Wed | Jun 3, 2020

For the Reckord | Edna Manley College pays homage to Miss Lou

Published:Thursday | September 13, 2018 | 12:00 AMMichael Reckord/Gleaner Writer
A statue of Louise Bennett Coverley, otherwise known as Miss Lou, was unveiled in Gordon Town, St Andrew on Friday, September 7.
Blackwood Meeks

Last Friday was the 99th birthday of cultural icon Louise Bennett-Coverley. A birthday celebration held in her honour at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts (EMCVPA) was attended by only a handful of the college's administrative staff and students.

The function, held in the library, was organised by the college's orator Dr Amina Blackwood-Meeks and librarian Erica Davis.

Blackwood-Meeks told her audience that she had the privilege of conducting the last interview that Miss Lou gave in Jamaica. The cultural icon died in Toronto, Canada, in 2006.

Speaking of the interview, Blackwood-Meeks said she was due to interview Miss Lou in the morning, and another interview was scheduled to be been done in the afternoon by Ian Boyne for his television series Profile. However, Boyne, who died last year, switched interview slots with her, and she became the last person to conduct an interview with Miss Lou.

Dr Blackwood-Meeks pointed out that Miss Lou's birthday coincided with the United Nation's International Literacy Day this year. She connected the two events by saying that though Miss Lou made Patois respectable, many still do not accept it. She gave the example of a boy at a recent function who, when he and other children were asked to speak to the audience from the platform, asked the minister of culture, Olivia Grange, in a whisper, if he could speak in patois.


Liberated language


"The minister said, 'Of course, you can,'" Dr Blackwood-Meeks related. "That was so sad, when we say Miss Lou liberated the Jamaican language."

Dr Blackwood-Meeks, a former director of culture in the Ministry of Education, said that the ministry at one time had the rights to four of Miss Lou's books (but only while she was alive, she later discovered).

Dr Blackwood-Meeks said she "agitated" to have the ministry buy copies of these books to be put in schools, but this was not done. The accomplished storyteller lauded The Gleaner for being the first to provide the space (in the 1940s) for Miss Lou to publish her Patois poems. Years later, she said, when Miss Lou regularly performed in Patois on JBC radio, producer John Maxwell accumulated "boxes of letters" berating the poet and urging that she be removed from the airwaves.

Maxwell, who died in 2010, is said to have intercepted every one of the letters. He never showed them to Miss Lou. Dr Blackwood-Meeks said he did not want to "break her spirit".

Dr Blackwood-Meeks said that there was much more to Miss Lou than just her "cussing poems" (like 'Kas Kas') available in Jamaica Cultural Development Commission's anthologies for speech competitors. She celebrated the role of women in the liberation of Jamaica, Dr Blackwood-Meeks said, and, for example, wrote an essay celebrating National Heroine Nanny.

"But people who work in culture asked me if it's really Miss Lou who wrote it," Dr Blackwood Meeks said. "Miss Lou is not being taught in a holistic way."

Stating that the college "must see itself as a booster station for culture", Dr Blackwood-Meeks said she would like to see a large collection of works on and by Miss Lou "along with those on other Caribbean cultural icons" in the EMCVPA library, one that people from all over the world could use for research.