by Laura Tanna
Born in Kingston in 1919, Louise Simone Bennett grew up hearing about “Bongo” people, and through the influence of her mother and grandmother, had a positive attitude towards patois, the much maligned Creole language of working-class Jamaicans. At a precocious fourteen, she submitted her patois verses to the Gleaner, only to face rejection. At seventeen, she won a guinea at the Coke Methodist Church annual concert for her poetry recitation. Three years later she presented her patois poetry on air at the opening of Radio ZQI (now RJR). Middle-class Jamaicans found her verse so novel, she was invited to perform at an exclusive dinner attended by the Gleaner editor, who then commissioned her to write a weekly column.
The printing of her patois verse coexisted with the rise of Jamaica’s 1944 internal self-government; culturally Bennett formed part of the Independence Movement. Her work from the Gleaner was published in 1942 as Dialect Verses. Three more volumes came out in 1943, 1944 and 1948. Bennett went on to train at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London where, employed by the British Broadcasting Corporation, she presented the radio programme, “Caribbean Carnival”. She played in theatre groups around England before returning home to teach, write and act. In 1954 she married acclaimed comedian Eric “Chalk Talk” Coverley.
The African languages which impacted English, creating Jamaican Creole, came from a slave past, of which many Jamaicans were ashamed, preferring to shun their back-ground and the lower classes who spoke patois. But through Bennett-Coverley’s continuing publications, recordings, performances of Afro/Caribbean folklore, and participation in Christmas Pantomimes, her popularity soared. Her ability to capture, with irony and wit, the foibles and injustices of colonialism, the class system and life itself, persuaded people to recognise that patois is an authentic expression of Jamaican culture. Creole, and those who speak it, deserve to be respected, as do the narratives of African heritage, which she so proudly displayed throughout her career. Jamaican Labrish, a compilation of her complete works, and Anancy and Miss Lou, were published in 1966 and 1979 respectively, establishing her place in Jamaican literature.
From 1970 to 1982, a generation of Jamaican children were raised watching “Miss Lou” on her popular Ring Ding television show. Throughout this time, when Jamaica was enduring a profoundly divisive political period, she unified all and sundry with her huge smile and insightful depiction of Jamaican life – always with humour that removed the sting from even her most penetrating social commentary. Her enormous talent and persistent pride in Jamaican culture gained her international fame.
Many tributes were bestowed upon Louise Bennett-Coverley, including the Institute of Jamaica’s Silver and Gold Musgrave Medals, the University of the West Indies’ Honourary Doctor of Literature, and the Jamaican Government’s Order of Jamaica. Her passing on July 26th 2006 gave way to an official funeral and burial in Jamaica’s National Hero’s Park. However, such was her warmth, that most still remember her as “Miss Lou”.
Laura Tanna first met Miss Lou in 1973, while doing research for her book ‘Jamaican Folk Tales and Oral Histories’ (published in 1984).