A report by Jules Franco for OZY.
It was Louise Bennett’s first public performance. The 17-year-old recited one of her poems in patois, a radical act in mid-20th-century Jamaica, where a mastery of standard English was considered essential for social and economic advancement. For Bennett’s captivating performance that Christmas Day in 1936, Eric Coverley, 25, a well-known Jamaican actor and comedian, presented the student with a prize of two guineas. Ever the pragmatist, Bennett used the money to buy a pair of shoes.
Neither performer nor presenter could have foreseen that, 18 years later, they would marry — a union that lasted 48 years — and that Bennett would become an accomplished actor, a celebrated radio personality, “the first lady of Jamaican comedy,” an educator, folklorist and icon of Caribbean culture.
Louise Bennett-Coverley, affectionately known as Miss Lou, was, and remains, a forceful presence in Jamaican and Caribbean literature. Instead of writing in standard English, as was the custom, Miss Lou challenged the expectation that Caribbean authors should write in the language of their colonizers. By expressing herself in patois, Miss Lou unapologetically made her poetry, novels and plays into acts of subversion.
I BELIEVE IN LAUGHTER.
LOUISE BENNETT-COVERLEY, AKA MISS LOU
Born in Kingston and educated at local schools. Miss Lou did not limit her boundary pushing to poetry and other writing. In 1945, she won a scholarship to study in London, becoming the first Black student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Within months of her arrival, she landed her own radio program on the BBC.
When she returned to Jamaica, she worked for the Social Welfare Commission and taught folklore and drama at the University of the West Indies before resuming her radio career. From 1965 until 1982, she hosted “Miss Lou’s Views,” a four-minute program of monologues that aired up to three times per week and made her one of the islands’ most prominent radio personalities. Her children’s television program Ring Ding, which ran from 1970 to 1982, made her the voice of a generation. In 1960, somewhat ironically for those familiar with her humorous but subversive work, Miss Lou was made a Member of the British Empire for her contributions to Jamaican theater and literature.
While Miss Lou enjoyed a long and varied career, the obstacles she overcame to achieve success were formidable. Jamaica in her era was not always a welcoming environment for those who embraced their Caribbean heritage, as European hegemony reigned supreme in all aspects of society. The Jamaican education system was deeply influenced by the English model and was initially designed to integrate formerly enslaved people into the empire.
Thus, education was mandated in English, and teachers had no patience for the use of patois. This attitude also prevailed in print media. The Gleaner, a popular Kingston-based newspaper founded in 1814, initially rejected Miss Lou’s patois poetry, although the editors eventually came round and published her work for the first time, in 1943, when the 24-year-old was studying Jamaican folklore at Friends College in Highgate, St. Mary. The newspaper later contracted her to contribute a regular column.
The disconnect between the formal English that Jamaicans were exposed to in media and literature and what they heard in their homes and in their communities stoked a growing appetite for authentic artistic representations of their lives and language. Miss Lou provided a provocative and often comedic bridge.
Fittingly, one of her best-known poems is “Colonization in Reverse,” a humorous meditation on Jamaicans’ mass immigration to England in the 1950s and ’60s.
By de hundred, by de tousan / From country and from town, / By de ship-load, by de plane load / Jamaica is Englan boun.
The poem, better consumed in spoken than written form, remains hugely popular among Jamaicans of all ages and backgrounds. Given that it’s taught in literature programs around the world, the title gains added meaning. While the Jamaican government may not be physically colonizing former colonizers, the fact that its literature is universally recognized and respected is a disparaging clapback to the empire. When Jamaican schoolchildren recite the poem, they are further embodying this clapback by demonstrating the education system’s rejection of standard English and European cultural dominance.
The literary movement Miss Lou launched has survived. In 2015, diGJamaica, the online edition of The Gleaner, published an article titled “5 Poets and Storytellers Carrying On Miss Lou’s Legacy,” which highlights artists who continue her tradition of patois and folklore. In 2017, more than a decade after her death in 2006, the Jamaica Observer called her the “mother of Jamaican culture.” The country’s love for Miss Lou runs so strong there’s even a Miss Lou bar in Montego Bay. Be it her effervescent personality — “I believe in laughter” was one of her favorite phrases — or her exceptional literary prowess, Miss Lou remains a poignant symbol of a decolonized Jamaica.
In the early 1980s, Eric Coverley and Miss Lou relocated to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and then, in 1987, with Coverley’s health declining, to Toronto for its more affordable care. While she was sorry to leave her island home, Miss Lou saw Jamaica as more spiritual than physical: “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.)