Mon | Apr 6, 2020

Hubert Devonish | Is Ms Lou only song and dance?

Published:Sunday | September 15, 2019 | 12:23 AM

The celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the birth of national icon Louise Bennett-Coverley are now in full swing. On cue, dolls, dignitaries, and dancers appear at each of the official events swathed in bandanna. This reddish plaid madras cloth has become part of the stereotype of the old-time Jamaican peasant woman. Miss Lou, in dress, wit, manner, and language, associated with this peasant persona, publicly performing her in poetry and prose.

Louise Bennett-Coverley was many things: ethno-musicologist, actress, social commentator. Most of all, however, she was a Jamaican language advocate. The two compilations by Mervyn Morris of Miss Lou’s work, one poetry and the other prose, both begin with pieces on language, defending the ‘languagehood’ of Jamaican speech and explaining its African origins.

How then would the Miss Lou persona, assertively speaking her language, Jamaican, be treated if she went into a government office one working day during the centenary celebrations? The research of Kadian Walters provides answers to that question.

We know that this ‘woman from country’ would be given the information and service she sought, but how? As determined by her luck, or lack thereof, she would experience one of the following: her speech would be smirked and sniggered at while she was being served; depending on how long the interaction takes place, other employees in the office might be signalled to come and overhear her speech; or the customer service representative might proceed to ‘correct’ her speech before serving her. Another might be downright rude and insulting.

Feeling less than human

We most certainly know that the Miss Lou character will leave this government office, staffed as it is with civil servants, her servants as a citizen of Jamaica, feeling less than human and very unwilling to subject herself to that kind of treatment again. This might be called ‘denial of service by other means’. Given such an experience, such an individual is less likely to seek access to the services of the State again, be these in the areas of health, police, social, education, or public information,

Parliament passed the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms (2011) Act. It did so without considering the updated information on the Jamaican language coming from the Jamaican Language Unit at The University of the West Indies, which the joint select committee of Parliament had asked for. The outcome was that the provision of freedom from discrimination on the grounds of language was excluded from the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms. The persona of the down-to-earth grass-roots woman from country, full of proverbs, and folk wisdom, who we so revere as we drape ourselves in bandanna at the string of ceremonies, continues to be denied her rights by the Jamaican State.

The challenge for us during the 100 days of celebration of the centenary of Miss Lou is to do the hard things. By definition, hard things are difficult to do. They disrupt the status quo and make us all feel uncomfortable. Currently, Miss Lou is being presented to us as heritage, bandanna, head wrap, and all. In the often-used saying, ‘You can’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you are coming from’, heritage is about where you are coming from. It certainly isn’t about where you are going.

Miss Lou and her language are, by this way of seeing things, pushed firmly into the past and right up unto the pedestal of her statue in Gordon Town – all of this while a real-life Miss Lou gets emotionally abused in a government office by people who are, according to the Constitution, her servants.

How about taking the Jamaican language out of bandanna and colouring the language black, green, and gold? That is what the Bible Society of the West Indies has done with their Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment (Jamaican New Testament) Bible translation published in 2012. A representation of the flag of Jamaica appears on the cover immediately below the title. The New Testament publication comes with an outer casing in the national colours – black, green, and gold. Where the Christian churches have gone, the Jamaican State must follow.

Direction is being given. One element of the Miss Lou 100 celebrations is the drive to ‘Make Jamaican Official – Jos Dwiit’. This is about transforming the mass of citizens of Jamaica from ‘the folk’, to ‘the people’. This is about making the Jamaican language not just about the past, heritage, but about the present and the future.

The language that most Jamaicans learnt at home in Miss Lou’s time and learn now is Jamaican. For most Jamaicans, English is a language learnt in school. It is hardly ever spoken in normal everyday interactions among friends, family, and colleagues. Most Jamaicans typically have neither the same facility with, or emotional connection to, English as they have with Jamaican. Miss Lou and her advocacy in favour of the Jamaican language, as the ‘Make Jamaican Official – Jos Dwiit’ slogan suggests, is not just about the past, but very much about the present and future.

The present and the future wear not bandanna but the national colours. Jamaican is the one language that unites all Jamaicans. It is the one language that identifies Jamaica and Jamaicans ‘tu di worl’. It is the language of the Jamaican nation but not the language of the Jamaican State, which represents that nation. The ‘Make Jamaican Official – Jos Dwiit’ campaign is trying to fix this.

In the name of much that Miss Lou stood for, the campaign seeks to petition for Jamaican to be made an official language alongside English. The old ‘Patois versus English’ debate is dead. Two languages are mainly used in Jamaica, and both should be means by which citizens can access all the services provided by the State, including education. Signing the petition for official status for the Jamaican language, from November 1 at the Office of the Prime Minister’s website, is the way in which we can press the Jamaican State to colour the Jamaican language black, green, and gold. It will be our way of having those seated in Gordon House hear Miss Lou’s voice in the wind, drifting down from her square in Gordon Town, repeating the cry, ‘Mek Jamiekan Ofishal – Jos Dwiit’.

- Hubert Devonish is professor emeritus of The UWI. Email feedback to and