Miss Lou, The People’s Hero: A Warrior with an Agenda

Louise Bennett’s contribution to Jamaican culture is undeniable and Miss Lou is already considered a National Hero amongst our people although the Jamaican government has not yet designated her as such.  Miss Lou is the Queen Mother of culture because a queen mother according to the Ghanaian tradition, in which we have roots, is the one who selects the new king, and thereby determines the political and cultural course of the society.  Miss Lou has directed many aspects of Jamaica’s culture, most fundamentally our language

Miss Lou advocated for throwing off the mantles of colonialism in Miss Lou’s Views, her radio monologues that ran from 1966 to 1982, and quiet clearly in her poetry, most often quoted in “Colonisation in Reverse,” but also evident in her pro-independence poems “Independance,” “Independence Dignity” and “Jamaica Elevate.” All were published in her Jamaica Labrish, first printed in 1966.

This Festival, like the anthology, 100 + Voices of Miss Lou that I edited, seeks to promote Louise Bennett and her work beyond the confines of the quintessential image of the bandana-clad folk figure.

Miss Lou was a multi-faceted, multi-talented woman who had to employ strategy to achieve the prominence that she did. Therefore, on the cover of the anthology, she is depicted as a warrior with her pen as her sword. Miss Lou as a warrior is not in conflict with Miss Lou the folk character because she was very aware of the times, prejudices, and stumbling blocks she had to navigate to make space for herself and the everyday Jamaican culture bearers. Tommy Ricketts, who designed the cover of the anthology, is also on a mission to represent Miss Lou through many diverse lenses.

In Anancy and Miss Lou, 1978, Bennett reveals another aspect of her repertoire, that of researcher who knows the history of this folk hero, and our African lineage. In the author’s note she states, “Anancy is an Ashanti Spider-god and has magical powers. He can change himself into whatever and whomever he wishes at certain times…” signalling to us that we too come from a place with a history and can be Anancy-like in achieving our autonomy and freedom, despite restrictions. The stories in this collection, though intended for children, offer so many moral lessons requiring the guidance of an adult.

What many might not be aware of is that Louise Bennett was not just curious and haphazardly collecting stories. She availed herself of training from as early as 1943 when she enrolled at Friends College in Highgate, St Mary to study Jamaican folklore. She then studied at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the first black person to do so, on  scholarship from the British Council.  This is indicative of a person with goals who was charting a course. Upon her return, at the Jamaica Social Welfare Commission, where she began her career as an ethnographer in 1955, and worked until 1959,  the cultural warrior got her hands dirty, so to speak, traveling across the island, collecting stories, songs, and proverbs, and training others such as Easton Lee to continue this work, at The University of the West Indies, Mona where she taught folklore and drama.

Louise Bennett was a master strategist, who was guided by her mother and maternal grandmother, to appreciate and understand the primacy of our folk culture and elevate these elements to another level, through the vehicles of poem and song and give it back to us to rejoice and add our communal voice, “Fi Me Love Ave Lion Heart”, “Dis Long Time Gal,” and “Under the Coconut Tree”, to name a few. Through her analysis, Louise Bennett showed and allowed the folk to tap into their resourcefulness and cunning borne of the need and exploitation, and most prominently, the big-heartedness of Jamaicans – our ability fi tek pain mek joke, to laugh at ourselves. Miss Lou achieved these things because she planned and was a master strategist. She executed her plans while helping others such as Harry Belafonte to achieve fame and notoriety. Belafonte, she coached so that he had the right rhythm and nuance that contributed to his 1956 hit Day O (The Banana Boat Song), a song that launched his career. Bennett also provided many invaluable inputs for Frederic G. Cassidy when he was researching and putting together Jamaica Talk: Three Hundred Years of the English Language in Jamaica.

As impressive as the works mentioned here demonstrate undisputable, Louise Bennett’s contribution and place in Jamaican culture, most ingenious is her creation of Aunty Roachy, a social commentator who spoke uncensored on every subject under the sun. We must begin by asking who is Aunty Roachy and from whom does she get her autonomy.  This is where Bennett’s strategy is most masterfully exemplified.

Aunty Roachy, takes the focus from Bennett without displacing her, allowing Bennett to say what she wishes, free from attack, and consequently with more latitude to speak for the masses. Aunty Roachy is a post-Independent character, popularized between 1966 and 1982 via Miss Lou’s weekly radio show. Aunty Roach therefore can be read as representing the new nation, exploring its identity, and testing its ideas and opinions, all of which is framed around our folk proverbs, heavy with moral imperatives.

Finally, I want to situate Miss Lou’s Ring Ding, positing that Louise Bennett understood the need for a localized future, and that her show, the first of its kind, teaching and proclaiming the wisdom with a child’s audience was Bennett’s way of de-colonizing and detoxing the Jamaican child from the false traps of the Empire and giving her, her own myths and history so she could stand assuredly on firm legs, reinforced by the acknowledgment and praise, “Clap Yu Self.”

In this regard Ring Ding was futuristic, creating a platform for future Jamaicans to know and value their own culture, their cosmology and worth. And Bennett’s refrain and insistence, `clap yu self,’ was implanting as well signalling to our children the value of self-appreciation and self-acknowledgment. In order to create a future, we must be able to recognize, name and evaluate our actions, our worth, our essence, and this is what Miss Lou gave to numerous children on and through Ring Ding. How awesome and uplifting it is to clap ourselves.

Louise Bennett was a performer in the fullest and truest sense of the word, in that she orchestrated her own persona, and she lived ‘nuh ebry kin teet a laugh!’ Miss Lou, in fighting her way through the colonial values that dictated Jamaican society at the height of her career, values that were in complete and active opposition to the speech and traditions she performed, that she had to joke and smile to deflect and disarm her opponents. As the dub poet, Mutabaruka rightly pointed out, Miss Lou is the first dub poet, which is why he recorded her poem, “Dutty Tough,” which is as relevant and applicable as it was when she wrote it in the 1960s.

Thus, it would be legitimate to say that Louise Bennett is a visionary, and her work transcends the boundaries of time. As a performer par excellence, whether acting in Pantomimes or solo on stage as a singer or storyteller, Louise Bennett collapsed the space between self and self as other, executing liminal space – the person, the performer, the performance. This guise or disappearing while being present was part of Louise Bennett’s strategy and the reason, I would argue, she was able to endure throughout the decades with consistent vigour and charm, and become a staple, loved and adored, respected and admired, even grudgingly, allowed to execute her resolute goal, to celebrate and promote Jamaican culture.  

The inaugural Louise Bennett-Coverley Festival which took place on October 15, 2022  in Gordon Town  celebrated Miss Lou’s milestones and the woman she was: one of Nanny’s staunch daughters who cleared many hurdles, circumvented roadblocks, and scraped her knees to bring us to this moment, 60 years old and proudly independent.  Thank you, Miss Lou, for your vision and your tenacity. I salute you as an ancestor, change-marker, and keeper of our traditions.  Asé to indomitable Louise Bennett-Coverley.

An edited version of the above was published In  The Observer, November 27, 2022

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