Today, we continue a creative non-fiction article commemorating the birthday of the Hon Louise Bennett-Coverley on September 7, 1919. Based on an interview with Miss Lou and other research by Michael Reckord, this is the second of three parts. In the first, Bennett's nickname 'Bibis' had been traced to when she was a baby.
Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer
Louise Bennett left Excelsior in 1938, having attended St Simon's College from 1933-36. One afternoon, in the period between the schools, she got permission to go to a matinee at the cinema, Movies Theatre in Cross Roads.
In her school uniform, she would have paid only one penny on the electric tramcar, then the most popular form of public transportation. But Bibis wanted to dress up, though it meant paying more.
On entering the tramcar in her finery, she saw a number of market women on the seats at the back. (They were allotted the last four seats.) As she turned to make her way toward them, one said to her companion "spread out yuself. One dress woman a come". With that, she spread out her apron to take up the seat.
The incident triggered Bibis' creativity and she wrote a poem which began:
'Pread out yuself deh, Liza,
One dress woman look like seh
She see de lil' space side a wi
And waan poke herself in deh.
Spread out gal, she da come.
No space in yah at all!
Wha mek yu fool so, Liza?
'pread out yuself, nuh gal.
Bibis had not been happy at St Simon's. The focus was too much on study. "They teach Latin and French and Spanish," she told her mother.
"What wrong with that?"
"But, Mama, I want to learn something about Jamaica."
Bibis nodded. "And Jamaican songs and dances and music."
Her mother's face got serious. "I will see what I can do."
Not long after this conversation, a customer of her mother's mentioned that a new school, Excelsior, had recently opened its doors on North Street and it had a dynamic young headmaster, Mr Wesley Powell.
"Why you don't go and speak to Mr Powell?"
"I will," said Miss Kerrie. And she did.
The result was that Bibis was accepted as a student. The school turned out to be just what she wanted. In fact, the first sight of the school caused Bibis to write a poem about the institution. It began:
"It was a warm September day.
Along North Street I made my
I stopped at the gate and heaved
One word caught my eye:
After just weeks at the school, Bibis reported to her mother: "I love Excelsior. Mr Powell encourages us to dance and sing and recite - all the things I like to do."
"I hope you also doing school subjects, Bibs."
"Yes, Mama, those, too."
Among the poems which Bibis recited to her classmates were the ones she had begun writing in dialect. They proved popular and so she started to recite them at the Friday social afternoons the headmaster instituted. At these, the children made up a performing arts programme consisting of dance, song, poetry and speeches.
Teachers, as well as students, attended the sessions. One afternoon, the students put Mr Powell himself on the programme. He was to do a solo. Laughing heartily, Bibis later told her family what happened.
"He got up and announced, 'A solo by Mr Powell'. He clasped his hands, looked up, opened his mouth as if he was singing. But not a word came out of his mouth."
"Everybody started to laugh. After about a minute, he stopped and said, 'That was a silent solo'. We laughed even harder. He was the best performer on the show," concluded Bibis, chuckling along with the members of her household.
An end-of-school concert found Bibis reciting her dialect poems for visitors, as well as the regular audience. One visitor was an impresario and entertainer known as 'Chalk Talk'.
This is how Bibis described the meeting many years later: "Chalk Talk was a draughtsman by profession, but he loved theatre. He would draw on the blackboard with chalk and then he would turn the board upside down and it would be another figure. He was invited to one of our end of term performances. By that time I had been writing a lot."
"To my surprise, I got a book as a prize from the school, inscribed 'For outstanding literary effort.' I felt good. After the show, I went to Chalk Talk, who had performed too, and said, 'Please, Mister Chalk Talk, could you write something in my book?'"
He wrote: 'Very unusual talent.'
"When I went home one day from school, my mother said Chalk Talk had come to see us. He wanted me to perform on his Christmas Morning concert.
"Oh, no, no," I said. "That's too big."
"But Bibs,' Mama said, "you want more people to hear what you're reciting, all the things you're saying. Go ahead."
"Chalk Talk came four different times to see me, but I was never there. But Christmas morning Mama sent me to the concert with other relatives. Chalk Talk introduced me as this poet from Excelsior and all the things I would recite were things I wrote myself. I did well. I got three encores that morning."
"After the show I saw a line of people going up to Chalk Talk. I didn't know what it was for, but I joined it. Chalk Talk handed me an envelope and in it was one guinea - one pound, one shilling. That was my first professional fee for performing."
Next week: The story of Miss Lou concludes with her professional career.