Carolyn Cooper | Louise Bennett’s monumental legacy
Two Fridays ago, I went to Gordon Town for the unveiling of the statue of Louise Bennett-Coverley, popularly known by her stage name, Miss Lou. Mutabaruka, who was covering the event for Irie FM, tried to get me into ‘mix-up’ by asking on air what I thought of “this one”.
His provocative question was a reminder of those other monuments that have incited public debate. For example, the two busts of Marcus Garvey sculpted by Raymond Watson for the University of the West Indies. One of them now rests in relative peace in what looks like a cemetery in the Faculty of Humanities and Education.
Then there’s the helpless man and woman trapped in a basin of water in ‘Not Emancipation Park’. With eyes closed and heads raised, they seem to be passively waiting for redemption to fall from the sky like manna. Laura Facey’s perverse representation of emancipation from slavery is a slap in the face to all those freedom fighters who fiercely gave their life to liberate black people from white domination.
I told Muta I couldn’t see the statue clearly in the dark. I went back last week to look at it in broad daylight. Basil Watson certainly catches the animated spirit of Miss Lou. I’m not so sure about the body. Miss Lou was quite substantial in both physical form and accomplishments.
NOT BROKEN ENGLISH
Louise Bennett-Coverley was an extraordinary poet, playwright, actress, folklorist, TV and radio personality and social commentator. Her first book, (Jamaican) Dialect Verses, was published in 1942. In the 1940s, the Jamaican language was conceived as a regional dialect of English. Louise Bennett understood the importance of celebrating this vital expression of our identity, no matter the name.
Miss Lou relentlessly contested negative images of black people in Jamaica. Here's what she said in a 1976 television interview: “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.”
Though she was not a linguist, Louise Bennett was definitely in tune with the scholarship on the Jamaican language that supported her own vision. In 1966, Cambridge University Press published a pioneering book by the Jamaican linguist, Beryl Loftman Bailey. In Jamaican Creole Syntax, Dr Bailey analysed our language, focusing on how sound and meaning are consistently structured – to put it simply. She argued that Jamaican was a language, not a dialect, and this had urgent implications for how language was to be taught in Jamaican schools.
Instead of devaluing our language as ‘broken’ or ‘corrupt’ English, educators needed to recognise that Jamaican was, indeed, a distinct language with its own rules of grammar. More than 50 years later, the Ministry of Education still has not learned this fundamental lesson. An efficient bilingual education programme has not been established in primary schools. Why is it taking us so long to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery?
There was a lot of talk at the unveiling ceremony about cultural tourism. Cruise ship visitors to Kingston would be coming to see the statue, we were told. Hopefully, this will happen. Gordon Town needs revitalisation. When I went to take a second look at the statue, I stopped to chat with Michael ‘Jerky’ Hibbert. I had bought fried fish and breadfruit and sweet potato from him after the unveiling. It was all absolutely delicious.
‘Jerky’ wasn’t selling cooked food that day because of rain. His stall was full of fruits. I asked him if his guineps were sweet. He said yes, and gave me some. Then he added almost two dozen June plums that came from his garden and a pear on top of that. When I insisted on paying, he said, “No, you are my guest.” If ‘Jerky’ is a typical resident, Gordon Town is definitely ready for cultural tourism.
But Louise Bennett’s monumental legacy is not about entertaining tourists, whether domestic or international. She challenged us to claim the power of our own language. In his keynote speech, Prime Minister Andrew Holness beautifully illustrated Miss Lou’s insight. He and Ambassador Aloun Assamba were attending a meeting abroad. They were travelling on a bus with other delegates speaking various languages. Aloun and Andrew decided to speak in Jamaican. In surprise, someone asked them, “I thought you spoke English?”
Andrew confessed that the experience made him understand the value of having your own language. But how is this revelation being applied to education policy in Jamaica? There are many children entering primary school this year whose own and only language is Jamaican. How are they going to learn anything if they are taught in a language they don’t know?
We must take Jamaican seriously as a language of instruction for these students. That is the most appropriate way to keep Miss Lou alive.