• Feature
    Celebrated Jamaican poet, performer, writer, educator, folklorist and activist, the late Hon. Louise Bennett- Coverley (left), along with late former University of the West Indies Vice Chancellor, Ralston Milton “Rex” Nettleford.

    Story Highlights

    • Celebrated Jamaican poet, performer, writer, educator, folklorist and activist, Hon. Louise Bennett-Coverley, remains a prominent figure in local culture.
    • Affectionately known as ‘Miss Lou’, she is credited as being a champion of the Jamaican dialect (patois) and way of life.
    • Her work, which comprises poems, songs and stories, is based on her analysis and commentary of the Jamaican way of life, supported by her extensive research of local folklore, which has been published in various media.

    Celebrated Jamaican poet, performer, writer, educator, folklorist and activist, Hon. Louise Bennett-Coverley, remains a prominent figure in local culture.

    Affectionately known as ‘Miss Lou’, she is credited as being a champion of the Jamaican dialect (patois) and way of life.

    Her work, which comprises poems, songs and stories, is based on her analysis and commentary of the Jamaican way of life, supported by her extensive research of local folklore, which has been published in various media.

    A prolific writer, she has several publications to her credit, among these are ‘Jamaica Humour in Dialect’, published in 1943; ‘Anancy Stories and Dialect Verse’ in 1950; and ‘Jamaica Labrish’ in 1966.

    The long-playing (LP) record, ‘The Honourable Miss Lou’, was produced by Dynamic Sounds Recording Company Limited in 1981 and the live recording ‘Yes M’ Dear’, done by Imani in 1982.

    Several sound recordings were also made of her work, among them ‘Anancy Stories’, ‘Listen to Louise’ and ‘Miss Lou’s Views’. The programme ‘Miss Lou’s Views’ was also broadcast by Radio Jamaica. In it, Miss Lou used her popular ‘Aunty Roachy’ stories to project her views of Jamaicans.

    Miss Lou created the popular Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation Television (JBC-TV) programme for children, ‘Ring Ding’, aired between 1970 and 1982. The programme encouraged youngsters to sing, dance and recite poetry.

    She was also a gifted stage performer and entertained many crowds in Jamaica and overseas. She appeared in her first Jamaican pantomime in 1943, playing opposite the late comedian and actor, Randolph ‘Ranny’ Samuel Williams. The popular duo would go on to do many other performances together.

    Overseas, Miss Lou represented Jamaica at a number of music and folklore festivals and seminars in the United States of America (USA), United Kingdom (UK), Canada and the Caribbean.

    In June 1983, she was invited by the Centre for African and Afro-American Studies of Atlanta in the USA, to tour Senegal and Zambia.

    A prolific writer, Miss Lou penned a number of creative works throughout her long career. The author of ‘Hula Christmas’, ‘Mout-Amassi’, ‘Nu Likkle Twang’ and ‘Gay Paree’ demonstrates her trademark use of Jamaican dialect in composing verses that concisely captured the essence of Jamaicans.

    An excerpt from her poem ‘Colonization in Reverse’ is a sample of her keen observation and rare talent for social commentary on topical issues of the day:

    “What a joyful news Miss Mattie
    I feel like me heart gwine burs
    Jamaica people colonizin
    Englan in reverse.”

    Her use of Jamaican dialect to comment on topical issues with good humour and creativity has inspired generations of Jamaicans.

    Giving his views of the importance of the cultural icon’s work in a recent interview with JIS News, noted historian and Executive Director of the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ), Vivian Crawford, says her tenacity in promoting the Jamaican dialect in defiance of social pressure has earned her the respect and recognition of generations of Jamaicans.

    “We learn about our heritage and our culture through the things she said. It is about our heritage. Where else are we going to find out about our heritage in such a concise way? Her legacy is our legacy and we want to thank her for showing us the way. It is a relay, and each generation is running with that baton,” he says.

    Beyond its entertainment value, Mr. Crawford says Miss Lou’s work sought to educate and uplift the Jamaican society.

    “We thought it was entertainment. We laughed like we say in country, ‘Bamboo fire – it done’. There are no embers, but it was Professor Mervyn Morris who could point out to us in his famous article, ‘On Reading Miss Lou Seriously’, there is a lot behind it. Our own story is told and when we want to go back to learn about our heritage, we [can] go back to those stories,” he says.

    The article was written by former Poet Laureate of Jamaica and retired University of the West Indies (UWI) Lecturer, Professor Emeritus, Mervyn Morris. It was first published locally in The Gleaner in June 1964, and again in 1967 in the peer-reviewed academic publication, Jamaica Journal.

    It was widely acclaimed for its insightful analysis of the folklorist’s writing, through which Miss Lou endeavoured to impart educational and social wisdom for the betterment of Jamaica.

    “What is most important is her influence in freeing up the creative expression and the creative abilities of many Jamaicans who would not write as comfortably in standard English as they would in Jamaican creole, which we speak. She is a very important figure in that respect,” Professor Morris tells JIS News.

    Noting that the real goal of her life’s work was to help Jamaicans to recognise their value and embrace their heritage, Professor Morris emphasises the importance of maintaining her legacy in order to inspire future generations.

    “It is a matter of recognising who we are, which is what she sought to do. She is one of the monumental figures of our culture, and children ought to be taught about her,” he says.

    In his reflections of the artist, Professor Morris argues that Louise Bennett-Coverley had a “very wide sense of culture”.

    “Although she insisted that our ‘Jamaicaness’ is very important, and that included speaking patois, she freed up aspects of ourselves which were somewhat undervalued because of the Colonial influence. It is the recognition that respect for others is not restricted in a way that some people think it should be,” he adds.

    Louise Bennett- Coverley received numerous awards in her lifetime, both in Jamaica and abroad.

    In 1960 she was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE) for work in Jamaican literature and theatre. The Government of Jamaica honoured her with the insignia of Order of Jamaica in 1974.

    She was also awarded the Norman Manley Award for Excellence in the field of the Arts, the Institute of Jamaica’s Gold Musgrave Medal, and the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by the UWI in 1982.

    Louis Bennett-Coverley was born on September 7, 1919 on North Street in Kingston and died on July 26, 2006, in Canada, at age 86.

    This year, Jamaica is commemorating the centenary of ‘The Mother of Jamaican Culture” – Hon. Louise Bennett-Coverley, in recognition of her life and work.