“Miss Lou and Why She Matters” – Presentation by Professor Mervyn Morris, Poet Laureate of Jamaica at the Launch of the Miss Lou Archives on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016 at the NLJ.

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From left: Vivian Crawford, acting executive director of Institute of Jamaica; Clayton Coverley — Grandson; Fabian Coverley — son and co-executor of the Miss Lou Estate; Olivia “Babsy” Grange, Minister of Culture; Dr Pamela Appelt — Co-executor of the Miss Lou Estate; Joy Douglas, chairman of the National Library; Poet Laureate Professor Mervyn Morris; and Winsome Hudson, National Librarian.

 

For many of Miss Lou’s admirers she was simply a humorous entertainer.  She was always more than that.[1]  As Robert Verity put it in 1961: ‘Her work has constituted an invaluable contribution to the discovery and development of an indigenous culture and her verses are valid social documents reflecting the way we think and feel and live.’[2]  Jamaica Labrish (first published in 1966) offers many useful illustrations of our social and political history.  As Denise DeCaires Narain has noted (in Caribbean Women’s Poetry, 2002), ‘read alongside more conventional, historical accounts . . . her poems offer distinctive and insightful comments from the “marginal” perspectives of “ordinary Jamaicans”’[3]

Miss Lou had many talents and a range of interlocking achievements.  She wrote some excellent poems and was a very skilful writer in other genres.  She composed or adapted Anancy stories.  She helped the Little Theatre Movement pantomime mutate from an English import into a robustly Jamaican musical, drawing confidently on the language and rhythms of Jamaican popular culture, while retaining a few features of the English model.  She was a brilliant, well trained actress, an exemplary professional always willing to share her knowledge and experience.  She was the author of topical commentaries in prose which she presented as radio monologues and sometimes incorporated in presentations on stage.  They give us Louise Bennett in her most plain-spoken mode, vigorously promoting the traditional and progressive values and attitudes she deemed essential for nation-building.  She was also a diligent researcher who became an authority on Jamaican language and culture, and a sensitive teacher, formally and informally, of adults as well as children.  The primary purpose of Ring Ding, the Saturday morning television programme for children which ran for twelve years, was to teach the youngsters about our heritage.  Guided by Miss Lou and Marjorie Whylie, the participants shared Jamaican folksongs, ring games, jokes, Anancy stories, proverbs, riddles, and so on.  The programme was also unobtrusively teaching openness to other cultures, since it welcomed ‘foreign’ material as warmly as the distinctly local presentations.

When, as recommended by Fabian Coverley, Louise and her husband Eric were moving to Toronto, mainly in the interest of Eric’s health, Louise gave the National Library of Jamaica a treasure trove of papers and other material.  These have now been systematically organized for the convenience of researchers.  This is the archive being launched this morning.

Miss Lou lived mostly outside of Jamaica in the final decades of her life.  She and Eric had a temporary base in Fort Lauderdale early in the 1980s, and in 1987 they moved to Toronto, where Eric died in 2002, Louise in 2006. After her death there was another treasure trove of papers and other material, kept in Toronto for a while and then transferred to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, in 2010.   I join in welcoming this morning Fabian Coverley and Dr Pamela Appelt, trustees of the Louise Bennett estate, and Ms Vivian Lewis, University Librarian at McMaster University.

Louise Bennett was a profoundly influential figure in the development of Jamaican self-confidence.  At every stage of her career she was taken to heart by the vast majority of Jamaicans as somebody who spoke their language with love, and who, authentically, though sometimes critically, represented their ways of seeing.  She investigated and taught about beliefs and practices inherited from African ancestors transplanted in the Caribbean; aspects of culture embraced by most Jamaicans at home and in the diaspora but with which some of us were, or pretended to be, comparatively unfamiliar.  Through her insightful humour she persuaded many colonially educated persons to value aspects of Jamaican heritage we had tended to ignore.  But, especially in her early years, she had to contend with scepticism, or opposition, or neglect; and the language in which she chose to work was often the main focus of concern.

At one of her early performances a voice called out:  ‘A dat yuh modder sen yuh a school fah?’  In 1943 when The Gleaner started publishing a column of her verse each week, there were people (Miss Lou has told us) ‘writing to say “No one will ever be able to speak the standard language again if Louise Bennett is allowed to continue.”’ But (she said) ‘Me never tek no notice. Gleaner never tek no notice, for Gleaner was a sell!’[4]  Though her work was popular and she received support from some prominent individuals such as Philip Sherlock and Robert Verity, for a long time she remained (as Rex Nettleford put it, ‘an unheralded guest among some of the literary establishment.’[5]   As she said in an interview:  ‘for too long, it was considered not respectable to use the dialect.  Because there was a social stigma attached to the kind of person who used dialect habitually.’[6]

Though our official language is English, the mother tongue of most Jamaicans – the first language of most Jamaicans – is Jamaican Creole.  As explained by Loreto Todd in a book called Modern Englishes, ‘A pidgin is a communication system that develops among people who do not share a common language,’[7] and ‘A creole is a pidgin which has become the mother tongue of a group of people.’[8]  The language you acquire when you first begin to speak is your mother tongue.

Slavery in Jamaica was abolished in 1807 and full emancipation was declared in 1838.  As Pauline Christie explains in her book on Language in Jamaica, ‘It was the slaves’ need to communicate with the Europeans and with each other that led to the establishment of the Creole that has survived alongside English. . . . The prestige naturally accorded English as the language of the colonizers was underscored by the contrast between it and the seemingly malformed speech of the slaves, which was attributed to Africans’ lack of intelligence.  English has to a large extent maintained its unique position.’[9]

Louise’s personal formation connected her with African ancestry as well as colonial tutelage.  Her childhood experience included significant counter-colonial influences.

She was fascinated by the drums she could hear at nights coming from the hills, and she loved to watch the John Cunno dancers at Christmas.

All the things in our oral tradition, handed down to us from generation to generation [she writes], were very much alive and vibrant around and about me.  I was excited by them though I sensed that they were not considered respectable.  . . [10]

Her father died when she was only seven, and she grew up with her mother and her grandmother.  They were crucially important in developing the self-confidence she came to exemplify.  Her mother, an accomplished dressmaker whose customers came from a wide social range, taught her to treat every person with respect:  ‘everybody was a lady – the fish lady, the yam lady, the store lady, the teacher lady.’[11]  And when it became clear that Louise wanted to be a writer, she respected the desire.  ‘If you can write as well as I can make a frock,’ she told Louise, ‘you will have a successful career.’[12]

Louise’s grandmother, nicknamed Mimi, taught her a lot about African Jamaican culture.  ‘It was in Mimi’s lap,’ she said, ‘that I fell in fascination with our folklore and learned all about this rich heritage of songs, legends, folk customs and proverbs.’[13]  Mimi, getting old, wanted to revisit her family home in St Mary, and Louise, a child of about ten years old, accompanied her.  It was the first time Louise was travelling beyond Spanish Town.  In St Mary she attended her first Dinki Mini, an African custom for banishing grief, a function held every night for eight nights after a death, to cheer up bereaved relatives.  As she explains, ‘No sadness is allowed at the Dinki; gaiety and jollity prevail.’[14]  There is notable similarity between the Dinki Mini and Louise Bennett’s work, which is often confronting hardship with laughter.  The Dinki Mini ‘tek kin-teet kibba heart-bun’, an expression Grandmother Mimi often used.

Another family influence was a great-aunt, Aunt Hilda, who used to take                                                                                     part in Marcus Garvey marches.  Aunt Hilda would sing, ‘Ethiopia, the land of the savior / March on, march on to victory / Let Africa be free.’  Louise said in an interview:  ‘this sort of thing, and this talk of black dignity affected me . . . [T]here was the fusion of European and African tendencies.  But, as I say in my verses, the African was the strongest of the cultural patterns.’[15]

Colonial tutelage induced in many Jamaicans – more than ninety per cent of us black and descended from Africans brought to the New World as slaves – a tendency to undervalue African elements in Jamaican culture.  Louise Bennett often laughs at anti-African bias.  But she does not disown her colonial education.  ‘At the beginning of my career,’ she said, ‘what I knew most about were the English poets . . .’[16]  From time to time she alludes to English or American poetry – such as ‘The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna’, whose rhythms she imitates ironically (‘Not a stone was fling, not a samfie sting, / Not a soul gwan bad an lowrated; / Not a fight bruck out, not a bad-wud shout / As Independence was celebrated.’ (SP 127; JL  227).[17]  Such as in ‘Sammy’s Interest’ where she gives new meaning to a line in Longfellow’s “Excelsior”: “de accent / Of dat unknown tongue”. (SP 8).  In her radio monologues, similarly, there are allusions to Gilbert and Sullivan (“A policeman’s lot is not a happy one”) and to Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” as well as to Anancy, Jamaican proverbs, and Jamaican folksongs.

Here are some details of her formal education.  She attended Ebenezer and Calabar elementary schools and then, from 1933 until 1936, St Simon’s College and, from 1936 until 1938, Excelsior High.  Then she registered for a correspondence course in journalism from the Regent Institute in London, and also took courses in domestic science at Kingston Technical School, and private lessons in history and English.  Late in 1943, she enrolled at Friends College (in St Mary) to do courses in sociology and social welfare.  On a British Council scholarship she studied in London at RADA (the Royal College of Dramatic Art) from 1945-47.

Her early attempts to write were not in Jamaican Creole but in Standard English.  As in:

I wished not for pre-eminence,

Nor grand prize in a lottery,

But power to express my thought

And whims in dulcet poetry.[18]

Then one day – you know the story – a young teenager all dressed up, she boarded a tram car on her on her way to a matinee film show.  People travelling with baskets were required to sit on the last four benches at the back and were sometimes resentful of other people who, when the tram was full, might try to join them there.  Louise overheard a remark –   ‘Pread out yuhself, one dress-oman a come’ – and was inspired to write her first dialect poem.  She wrote more dialect poems and found that people liked them.  She began to wonder ‘why more of our poets and writers were not taking more of an interest in the kind of language usage and the kind of experiences of living which were all around us, and writing in this medium of dialect instead of writing in the same old English way about Autumn and things like that.’[19]  She would write and perform more poems in the language most Jamaicans speak.  ‘When I was a child,’ she said, ‘nearly everything about us was bad, you know; they would tell yuh seh you have bad hair, that black people bad . . . and that the language yuh talk was bad.  And I know that a lot of people I knew were not bad at all, they were nice people and they talked this language.’[20]

Attitudes to language are frequently examined in Louise Bennett’s work.

In ‘No Lickle Twang’ a mother berates her son:

Yuh mean yuh go dah Merica

And spen six whole mont deh,

An come back not a piece better

Dan how yuh did go weh?

 

Bwoy, yuh no shame?  Is so yuh come?

After yuh tan so long!

Not even lickle language, bwoy?

Not even lickle twang?

 

An yuh sister what work ongle

One week wid Merican

She talk so nice now dat we have

De jooce fi understand?  (SP 3; JL 280)

 

In ‘Dry Foot Bwoy’ (SP 1-2; JL 275-6 ) we encounter a Jamaican who seems to have lost touch with his Jamaican origins.  He has adopted an English accent,

‘”Oh, jolley, jolley!”’, ‘”Actually”, “What”, “Oh deah!” / An all dem sinting deh.’

Me gi a joke, de gal dem laugh;

But hear de bwoy, ‘Haw-haw!

I’m sure you got that bally-dash

Out of the cinema!’

 

Same time me laas me temper, an

Me holler, ‘Bwoy, kirout!

No chat to me wid no hot pittata

Eena yuh mout!’

 

Him tan up like him stunted, den

Hear him no, ‘How silley!

I don’t think that I really

Understand you, actually.’

 

Me seh, ‘Yuh understand me, yaw!

No yuh name Cudjoe Scoop?

Always visit Nana kitchen an

Gi laugh fi gungoo soup!

 

An now all yuh can seh is “actually”?

Bwoy, but tap!

Wha happen to dem sweet Jamaica

Joke yuh use fi pop?’

 

(Though later sometimes adapted, even by Miss Lou herself, the poem was set in England, originally.  ‘Me start fi feel so sorry fi / De po bad-lucky soul, /Me tink him come a foreign lan / Come ketch bad foreign cole!”)

 

In ‘Bans a Killin’ (SP 4-5; JL 292-3) the poet defends having chosen to write in Jamaican Creole.

So yuh a de man me hear bout!

Ah yuh dem seh dah teck

Whole heap a English oat seh dat

Yuh gwine kill dialect!

Not just oaths, but English oaths.  The persona assumes the mask of incomprehension.  ‘Meck me get it straight, Mas Charlie, / For me no quite understand’.  Will you kill all English dialects or Jamaican dialect only?  ‘Ef yuh dah equal up wid English / Language’, she enquires – equal up with carrying a connotation of social climbing – what makes you feel inferior when it comes to dialect?  Then the poem mentions some British folksongs many children learnt in colonial schools.   If you are not to sing songs in Jamaican dialect – such as ‘Linstead Market’ and  ‘Water come a me yeye’ (that’s ‘Come back, Lisa’) – you will have to stop singing ‘Auld lang syne’ and ‘Comin through de rye’, which are in Scottish dialect.  The persona stops pretending not to understand Mas Charlie and turns to giving him information about the English language.

Dah language weh yuh proud a,

Weh yuh honour an respec –

Po Mas Charlie, yuh no know seh

Dat it spring from dialec!

 

The final stanza delivers the coup de grace, playing on ‘shelf’ and ‘self’.  Dropping an (initial) ‘h’ is a common feature of Jamaican Creole speech.  Take care, Mas Charlie, how you read those English Books on your shelf, ‘For ef yuh drop a “h” yuh mighta / Haffi kill yuhself!’

In one of her radio monologues, often also performed on stage, Louise Bennett says:

Listen, no!

My Aunty Roachy seh dat it bwile her temper an really bex her fi true anytime she hear anybody a style we Jamaican dialect as “corruption of the English language.”  For if dat be de case, den dem shoulda call English language corruption of Norman French an Latin an all dem tarra language what dem seh English is derived from.

Oonoo hear de wud?  “Derived.”  English is a derivation but Jamaica Dialec is corruption! What a unfairity!  We derive too!

Aunty Roachy seh dat if Jamaica Dialec is corruption of de English Language, den it is also a corruption of de African Twi Language to, a oh![21]

 

Aunty Roachy says Jamaican dialect started ‘when we English forefahders did start mus-an-boun we African ancestors fi stop talk fi-dem African Language altogedder an learn fi talk so-so English’[22]  She acknowledges ‘English forefahders’ as well as ‘African ancestors’.

Miss Lou was trying to redress cultural imbalance by enhancing respect for Creole. She did not favour ‘so-so English’.  She did not believe that only English should be used.  But as many items in the archive make clear, she did not hesitate to speak and write in English as well as in Jamaican Creole.  She was comfortable in both.

Though her work gave priority to African heritage she recognized and welcomed other cultural streams.

When the Asian culture and the European culture

buck up on African culture in the Caribbean people,

we stir them up and blend them to we flavour,

we shake them up and move them to we beat,

we wheel them and we tu’n them and we rock them

and we sound them and we temper them,

and lawks, the rhythm sweet![23]

 

Exploration of the archive reveals a legacy not only of creative intelligence, cultural nationalism and Miss Lou’s considerable skills, but also of her character and personality as generally perceived.  She was a loving, generous person, full of respect for others, and eager to help us grow.

 

 

[1]  This presentation is mostly adapted from my book on Louise Bennett – Miss Lou:  Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture (Oxford:  Signal Books, 2014) (Kingston:  Ian Randle Publishers, 2014).

[2]  Foreword to Laugh with Louise (Kingston:  City Printery, 1961).

[3]  Denise deCaires Narain, Contemporary Caribbean Women’s Poetry:  Making Style (London:  Routledge, 2002),

  1. 60.

[4]  Louise Bennett, speaking at the University of the West Indies, Mona, 13 August 2003.

[5]  Louise Bennett, Jamaica Labrish ed. Rex Nettleford (Kingston:  Sangster’s Book Stores, 2005 edition), p. 1

[6]  ‘Bennett on Bennett’, Louise Bennett interviewed by Dennis Scott, Caribbean Quarterly, Vol. 14 Nos. 1 & 2, March-June 1968, p. 101.  Also in Hinterland  ed. E.A. Markham (Newcastle-upon-Tyne:  Bloodaxe Books, 1989),

  1. 49.

[7]  Loreto Todd, Modern Englishes:  Pidgins and Creoles (Oxford & London:  Basil Blackwell in association with André Deutsch), p. 3.

[8]  Ibid. p. 4.

[9]  Pauline Christie, Language in Jamaica (Kingston:  Arawak Publications, 2007), pp. 1-2.

[10]  Louise Bennett, Introduction to Poetry in the Caribbean by Julie Pearn (London:  Hodder and Stoughton, 1985),

  1. iii.

[11]  Louise Bennett, interviewed by Don Bucknor, broadcast on JBC television, 1 October 1976.

[12]  Louise Bennett, ‘The Gift of Laughter’.  McMaster University archives.

[13]  Louise Bennett, ‘The Gift of Laughter’.  McMaster University Archives.

[14]  Louise Bennett, “Jamaica Traditions of African Origin”.  Typescript.  National Library of Jamaica Archives.

[15] 1992 interview by Lileth Lejo Bailey, Caribbean Writer Vol. 12, p. 164.

[16]  ‘Bennett on Bennett’, p. 99.  Also in Hinterland, p. 48.

[17]  Louise Bennett, Selected Poems (Kingston:  Sangster’s, 1982).  2005 edition, p. 127.  Jamaica Labrish (2005 edition), p. 227.

[18]  Unpublished manuscript.  See Introduction to Selected Poems, p. x, and Mervyn Morris, Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture, p.6.

[19]  ‘Bennett on Bennett’, p. 99.

[20]  Don Bucknor interview.

[21]  Louise Bennett, Aunty Roachy Seh (Kingston:  Sangster’s Book Stores, 2005 edition),  p.1.

[22]  Ibid.

[23]  Yes, M’Dear:  Miss Lou Live, recording of a 1983 performance in London.  Island Records, 1983.  Miami & Kingston:  Sonic Sounds.  .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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National Library of Jamaica launches new online resource ‘Index to Jamaican Poetry’

The National Library of Jamaica launched its newest online resource; Index to Jamaican Poetry on Friday, April 22, 2016. If you are searching for a Jamaican poem but you only know the author, title, or first line, then this Index to Jamaican Poetry will tell you in which book(s) you will find the poem you seek. The index is designed for students, teachers, scholars, poetry enthusiasts and the curious who are interested in Jamaican poetry. The index includes works of Mervyn Morris, Edward Baugh, M.G. Smith, Rachel Drummond- Manley, Velma Pollard, Mutabaruka, Claude McKay, among many others

By Jamaican Poetry it means written by someone who was born in Jamaica, naturalized as a Jamaican or who can claim at least one parent as Jamaican. Nicole Bryan, Director, Technical Services and Networks (NLJ) describes the index as “…an excellent resource. Jamaica has such a rich heritage of poetry, and this index is a step in making Jamaican poetry much more accessible.”

Winsome Hudson, National Librarian/CEO (NLJ) added as well saying, “The index is an ongoing compilation and feedback to omissions will be greatly appreciated as this will help us to further build this most comprehensive collection of published Jamaican poetry.” She further noted that the index; first of its kind fills a need in the quest of promoting a greater awareness of Jamaican Poetry.

The index can be accessed on NLJ’s website at www.nlj.gov.jm/poetryindex/search.htm