Wed | Oct 18, 2017

Carolyn Cooper | Miss Lou - icon or national heroine?

Published:Sunday | September 3, 2017 | 12:00 AM

I'm not surprised that late last week only 1,000 people had signed the petition to make Miss Lou a national icon. And I don't think it's because hardly anybody cares about her legacy. It may be the very opposite. I speculate that, for many of us, Miss Lou is already a national icon. So there's no point to the petition. If the issue had been making Miss Lou a national heroine, that would have been an entirely different story. I would have immediately signed the petition.

On the 25th of August, I got an alarmist email from Kevin O'Brien Chang with the subject, "Miss Lou petition on brink of failure." That turned out to be the headline of an article in THE STAR, where Chang is reported to have said, "if a fraction of the people who were enthralled by the Ishawna tablecloth fracas signed the petition, the target could have been achieved in a day". That may be so. But why didn't they sign? Chang argues that, perhaps, they didn't know about the petition. Last Thursday's Gleaner editorial advertised it loud and clear. Let's see what difference that makes by September 7, the deadline for submitting the petition.

Last August, I wrote a column, 'Miss Lou, our second National Heroine!' I made the case that Louise Bennett-Coverley definitely meets the rather vague criteria established by the National Honours and Awards Act. 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". Miss Lou has certainly made a most distinguished contribution to Jamaican society in her many roles as poet, storyteller, folklorist, actress, dramatist, comedian and cultural activist.

I also made the point that 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.

I got an instructive response from Kevin O'Brien Chang. He told me about a recent poll in which 85 per cent of the 6,000 people surveyed agreed with me. Miss Lou should be declared a national heroine. Then he made an intriguing observation: "I also get the feeling that many people, especially children, associate 'national hero' with politics. And we certainly don't want to tarnish Miss Lou's name with that linkage!"

 

BEAST OF BURDEN

 

But why would politics tarnish Miss Lou's image? Her cultural work was fundamentally political. Miss Lou wanted to empower black Jamaicans who had been socialised to feel inferior to brown and white people in a very racist society. This is how she put it: "When I was a child, nearly everything about us was bad, yuh know; they would tell yuh seh yuh have bad hair, that black people bad, and that the language yuh talk was bad. And I know that a lot of people I knew were not bad at all - they were nice people and they talked this language."

We tend to focus on Miss Lou's activism in the field of language. And she certainly led the campaign to give due respect to our local language. But it was the speakers of the language that the fight was all about. Black people had low social status in Jamaica. Our black bodies were ugly, our language was subhuman and our natural role in life was beast of burden. And if you think it's all in the past tense, you are not paying any attention to the local advertising industry. Black women are almost exclusively typecast as domestic workers. We're still used to advertise laundry detergent and dishwashing liquid. Upscale products like wine, that reflect a lifestyle of leisure, are reserved for brown women.

The ideal Jamaican family is a black man, a brown woman, a brownish boy and a brown girl. Neither brown men, nor black women are usualy included in this picture-perfect world. Presumably, the black woman is the housekeeper. The brown man is certainly not the gardener. He is probably the wife's lover. And he may be checking the housekeeper on his way in or out. If you think I'm being wicked, just take a good look at the way colour and class are presented in print and electronic advertising in Jamaica in the 21st century.

As it turns out, Kevin O'Brien Chang used to support the proposition to make Miss Lou a national heroine. He even suggested that we set up a committee to submit a proposal. I'm not sure what, exactly, changed his mind. It seems as if he got intimidated by the competition. Bob Marley, Usain Bolt, Michael Manley and Edward Seaga are being proposed as new national heroes. Not a single woman and two more politicians. We've had enough of the politicians. It's time we had a national heroine in the field of culture and the arts. I'm putting goat mouth on Chang's petition. And starting my own!

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