Miss Lou in nine parts
By the time she died on July 26, 2006, in Toronto, Canada, the Hon Louise Simone Bennett-Coverley, OM, OJ, MBE, Hon D Litt - popularly known as 'Miss Lou' - was one of the most beloved Jamaicans ever. A measure of the regard in which she was held was that Miss Lou was accorded an official funeral on August 9 and buried in National Heroes Park, with many persons calling for her to be made a national hero.
You might have attended a celebration of the 95th anniversary of her birth on Sunday. The colourful laughter and music-filled Jamaica Cultural Development Commission tribute, An Evening With Miss Lou was held at the Louise Bennett Garden Theatre, Hope Road, St Andrew. Or you might have read the informative biographical work Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture by Mervyn Morris, a fellow poet, scholar and author who has also contributed much to and commented extensively on our culture.
I did both and will focus on the latter.
Beautifully designed, with photographs of a laughing Bennett-Coverley on the front and back covers, the 104-page Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture is published by Ian Randle Publishers. It seems to be aimed at both the average reader and the student. On one hand, the sentences flow easily, the language is lucid and it contains much general, even domestic, information. Still, there is as much academic analysis of Bennett's work.
The author also had a non-Jamaican audience in mind. Not only are the phrases and sentences written in Jamaican Creole (most often referred to as Jamaican dialect) translated into Standard English, but the same is done for several verses of Bennett-Coverley poems. The original and translation are side by side on the page.
Students will also like the bibliographical notes at the end of the chapters and the reference material in the penultimate section, Recommended Books and Recordings. There are eight other main sections - Introduction, Beginnings, Later Years, Miss Lou and Pantomime, Anancy and Miss Lou, The Poems, Aunty Roachy and Legacy.
Another reader-friendly aspect of the book is that the short chapters are largely self-contained. For example, you needn't have read the other chapters to appreciate Morris' offerings on Bennett's poetry in The Poems.
Emphasising Bennett-Coverley's versatility, the blurb on the back cover identifies her as "a poet, performer, storyteller, singer, actress, writer, broadcaster, folklore scholar and children's television-show host." The book gives details of her work in each occupation, leaving one with a sense of awe.
This was no ordinary woman, despite her unassuming, friendly nature.
The evidence indicates that Bennett-Coverley was always loved by family and friends. And when she started becoming widely known as a poet while still a student at Excelsior High School, she was certainly admired. But she was not always respected, ironically because of the single most important thing that was to later elevate her in national and international consciousness - her artistic use of the people's language.
Morris quotes her as telling Dennis Scott: "For too long, it was considered not respectable to use the dialect, because there was a social stigma attached to the kind of person who used dialect habitually." So, "she was not always accorded respect." For instance, Miss Lou was included among the Jamaican performers "going to Trinidad and Tobago in 1958 for an arts festival at the opening of the West Indian Federal Parliament, but only after Trinidad expressed surprise at her non-inclusion was she asked to join the contingent."
Also, the British Broadcasting Corporation employed Bennett-Coverley twice, long before she gained respect from the literary establishment in Jamaica (like the Jamaica Poetry League).
Taken together, these uphold the common view that Jamaica tends to lag behind foreigners in giving approval to our artistes. Happily, she had gotten the respect she deserved before she died, and knew it.
Morris begins the chapter on her legacy with this paragraph:
"Louise Bennett was, and is, a profoundly influential figure in the continuing development of Jamaican identity. At every stage of her career, she was taken to heart by the vast majority of Jamaicans as someone who spoke their language with love, and who authentically, though sometimes critically, represented their ways of seeing. She investigated and taught about beliefs and practices inherited from African ancestors transplanted in the Caribbean; aspects of culture embraced by most Jamaicans at home and in the diaspora, but with which some were, or pretended to be, comparatively unfamiliar. Through her insightful humour she persuaded many colonially educated persons to value aspects of Jamaican heritage they tended to ignore."
The book was only published this year and may not have yet found itself into school syllabuses. It should soon get there - and here I am not only making a prediction, but a recommendation to teachers of both English Literature and cultural studies. They'll find it invaluable.
Morris, professor emeritus of Creative Writing and West Indian Literature at the University of the West Indies, Mona, is the author of two books about West Indian literature and six books of poetry.