By RON FANFAIR
With the late Dr. Louise (Miss Lou) Bennett-Coverley’s treasured collection gathering dust in his home, son Fabian Coverley was only too happy when family friend Dr. Tony McFarlane suggested that her substantial archive be turned over to McMaster University.
“The collection occupied a lot of space in my home and it was not accessible to the public as it should have been,” said Coverley. “Tony has a good relationship with McMaster who approached us with the enticement that they would digitize the collection.”
Nearly 60 boxes of Miss Lou’s correspondence, awards, photographs, audio visual material and documents of her husband Eric, who was also a Jamaican cultural icon and noted calligraphist, are now in the library’s possession.
Eric Coverley passed away in 2002 at age 91 while Miss Lou, who spent the last 20 years of her life in the Greater Toronto Area, died in the summer of 2006 at age 86. They are buried alongside each other at National Heroes Park in Kingston.
Coverley said McMaster was the first Canadian university to show an interest in archiving Miss Lou’s work. She was bestowed with honorary degrees by York University and the University of Toronto in 1998.
“York and U of T came to us after the fact asking why they didn’t get it,” he said. “They were too late.”
The Institute of Jamaica also has a part of Miss Lou’s collection.
“Before she came to Canada, she gave the institute permission to go to her home and take what they wanted,” said Coverley. “They have a lot of her stuff in a room just sitting there on shelves with very few people even knowing it’s there. My hope is that the institute and McMaster will collaborate to incorporate what they have and maximize the use of the entire collection.”
McMaster University president Dr. Patrick Deane said the institution is privileged to be the custodian of Miss Lou’s rich material.
“You can be assured that we will discharge our obligation not only to maintain the collection in the best possible way but also to make it the focus of lively, energetic and creative studies,” Deane said recently at a reception to mark the announcement. “The university will digitize much of the material and thus a worldwide audience will have the opportunity to see and learn more about Miss Lou and gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of Jamaican culture.”
Jamaica’s High Commissioner Sheila Monteith-Sealy, Consul General George Ramocan, Maud Fuller – a close friend of Miss Lou and the driving force behind the University of the West Indies’ Toronto alumni chapter – and York University professor Dr. Honor Ford-Smith were among a wide cross-section of representatives from academia, other professional sectors and the community who attended the event.
“What was most remarkable about Miss Lou was that she was one of the few Black women writers to achieve subjectivity and to become what was in effect the cultural mother of the nation at the time,” said Montreal-born Ford-Smith who is also an accomplished playwright, actress and poet. “She’s unique in that sense.
“People thought she just got up to chat, but they didn’t realize that the choices that she made were done so forcefully and it took critical thinking and hard work. She understood the power of laughter as a means of releasing our anxieties over class and race and divisions and she used that, in a sense, as a weapon.”
Miss Lou, who came to Canada in 1987 and was appointed Jamaica’s Ambassador-at-Large for Culture two years later, is credited with having created acceptance for Jamaican dialect and, through her artistry, elevated it as a legitimate form of speech which is representative of a key component of the country’s culture.
She began writing and performing verse in dialect at age 13 at a time when standard English was considered the norm and the ideal to which most aspired.
“For me, Miss Lou was the greatest social commentator that ever lived,” said Jamaican poet and TV radio presenter and producer Joan Andrea Hutchinson who performed a few of Miss Lou’s poems.
McMaster also announced that McFarlane has donated a significant collection of his West Indian books to their library. The Jamaican-born scholar recently bequeathed his Hamilton home and nearly 2,000 of his classical music CDs to the University of the West Indies which he attended before coming to Canada.