Tue | Aug 3, 2021


Published:Wednesday | July 26, 2006 | 5:24 PM


LOUISE SIMONE BENNETT is one of Jamaica\'s most precious national treasures. Affectionately called \"Miss Lou\" .she is regarded as The First Lady of Comedy. Through wit, humour and her own inimitable style she has elevated Jamaican patios to a fine art

The polyglot of languages we call patois or creole is reflective of our racial origins and eloquently illustrates Jamaica\'s motto \"Out of many one people\". Miss Lou has made Jamaicans proud of patois and helped them to realise that this unique dialect is part of their cultural heritage.

Louise Bennett was born in Kingston in 1919. She is the daughter of the late Augustus Cornelius Bennett (businessman) and his wife Kerene (nee Robinson). She

was educated at Calabar Elementary School, Ebenezer Primary, St. Simon\'s College (1933-36) and Excelsior High School (1936-38).

The young Louise always had an irrepresible sense of humour and a flair for dramatics. She describes herself as \"an average student\". But she was always the first to volunteer for a place in the line up for school concerts.

On Christmas morning 1936 Louise made her first real public appearance when she performed at the annual concert at the Coke Methodist Church. She was then 17 years old. She recited a poem she had written in Jamaican dialect and received a prize of one guinea ;($2.10) from MC Eric Coverley, who would later become her husband.

When Louise Bennett began writing and reciting her dialect poems in the late 1930\'s and early 1940\'s she was regarded as an embarrassment. Speaking dialect was felt to be socially unacceptable and only the poor and illiterate spoke patois. The British (Oxford) accent was regarded as the epitome of cultured speech.

At Excelsior High School even some of the teachers did not see the value of Louise Bennett\'s poetry. But she was encouraged by persons such as W.A. Powell, Hugh Sherlock and the late Astley Clarke. She remained undaunted by the sometimes hostile attitude toward dialect. She insisted on presenting a dialect poetry which reflected the lifestyle, philosophy and sense of humour of the Jamaican people.

Literary critic and radio announcer Archie Lindo read one of her poems on Jamaica\'s first radio station, ZQI (now Radio Jamaica). The late Horace Myers heard the broadcast and asked Lindo to arrange a meeting with Louise Bennett. She was asked to perform at a dinner party hosted by Myers.

The Daily Gleaner had previously refused to publish her poems but Michael deCordova heard her at the party and asked her to submit poems for publication in the newspaper. A regular Sunday column evolved for which she was paid ten shillings and six pence ($1.05). The column proved to be a hugh success and Louise Bennett received letters from people all over Jamaica. Many persons began reading and performing her poems.

In 1945 Louise Bennett was awarded a British Council scholarship to the Royal Academy in England. Between 1945-46 she was attached to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). She hosted two radio programmes \"Caribbean Carnival\" and \"West Indian Night\".

On her return to Jamaica in 1956 she was appointed Drama Officer with the Jamaica Social Welfare Commission and between 1959-63 served as Director of that organisation.

Miss Lou appeared in her first Jamaican pantomime in 1943 playing opposite the late Ranny Williams. The two were to become a much-loved duo in Jamaican theatre.

For a time many persons including critics were baffled as to what genre Miss Lou\'s writings belonged. The \"Independence Anthology of Jamaican Literature\" published in 1962 had a poem of hers which was placed alongside an Anancy story under the Miscellaneous section.

Miss Lou\'s writings have now been accepted as poetry. She now has several publications to her credit. Jamaica humour in dialect was published in 1943; Anancy stories and dialect verse in 1950. Jamaica Labrish in 1966 was an instant bestseller and the book had its second impression in 1972.

Miss Lou also has several sound recordings. \"Anancy stories\", \"Listen to Louise\", and \"Miss Lou\'s views\" were produced by Federal Record Manufacturing Company. The programme \"Miss Lou\'s views\" was also broadcast by Radio Jamaica. In it Miss Lou used her Auntie Roachie stories to project her views of Jamaicans. The long playing record \"The Honourable Miss Lou\" was produced by Dynamic Sounds in 1981 and the live recording \"Yes mi dear\" done by Amani in 1982.

Miss Lou\'s poetry, wit and humour have always appealed to children. The popular JBC-TV programme for children Ring Ding was created by her and aired between 1970-82. The programme which had children in the studio audience, encouraged the youngsters to sing, dance and recite poetry. They were rewarded with a round of applause to Miss Lou\'s enthusiastic command to \"Clap dem!\"

Louise Bennett has extensively researched Jamaican folklore and has lectured at the University of the West Indies Extra Mutual Centre. She has presented Jamaica at a number of music and folklore festivals and seminars in the USA, UK, Canada and the Caribbean.

In June 1983 she was invited by the Centre for African and Afro American Studies of Atlanta, USA to tour Senegal and Zambia. She has appeared in several motion pictures filmed in Jamaica, the most recent being \"Club Paradise\" in 1986.

Louise Bennett has received numerous awards both in Jamaica and abroad. In 1960 she was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE) for work in Jamaican literature and theatre. In 1974 the Government of Jamaica honoured her with the insignia of Order of Jamaica.

She has been awarded the Norman Manley Award for Excellence in the field of the Arts; the Institute of Jamaica\'s Gold Musgrave Medal and the Honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by the UWI in 1982.

In 1986 she was honoured at a special function in Canada. The Jamaica American Caribbean Quarterly Magazine gave her a plaque for Outstanding Creativity in the Performing Arts. That same year the Senior Citizens of Jamaica in Cleveland, Ohio, USA also showed their appreciation with the presentation of a plaque.

In 1986 Louise Bennett celebrated 50 years in Jamaican theatre. At a special anniversary service in August 1987 tributes came from many and Louise Bennett\'s own appreciation was summed up in two words \"Tenk God\".

The anniversary celebrations took place between 1986-87 and in 1987 the National Library of Jamaica mounted a special exhibition in honour of the anniversary. In that year she was also selected as one of 10 outstanding persons to be honoured at a special luncheon. The function, which took place at the Florida International University in Miami, paid tribute to Outstanding Black Cultural Spokespersons.

In recognition of her contribution the City of Kingston handed her the Keys of the City at a civic reception at the Ward Theatre in 1987.

The Louise Bennett Garden Theatre was opened in the 1970\'s and to commemorate the 50th anniversary the theatre was refurbished in 1987 at a cost of $10,000. It has seating for 1,000 and was built for the staging of children\'s production, band concerts and family concerts.

In March 1988 Miss Lou was honoured at the Second Annual Caribbean American Awards of Excellence in Miami.

Louise Bennett\'s poems have a timelessness and have always remained fresh and relevant, even 20-30 years after they were written. She has now been accepted as a poet in her own right. She has succeeded in her mission to have folklore recognised as a valid and integral part of Jamaican culture. Through her tenacity patois has now been legitimized.

On May 30, 1954 Louise Bennett married Eric Coverley. They have one adopted daughter but have fostered almost 17 children now scattered in different parts of the world but who regard them with affection and gratitude.