was about seven years old, Miss Dukes, a teacher at Calabar School in Kingston, gave her a copy of Claude McKay's Constab Ballads. Following in McKay's footsteps, Louise learned to use the Jamaican language creatively. She later recorded in print Anansi stories. And she produced a large body of original writing, mainly poetry and dramatic speeches.

When Miss Lou first started to perform her poems, a man in the audience once shouted at her, "Is dat yu modder send yu a school fa?" He intended to shut her up. So ironic, since that was the same language he was using! School was supposed to crush the mother tongue. But Miss Lou persisted and, fortunately for us, she continued to celebrate our bilingual heritage, both English and Jamaican.

Today, Miss Lou is a powerful role model for many performance poets in Jamaica. For example, DJ Anthony B pays tribute to her: "Talk like Miss Lou, mi no talk like foreigner." He recognises Miss Lou's stellar role in promoting Jamaican national identity through language. For this, she absolutely deserves the honour of national heroine. Respect long overdue!

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.