This year, Jamaicans at home and abroad will celebrate the 100th birthday of Louise Bennett – Miss Lou- a beloved poet, folklorist, storyteller and cultural ambassador, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica on September 7, 1919.
In 1945, Bennett, was the first black student to attend the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London, England. She had won a scholarship from the British Council, Britain’s cultural outpost in its colonies. In spite of the origin of the scholarship, Miss Bennett was not interested in becoming the next great Shakespearean actress, preferring to work with Jamaican folk themes told in Jamaican patois.
After graduating RADA, she toured with various repertory companies and hosted two radio programmes with the BBC – Caribbean Carnival, 1945-1946 and West Indian Night in 1950. It takes some nerve to go to the land of the colonial ‘Mother Country’, as it was then, choose your own language over theirs, and celebrate it on the very bastion of British culture – the BBC. That was Louise Bennett.
The importance of the colonizing language as a tool in the process of colonialism has been well-documented. With the language comes the culture and the prejudices of class, race, gender roles and status. The flip side of the dominance of the colonizing language is the belittling of the local language and culture. Not so very long ago, not to speak standard English, was to… talk bad. And to talk bad was a massive negative, marking one down in the bottom ranks of society, with no hope for a good job and upward mobility.
A key first step towards gaining our independence, not just from Britain, but from British culture and assumptions of the value of its language vis-a-vis it’s colonies’ native languages, was therefore claiming our own language. Claiming our own language was the path to claiming and asserting our own culture. To accomplish this, we were well schooled by a formidable expert, a woman who knew and reveled in our language and our culture, Miss Lou. Miss Lou was a prolific writer and an engaging performer. Her poems were full of well-observed characters that we recognized and could both laugh at and empathize with. She recorded several CD’s and was widely published and anthologized. A currently available collection of her poems is Jamaica Labrish. It was first published by Sangster’s Book Stores in 1966 and had several reprints, most recently in 2005.
With her stage partner, the inimitable Ranny Williams, Miss Lou turned the British Christmas pantomime, into a Jamaican theatre event that was widely popular and was a catalyst in the growth of Jamaican theatre, encouraging as it did the talents of actors, writers, designers and musicians.
Miss Lou was an influence with every age group. She taught folklore and drama at the University of the West Indies at Mona from 1955-1959. She believed strongly that children should learn about their heritage and she hosted a lively children’s television show Ring Ding from 1970-1982. She also travelled widely, performing and lecturing on Jamaican culture.
Her life partner was Eric Coverley who she married in 1954. She had one stepson, Fabian Coverley, and several ‘adopted’ children. Miss Lou and Eric ‘Chalk Talk’ Coverley shared a love of theatre and folk arts and were together until he died in Toronto in 2002. Miss Lou was, and still is, a beloved, national treasure. She has received many awards for her work in researching and sharing Jamaican folklore, storytelling, music and dance.