The Honorable Louise Bennet Coverley, OM OJ MBE Jamaican Poet, Actress, Folklorist, Writer, Dramatist, Director, Radio and Television Personality.
Written by: Dr. Roli Degazon-Johnson
“Hailed by generations of Jamaicans as the very essence of our Jamaicanness – larger than life, earthy, humorous, warm, good-natured, highly creative and full of wisdom” – Portia Simpson Miller, Prime Minister of Jamaica (2005 – 2007 and 2012 – 2016).
Controversy and debate as to the origins of the great English Bard, William Shakespeare, have raged across the centuries and continue to this day. The notion that this modestly educated gentleman from Stratford-on-Avon, could have produced such an incredible and profound legacy of language, drama, poetry and verse in his life-time will no doubt, engage literary and academic discourse for the rest of time.
Fortunately, Jamaicans have no such concern or debate about the woman who is recognised as having elevated, enhanced and enriched the Creole language of Jamaica – “Patwa” or Patois – more than any other individual, living or dead: Born to a dressmaker, Kerene Robinson-Bennett and a baker, Augustus Cornelius Bennet in the capital city of Kingston, Jamaica, Louise Simone Bennet Coverley would have been 100 years old on September 7th 2019. Modest beginnings did not prevent this icon of the Jamaican language from winning a British Council scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Performing on stage, screen and radio for decades in Jamaica, England and North America, she delighted generations of theatre goers with her singular roles in the National Pantomimes and left her country with a legacy of prose, poetry and plays which people anywhere can enjoy and cherish for all time.
Celebrating the Centenary of her Birth
“Miss Lou” is one prophet who has been suitably honoured by her own homeland. On the Centenary to commemorate her birth, celebrations led by the Prime Minister of Jamaica at Gordon Town where she lived for many years, led to the town square being renamed the “Miss Lou” Square. Further, the National Library of Jamaica where some of her works are archived, held a special conference and a performance of her works. The celebration of her centennial continues for 3 months until December 2019.
So, who was this remarkable woman and why is her contribution so special?
Louise Bennett was born in 1919 to a country still under British colonial administration. Universal Adult Suffrage would not be granted to the island until 1938, the year in which an uprising of Workers on the Frome Sugar Estate would ignite political unrest across Jamaica and ultimately lead to Independence from Britain in 1962.
Whereas English was the official language of the island and the language of instruction in schools, ever since the early days of slavery another language – called dialect, patois, creole, pidgin and even ‘vulgar’ – had evolved which reflected and blended the languages of West African tribes from which slaves had been taken. Blended with the language of the colonial masters, with some words of French and Spanish origin mixed in, the pronunciation, intonation and enunciation of Jamaican patois is what distinguishes it from any other language, despite similarities to ‘pidgin’ languages spoken today in Ghana, Sierra Leone and some other West African countries.
From her early years, Bennet was a performer noted for her talents as an actress and presenter. Professor Mervyn Morris notes “her formidable energy and a charismatic ability” to read her audiences and connect with them. Her voice spoke volumes as did her body language as she performed.1 During her student years at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, she was discovered by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and invited to host her own radio programme, “Caribbean Carnival”.
By 1954 following her marriage to Eric Coverley, a Jamaican actor and impresario, she returned to her country and taught classes in drama, contributing to the development of the Little Theatre Movement which staged the National Pantomime, an annual event which Jamaicans from all walks of life looked forwarded to attending. “Miss Lou” acted, wrote and directed pantomime after pantomime and along with “Mas Ran”, Ranny Williams, became part of the beloved duo of the pantomime-loving crowds.
Before she left Jamaica for health reasons and migrated to Canada in the 1990s with her husband Eric, “Miss Lou” left hard copies of many poems, plays and Anancy Stories as a gift to the National Library and Archives of Jamaica. McMaster University in Canada has also been endowed with much of her work.
The Status and Elevation of Jamaican Creole
In Bennett’s early years and throughout her life-time, Jamaican Creole was not recognised or accepted as the lingua franca of the Jamaican people. Speaking in Jamaican Creole was considered unacceptable in the average middle class Jamaican household. Children would be punished if they were heard speaking the vernacular. But such social attitudes did not deter her from breaking new ground and forging new territory in presenting and valuing the language of her people as a valid and authentic medium of expression and communication. In being undeterred by those who would criticise and deride her poetry and presentations, Bennett has been called not only “Jamaica’s First Lady of Comedy” but equally a “Revolutionary Poet of the common people”.
Today, there are still Jamaicans who argue strongly that Jamaican Creole should not be given the status of a language as they see it only as a vulgar or bastard form of English. There have been major efforts by linguists and academics3 to analyse, explain and elevate the Creole. Most persuasive is the proposal that Patois should be accepted as the mother tongue or first language of most Jamaican children, and that English be taught in schools as a second language. Yet efforts to implement this policy in the education system have not met with wide acceptance. Professor Hubert Devonish in a recent article decries the fact that were a young “Miss Lou” to appear in any government department today using the Jamaican language, she would probably not be treated in a respectful manner, so ingrained is the notion that the Jamaican language is not yet “acceptable”.
Professor Mervyn Morris who has written extensively about “Miss Lou” recounts that she told him:
“When I was a child, nearly everything about us was bad you know; they woud tell yuh she yuh have bad hair, that black people bad,…..and that the language you talk bad”
Despite these social attitudes which chose to belittle and denigrate the language of the Jamaican people, Louise Bennet as early as 14 years of age, undaunted and unabashed, performed in Jamaican creole at her private school, Excelsior High, and at Christmas morning concerts at Coke Memorial Hall in Kingston. Remarkable as it may seem, she could also speak the “Queens’ English” with an erudition and enunciation that was both impressive and entrancing.
This excerpt from one of Bennet’s early poems expresses her aspirations of exactly what her life’s contribution would be, in perfect English:
“I wished that I could be a poet great
And with my pen
Trace paths of peace and harmony
For the uncertain minds of men”
Years later in ‘Leap Year Christmas’ capturing the efforts and feelings of a frustrated woman determined to find a husband during a leap year when women were free to propose to men, Bennett writes in Jamaican language:
“Me plan and scheme, me plot and dream
Me bob an weave an shif
For me out fe give me self a husban
Fe a Christmas gif’”
The Legacy of Louise
The magnitude and extent of Louise Bennet Coverley’s contribution to Jamaican culture and the Jamaican identity is without question. Through her poetry and performances, her recounting of Anancy stories on radio and television, her natural charm and endearing humour, she became part of the fabric of Jamaican language and culture. Yet, there are those who ask whether her medium of presentation through comedy and pantomime – always infused with humour – may have done a disservice to the valuing and edifying of the language.
Unlike Jamaica, countries such as St. Lucia, the Seychelles and Haiti, for example, have Creole languages which are not only spoken and written but which are now officially accepted. Road signs are evident in the Seychelles written in Kreol language and books written in Haitian Creole can be purchased in shops in Port-au-Prince. In St Lucia, so accepted is their Creole language that former Governor General of St. Lucia (1997 – 2017) Dame Pearlette Louisy, presented her acceptance speech entirely in the Creole language of her people.
Other linguists and academics who have studied the Creole vernacular of these countries, explain that the very clear distinction between the English language and the French-based patois has made it simpler to differentiate and to formalize the creoles of countries such as St Lucia, the Seychelles and Haiti. The English base of Jamaican creole presents significant problems in enabling it to be distinguished from English itself, leading to the challenge of it being termed “broken English” or worse, “bad English” as against a language of its own.
Professor Carolyn Cooper who presented her professorial lecture entirely in Jamaican creole – a ground-breaking first at the University of the West Indies, Mona campus – has made great efforts to demonstrate the extent to which the grammar and syntax of Jamaican creole reflects the influence of African languages. To this day she writes columns for the daily newspapers of Jamaica in both English and Jamaican languages. Nevertheless there is still a reticence in accepting Jamaican creole as the official national language.
Whether cultural icon or revolutionary poet, the legacy of Louise Bennett Coverley, “Miss Lou”, has not only created “peace and harmony”6 in the hearts and minds of people who may have felt their form of communicating was unworthy and discredited. She illuminated social and cultural realities and behaviours that would bring value and credibility to the lives of the humblest Jamaican.