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Louise “Miss Lou” Bennett was undisputedly the most universally loved personality this nation has ever produced.
For over 50 years as poet, broadcaster, actress, television personality and stage performer she tirelessly championed Jamaican folk customs. Yet Miss Lou was more than a brilliant entertainer, she is in all likelihood the greatest poet this country has produced. Certainly she was the only Jamaican poet whose works were continuously in print and she still outsold all the others put together.
But Miss Lou’s impact on the national psyche was perhaps even more important than her artistic legacy. For she almost single-handedly gave Jamaicans pride in their cultural heritage. It was her insistence on the inherent worth of Jamaican expression that established in the populace a respect for their language and tradition – the belief that ‘patwah’ wasn’t merely corrupted English but a creation of immense vitality, creativity and humour. As she put it:
‘Some thought Jamaican-English was vulgar, out-of-order language. It came out of the African heritage and at that time anything African was bad: hair, colour, skin, language, music. But I thought it was fascinating. Everything had a rhythm. It was a creation of the people. One reason I persisted in writing in dialect in spite of the opposition was because nobody else was doing so and there was such a rich material in dialect that I felt I wanted to put on paper some of the wonderful things that people say in dialect. You could never say “look here” as vividly as “kuyah”.
In her 1944 poem ‘Bans O’ Killing’ she laughed at the snobbery which denigrated all common Jamaican speech
…Meck me get it straight Mass Charlie
For me no quite undastan,
Yuh gwine kill all English dialect
Or jus Jamaica one?
Ef yuh dah-equal up wid English
Language, den wha meck
Yuh gwine go feel inferior, wen
It come to dialect?
Ef yuh kean sing ‘Linstead Market’
An ‘Wata come a me y’eye’,
Yuh wi haffi tap sing ‘Auld lang syne’
An ‘Comin thru de rye’
Dah language weh yuh proud o’
Weh yuh honour and respeck
Po’ Mass Carlie! Yuh noh know sey
Dat it spring from dialect!
Her dialect performances were the direct precursors of deejay music and dub poetry. Tony Rebel, who uses Jamaican dialect as effectively as anyone in reggae, acknowledged Miss Lou as his greatest influence. Luciano put it this way:
‘She has worked forward into my consciousness that I can be proud of my culture and proud of myself’.
No single individual has been more responsible for the Jamaican nation’s emancipation from colonial mental slavery. In Rex Nettleford’s words:
‘…she has carved designs out of the shapeless and unruly substance that is the Jamaican dialect – the language which most of the Jamaican people speak most of the time – and raised the sing-song patter of the hills and towns to an art acceptable to and appreciated by people from all classes…’
Many people associated Miss Lou primarily with comedy. But while we rightly treasure those who bring the gift of laughter, we should not forget the serious side of Louise Bennett. Only a person with a very strong sense of racial pride and self-belief could have withstood the torrents of criticism she had to endure when she first championed the language and culture of her people. Jamaicans might now be happily at ease with themselves and their customs today, but it took a true ‘lion heart’ to speak out as she did at the height of ‘only white is right’ colonialism. And though in much of her work she did ‘tek kin teeth kibber heart bun’, in poems like ‘Dutty Tough’ she addressed the issues of her day as seriously as any reggae artist and deejay ever did. As Tony Rebel said, she was a sort of female Marcus Garvey.
To object that she was not well known outside Jamaica is nonsense. Every Jamaican is fully aware of what she has done for us as a people. Those who did become more famous abroad would never have gotten where they did without Miss Lou’s contributions. All who came after her reached their heights by standing on the shoulders of a giant.
Moreover only one of our national ‘heroes’ is a woman, the semi-mythical Nanny. Considering that women have done at least as much as men to build this country, this is ridiculous. Miss Lou’s official acclamation would go a long way to redress this imbalance.
Some talk about former Prime Minister Michael Manley or reggae legend Bob Marley as possible national heroes. But Manley still has many political enemies, and a lot of Bob’s musical admirers still frown at his womanizing and ganja smoking lifestyle. Any future national hero must meet three basic criteria. They must have made a unique contribution to the country. They must be someone whose lifestyle we would be proud to have our children emulate. And they must unite the Jamaican people. What’s the point of a national hero who divides the nation?
Miss Lou engenders unabashed feelings of pride and affection in Jamaicans of all colours, classes and creeds. For all her cultural glory, this love she inspires in every Jamaican heart is the most compelling reason for her ascension into the official national pantheon. What more appropriate symbol of national unity could there be than the mother of Jamaican culture? Miss Lou, Miss Lou – We love you!
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By Kevin O’Brien Chang