Karl F. Watts | The case for Miss Lou as national hero
In 1944, Louise Bennett was still in her twenties when the Jamaican masses gained universal adult suffrage, an achievement directly related to the 1938 labour riots. This was to be the first time that the descendants of slaves were to be the final arbiters of those who ruled over them.
This development immediately created a dilemma for the imperial policy makers and some local leaders as they had little idea how a people who were conditioned for centuries to obey unquestioningly, would exercise their new power.
It was further compounded by their ignorance of the culture of the masses, particularly their language and its significance, despite centuries of colonial association.
When Bustamante was elected in the first exercise of this franchise, instead of the Oxonian Norman Manley, it confirmed to many their lack of judgement and irrationality. Full independence was postponed until two decades later in 1962.
It was in this interregnum that Louise Bennett Coverly, Miss Lou, matured as an artist and did her most important work – a work that was as crucial as the trade unionism of Bustamante and the political leadership of Norman Manley in securing independence for the Jamaican people.
It is almost certain by acclamation that Miss Lou will one day join them as a national hero, so it behoves us to understand why she would deserve such an honour, lest she become a victim of mistaken identity, that belittles her contribution, when such an honour is bestowed.
It has happened once before to Ms Lou when she was relegated to the section reserved for Comedy in the Jamaica Independence Programme.
In a four-part article titled ‘Reading Louise Bennett Seriously’ in The Sunday Gleaner of June 7-28, 1964, Professor Mervyn Morris, with undisguised anger, berated her treatment as a poet.
To echo the words of a great philosopher, “history occurs two times, one time a tragedy, two times a farce”. If the relegation of Ms Lou’s work in 1962 was a tragedy, let us never be farcical by conferring on her high honours for the wrong reasons.
ARTIST AND NATION BUILDER
Miss Lou’s contribution to the performing and literary arts was so prodigious that the task of unravelling it will engage scholars, playwrights, film producers and political historians for decades to come, as was the case with the work of Marcus Garvey.
We can do no more here than to highlight, once again, some of her major contributions.
From the time she was a teenager, she composed and unearthed hundreds of poems. between the mid-1940s and 1975, she was to appear with the Garveyite Ranny Williams in every pantomime, with the exception of three, most of which she either authored or co-authored.
She composed and unearthed folk songs and produced a folk album of Jamaican folk songs that was to form the basis of Harry Belafonte’s million-selling album Calypso of 1956, which included the seemingly immortal Banana Boat Song.
Her work undoubtedly contributed to the growth of Jamaica’s popular music – mento, ska, and reggae. She was also a communicator of the highest order, demonstrating a mastery of all forms of the media – print, radio, and television – with a unique ability to connect with children. All this she achieved in the face of incipient class prejudice.
Professor Morris, in his article, noted that when Louise Bennett’s poetry was read to middle-class children, they were as amused by her wit as much as what they considered to be the bad language, which they associated with their helpers and gardeners.
Miss Lou persevered, despite bigotry and ignorance (the hallmark of colonial society), and went on to lay the foundation of acceptance of ‘nation language’, a term coined by Kamau Brathwaite, for the people’s language, usually called Patois (with a derogatory undertone).
As great an artist that she was, the significance of her work as a vehicle highlighting the customs of a people, who were fit for independence, was to be her indelible contribution to Jamaican and indeed Caribbean social life.
What Miss Lou demonstrated – which scholars and others saw much later, that far from being a body of ignorance, the ‘nation language’ embodied a complex amalgam of the imperial language ,English, together with the retentions from native Africa. It was the language in which slaves and their descendants defined their social space, and it sustained them through one of the worst types of exploitation in history, the scars of which are still evident today.
It was to Miss Lou’s credit that through her art and entertainment, she was to overcome the limitations of mental slavery by reaffirming the humanity of those who were despised, and in the process, demonstrated to their colonisers their creative ability and the right to govern themselves. Politicians and other social actors were forced to acknowledge, if not accept, the importance of the national language to enhance their appeal.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that Miss Lou glorified ‘nation language’. she, like the children of Soweto and the Caribbean masses, knew the value of what was called an ‘education’ in the imperial language as the road to social mobility and were willing to suffer all manner of deprivation to ensure this education for their children. Further, she did not glorify the masses as a homogenous group, which was naive and incapable of complex behaviour, both good and ill.
On August 17, 1985, Miss Lou celebrated 50 years of creative activity in a church service titled ‘Teng God’ at the Coke Methodist Church, the venue of her funeral service. It is of historical significance that this date happened to be the birthday of Marcus Garvey, the man who, perhaps, more than any other, would have been her spiritual inspiration and had issued the injunction of “up you mighty race, you can accomplish what you will”.
Ms Lou was a living testimony to Garvey’s prophesy. Jamaica and the Caribbean should indeed give thanks for her contribution to nation building, for which she deserves the highest honor: National Hero.
- Karl F. Watts is a freelance writer on social issues. Email feedback to email@example.com