From reggae to dub poetry to pride in our culture, nationality, and dialect, many aspects of Jamaican culture owe part of their prominence to one woman. As a poet, comedian, folklorist, television and radio personality, singer, and actor, Louise Bennett-Coverley, affectionately known as Miss Lou, was and forever remains a Jamaican national hero. Her pride in our culture, and especially in our Patois, influenced not only generations of poets and artists but extended to touch the forgotten common people of the island. In a conversation with my mother, Mrs. Altheia Grant, she recounts the empowering, uplifting force that was Miss Lou.
Born in 1919, Louise Bennett-Coverley had been writing poetry from a young age. She was early to recognize the beauty in the language spoken by the people, rather than that taught in the schools, as mom explains: “‘Proper English’ was the language of the colonizers… So when we were in school and our colonizers were teaching us we could only speak English, and then we spoke Patois at home and our grandparents spoke Patois.”
Miss Lou wrote her first poem in Patois at the age of 14. Soon she had published a collection of poems that earned her a place in a weekly column of The Gleaner. At the same time, she studied Jamaican folklore, which would further expose her to the oral traditions, proverbs, and riddles that became so prevalent in her work. Shortly after that, she would end up receiving a scholarship to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She would then set up a theatre in Jamaica, return to the U.K. and venture to the United States where she lectured on Jamaican folklore and music, also producing and touring a musical called A Day In Jamaica. Returning home, she would lecture on Jamaican folklore and drama at the University of the West Indies and, becoming increasingly popular with the people, she’d produce a radio show titled Miss Lou’s Views, a series of her monologues and poems.
Not long after, Miss Lou’s Views would become Ring Ding, a weekly television program in which she told folklore stories to children and had them engage through song; this would be mom’s first exposure to Miss Lou. “Ring Ding really was just her sitting with a bunch of children around her and telling stories. And really that is how Jamaicans socialize, I mean we used to go through our days and get dressed and go into the neighbourhood and talk with our neighbourhood friends and sit in a circle.” At a time where being successful and “proper” meant being as British as one could—in colour, in occupation, in culture, and in prose and language—Miss Lou dared to show pride in and connect with people in a way that was unmistakably Jamaican. “Jamaica has always been described as two Jamaicas: the very uniquely European, British, colonized Jamaica, and the Jamaica of the African slaves that spoke Patois.”
This dialect used so masterfully by Miss Lou is what Bajan poet and academic Kamau Brathwaite would call a “nation language.” Unlike the English of the Queen, Brathwaite described nation language as the English spoken by the slaves: rich with African speech patterns like Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, or Twi as it became a distinct “un-English.” This Patois was demeaned by the colonizers in a Eurocentrism that persists to this day, but Miss Lou and Brathwaite recognized that “the hurricane does not roar in pentameter”—the English of Shakespeare does not and cannot adequately capture the experience of the Caribbean people.
In one clip of a performance, Miss Lou kicks things off with a song, asking for help from the audience in singing: “Come mek mi hol yuh han.” The audience starts to join in, but before long she cuts things off: “Oh wate wate wate wate… Yuh know dis ting a appen too offen yunnuh… somebody a seh “yOuR hAnD”. Its not your hand, its yuh han! Nuh pwoil up di culcha!” As this is met with understanding laughter from the audience, Miss Lou demonstrates a recognition of what is the language and culture of the people, and what is a colonized language. As mom explains, “When she says something like “mi glad fi see yuh bwoi”… “I’m happy to see you, boy” does not capture “Mi glad fi see yuh bwoi”. That captures exactly how we feel… a message that the English language can’t convey.”
From her poetry to her musicals to Ring Ding, Miss Lou’s work always embodied traditional Jamaican culture. The way she engaged with the children, her insistence on wearing the traditional Jamaican bandana dress, and her use of Patois in the face of disparaging critique from elites was infused with a pride that radiated from her to a generation of youth that could be proud of who they were. Her use of Patois, in particular, was revolutionary in that it took what “was considered the language of the oppressed lower classes” and turned it into art that could at once speak to the people and be appreciated by all. “You could actually see the language, and hear the language, and feel the people and the emotions of the people through the language. She spoke Patois in a way that embodied exactly how people were feeling.”
“Miss Lou, before reggae music and dub poetry, instilled a sense of pride through art in our own Jamaicanness, and in everything that it is to be Jamaican. She told our story in such a dignified way that it instilled a sense of pride in our own culture and our own country and our own people.” Her proud use of Patois and her content, which covered topics like immigration, colour-class hierarchy, social elite arrogance, and traditional folk characters (such as the Ashanti trickster spider ‘Anansi’, which often featured as a main character in her stories) paved the way for and was perpetuated by dub poetry and reggae music. Both are almost exclusively performed in Patois and speak of the struggles of the people. Poets and artists like Bob Marley, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Mutabaruka owe much to Miss Lou, with many citing her as a major influence. In fact, Big Youth (my personal favourite deejay) has a song titled “Miss Lou Ring Ding”. It is very well understood that without Miss Lou, reggae and much of Jamaican music as we know it now would not be.
In fact, we have worn Patois so proudly that it has bled into other cultures. Jamaica’s own diaspora in Canada has brought Patois along with them, unapologetically infusing their own culture and dialect into our so-called “cultural mosaic”. In what Miss Lou termed “Colonization in Reverse,” the Patois of first- and second-generation Jamaicans has become the basis for “Toronto slang,” which is used (and abused) by all races, nationalities and ethnicities.
As much as Miss Lou was able to instill pride in the Jamaican people, mom still laments that “Patois can take you very far if you’re an artist, poet or musician, but it will not take you anywhere if you want to be a lawyer or politician.” She explains that, although things could be improving, in her experience, one has to drop Patois and get as close as they can to “proper English” in order to move up and “navigate colonized spaces.” Jamaicans at home and people of all nationalities in colonized states find themselves having to code-switch, leaving their language and part of their identity behind in order to conform and seek success. “What people would call successful spaces are white spaces, colonized spaces… And white people speak English. A friend of mine told her VPs: ‘I have to code-switch so you can understand me, you guys can come here and be yourselves but I have to codeswitch so that I can lead you in a way that you understand and respect me.’”
Although we may still find ourselves compromising in “professional” spaces, Miss Lou was able to bring pride and dignity to a nation of people who now are very much in love with their culture. A revolutionary in her use of Patois and her connection to the people: “She wrote and spoke these poems and stories and she made us proud of our own traditions. I think that is the root of the pride that we have in Miss Lou and in ourselves. We saw ourselves reflected in her, and in a way that was very dignified and uniquely Jamaican. And so, if we could be proud of Miss Lou, then we could be proud of ourselves too.”