Remembering Miss Lou

Louise Bennett-Coverley, affectionately known as Miss Lou, was one of the most influential figures in Jamaican culture

  • Louise Bennett-Coverly, poet, entertainer, and Jamaican national icon. Photograph by the National Library of Jamaica
  • Miss Lou in her trademark ‘national costume’. Photograph courtesy Jamaica Information Service
  • A young Miss Lou doing a live radio broadcast. Photograph courtesy the Jamaica Information Service
  • ‘I believe in laughter’. Photograph courtesy the Jamaica Information Service
  • Miss Lou on her last trip to Jamaica in 2003. Photograph courtesy the Jamaica Gleaner Company

Louise Bennett-Coverly, 7 September, 1919 — 26 July, 2006

Louise Bennett-Coverley (“Miss Lou”), who died in Toronto on 26 July, was one of the most influential figures in Jamaican culture. Poet and performer, she demonstrated that Jamaican Creole could be the medium of significant art. Her work has been a liberating example well beyond the confines of her island. She was a model professional on stage, radio, and television, and an unselfish scholar of Jamaican folklore.

She was born in Kingston on 7 September, 1919. Her father, who owned a bakery in Spanish Town, died when she was only seven. Though her mother, an accomplished dressmaker, instilled respect (“everybody was a lady — the fish lady, the yam lady, the store lady, the teacher lady . . .”), Bennett also noticed many instances of self-contempt — black people saying that they had “bad hair”, and that the language they spoke was “bad”.

She liked literature at school, and from an early age she knew she wanted to write. Her early attempts were in Standard English. Then, one day, as a well-dressed teenager boarding a tramcar, she heard a market woman at the back say to another “’Pread out yuhself, one dress-oman a come!” The remark was the basis of Bennett’s first dialect poem. She began to wonder why more Jamaican writers were not writing about local realities and in the language many people spoke, instead of “writing in the same old English way about Autumn and things like that.”

Later in her career, from time to time she would write in defence of Jamaica talk. In the poem “Bans A Killin”, the persona enquires:

Meck me get it straight, Mas Charlie,
For me no quite understan —
Yuh gwine kill all English dialec
Or jus Jamaica one?

And she has information to share:

Dah language weh yuh proud a,
Weh yuh honour an respec —
Mas Charlie, yuh no know seh
Dat it spring from dialec!

A radio monologue on “Jamaica Language” begins:

My Aunty Roachy seh dat it bwile her temper an really bex her fi true anytime she hear anybody a style we Jamaican dialec as “corruption of the English language.” For if dat be de case, den dem shoulda call English Language corruption of Norman French an Latin an all dem tarra language what dem seh dat English is derived from.

Oonoo hear de wud? “Derived.” English is a derivation but Jamaica Dialec is corruption! What a unfairity! We derive too!

Her schoolmates liked her dialect poems, and gradually she developed a wider audience. Her mother was supportive. “If you can write as well as I can make a frock,” she said, “I’ll be satisfied.” Bennett was invited by Eric “Chalk Talk” Coverley to perform in the 1938 edition of the Christmas morning concerts he organised, and his cheque for two guineas was her first professional fee. In May 1943 she began publishing a column of her verses in the Sunday Gleaner each week. As her Gleaner column widened the circle of her admirers, she was often invited to village festivals to judge dramatic presentations based on her work, and in the process she was learning about rural Jamaica. Increasingly involved in performing and in assessing performance, in 1945 Bennett was awarded a British Council scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), the famous drama school in Britain.

Within months of her arrival in London, she had a BBC programme of her own. She did very well at RADA, and rejected opportunities to remain in Britain as a professional actress. She returned to Jamaica in 1947, taught for a while, and co-authored (with Noel Vaz) Bluebeard and Brer Anancy, the 1949 Christmas pantomime. Finding it hard to make ends meet, she went back to England in 1950 to work again for the BBC and to perform with repertory companies.

In 1953 she moved to New York, where, after a while in other jobs, she did some broadcasting with Alma John at WWRL, sang folksongs at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village, and, with Eric Coverley, co-directed a folk musical called Day in Jamaica. In May 1954 she married Coverley, and they returned to Jamaica in 1955.

Until 1959, Bennett worked for the Jamaica Social Welfare Commission as drama officer, a job that required her to travel all over Jamaica. She continued the study of Jamaican folklore and history that she had begun in the 1940s. She became an authority on Jamaican culture who lectured in many countries, and was a generous resource person for many scholars, including Frederic Cassidy, the author of Jamaica Talk, who described her creative work as true to the spirit and the letter of the folk speech.

Generally regarded as the pre-eminent Jamaican theatre personality of the twentieth century, Bennett helped Jamaicanise the annual Little Theatre Movement pantomime, which began in the early 1940s as a pale imitation of English models. She wrote some of the scripts and contributed to others, and between 1943 and 1975 — whenever she was not abroad — was one of the focal personalities in the annual show. Her co-star was often Ranny Williams, with whom she also did The Lou and Ranny Show on radio.

From 1966 until 1982, often three times a week, she composed and delivered Miss Lou’s Views, topical four-minute radio monologues. From 1970 until 1982, she hosted Ring Ding, a weekly television show for children, in which children performed and were reminded of various elements in Jamaican folk culture. She thought it important that “de pickney-dem learn de sinting dat belong to dem” (that the children learn about their heritage).

Although a gifted and well-trained performer, Bennett was a writer first of all. “From the beginning,” she said in a 1968 interview with Dennis Scott, “nobody ever recognised me as a writer. ‘Well, she is doing dialect’; it wasn’t even writing, you know.” And “I did start to write before I started to perform.” Her first book was published in 1942.

Jamaica Labrish (1966) seeks to represent the range of her published verse, to “reveal Miss Bennett in her multiple roles as entertainer, as a valid literary figure, and as a documenter of aspects of Jamaican life, thought, and feeling.” Selected Poems (1982) is designed to emphasise her literary significance. Her storytelling is sampled in Anancy and Miss Lou (1979). My Aunty Roachy Seh (1993) prints fifty of the radio monologues. Recordings include Yes, M’Dear: Miss Lou Live, Lawd . . . Di Riddim Sweet (both audio), and Miss Lou and Friends and Visiting with Miss Lou (videos).

It is sometimes argued that only in performance are the writings of Louise Bennett fully realised. Reviewing Jamaica Labrish, the Times Literary Supplement wrote: “In print these ballads are like a phonetic libretto for performance, but they cannot recreate for us the performance itself. Not merely something, but too much, is lost.” Subsequent critical discussion has established that Louise Bennett poems in print offer considerable rewards, especially if the reader is alert to the potential of performance. The words on the page represent sounds, and they sometimes imply movement.

Her poems were always popular, but critical acknowledgement of their worth was slow in coming. They received early recognition and significant public support from influential persons such as Philip Sherlock and Robert Verity, who contributed forewords to some of her books. But her work did not appear in the important Jamaican magazine Focus (edited by Edna Manley between 1943 and 1960), and she was ignored by the Jamaica Poetry League. In 1962 she was included in the Independence Anthology of Jamaica Literature (edited by A.L. Hendriks and Cedric Lindo), but not in the section for poetry. In 1964 the Gleaner published an essay by me titled “On Reading Louise Bennett, Seriously”, which contends she is “a poet, and, in her best work, a better poet than most other Jamaican writers.” In 1966 Jamaica Labrish appeared. The introduction by Rex Nettleford places Bennett “firmly in a tradition of the spoken word, living as she does in a society in which anything worth knowing has been told and not written.” It recommends scholarly books on Jamaican dialect. It relates “tragi-comic expression” in Bennett’s work to a similar quality in black American blues and jazz and Trinidad calypso. “Humour becomes, as it were, the expression of a people’s will to live.”

“I believe in laughter,” she is reported to have said. It is sometimes a way of coping with adversity — she tek bad tings mek laugh — and through the comedy, beyond the laughter, there is an ongoing social critique. Her writings are pervasively ironic. They pillory pretension and self-contempt. Celebrating Jamaican Creole, they ridicule language prejudice; they criticise people ashamed of being Jamaican or ashamed of being black. They respect, but sometimes criticise, the values and perceptions of the ordinary Jamaican, the “small man” struggling in systems he does not yet control.

A Louise Bennett poem is usually a dramatic monologue, a form that encourages irony — the speaker often seems to understand less of what the monologue implies than the reader or listener or viewer does. In “Uriah Preach”, for example, the persona is boasting about her son who substitutes “when rain fall or parson sick”. She describes one such recent occasion, proud that Uriah has seized the opportunity to castigate members of the congregation:

Him tell dem off, dem know is dem,
Dem heart full to de brim;
But as Uriah eena pulpit
Dem cyaan back-answer him.

The vitality of the monologue draws us into sharing her wicked delight; but we know, all the same, that her behaviour and her son’s behaviour are un-Christian, not (really) to be approved.

In “Independance” the persona reports on Mattie, who believes that everything, including Jamaica’s size and location, should change with Independence.

She hope dem caution worl-map
Fi stop draw Jamaica small,
For de lickle speck cyaan show
We independentness at all!

Though there were West Indians before Louise Bennett who wrote poems in Creole — notably Edward Cordle of Barbados and the Jamaican Claude McKay — she produced a more substantial body of excellent work than any of her predecessors. Her significance has been warmly acknowledged by many West Indian writers, including Kamau Brathwaite, Lorna Goodison, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Mutabaruka, and Paul Keens-Douglas. There is surely no West Indian author, living or dead, more often credited with having cleared a way.

Her reputation as a writer has risen steadily since the 1960s, strengthened by critics such as Gordon Rohlehr, Lloyd Brown, Carolyn Cooper, and Rhonda Cobham-Sander (who are West Indian), and J. Edward Chamberlin, Laurence Breiner, Eric Doumerc, and Jahan Ramazani (who are not). Ramazani, who has a chapter on Louise Bennett in The Hybrid Muse: Postcolonial Poetry in English (2001), deems her “long overdue for recognition beyond the West Indies — as master ironist, as master poet, as a major Anglophone poet of our time.” He includes samples of her work in the 2003 edition of The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry.

Honours bestowed on her in recent decades include the Order of Jamaica, honorary degrees from the University of the West Indies and from York University in Toronto, a Gold Musgrave Medal, fellowship of the Institute of Jamaica, and Jamaica’s Order of Merit (for her distinguished contribution to the development of the arts and culture). The Jamaican Government appointed her cultural ambassador at large.

Miss Lou was loved and respected not only by Jamaicans at home and abroad but by a wider international constituency. She showed for decades — from as early as 1965 at the Commonwealth Arts Festival in Wales — that she could communicate effectively with any audience, including people not familiar with Jamaican Creole.

Though Bennett and her husband moved to Fort Lauderdale early in the 1980s, and to Toronto in 1987, they kept in touch with Jamaicans and Jamaican cultural identity. She said: “Any which part mi live — Toronto-o! London-o! Florida-o! — a Jamaica mi deh!” (Wherever I live — Toronto, London, Florida — I am in Jamaica.)

The year after her husband died, she was persuaded to visit Jamaica for the Independence celebrations of August 2003. She was the focus of a massive outpouring of love and formal recognition of her enduring significance. There was a similar response to the announcement of her death — love and praise from everybody, including people not previously known as friends of Jamaican language and culture.

The official funeral took place at Coke Methodist, a church she favoured. It is not large; so, though the service was broadcast and televised, few people could actually attend. One columnist had called in advance for “a patois funeral”, and there were viewers who thought the service inappropriately dominated by Standard English.

A creative commentator has described people at National Heroes Park waiting for the official ceremony to end so they could begin “the real funeral” (valorising folk culture). Folk culture had been the heart of “Tenky Miss Lou”, a tribute in concert presented the night before at the National Arena; but the emphatic separation of the Creole event from the Standard English event was probably not something Miss Lou would have endorsed.

The Louise Bennett Garden Theatre was named some years ago. Another memorial is likely — hopefully a scholarship or something of that sort, rather than a statue. There have been calls for Miss Lou to be made a National Hero.

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