By DERRICK McLENNON
The passing of Louise (Miss Lou) Bennett-Coverley a few years ago has left a nation and a world saddened and deprived of a treasure of which we will never again see an equal. It is even more significant this month as Black History Month that she is not here with us in person. Her spirit and legacy, notwithstanding, is etched in our minds.
Miss Lou was head and shoulders above many of her day. She was a sturdy person of strength, character and foresight. She was consistently identified by all of us as a very special person. We gave her unwavering attention throughout the various stages of Jamaica’s development as a resident ambassador abroad and here in Canada where she spent her last years.
She had no equal in her art. Even with Maas Ran in pantomime, she was a leader in drama together with the Flat Board radio series during the 1950s and 1960s. Virtually, every one of us of Jamaican and Caribbean heritage had a special place in our hearts for Miss Lou. She made us laugh at events and happenings; she made us laugh at ourselves by placing the mirror in front of us and seeing who we are; she taught us through her art and drama to appreciate ourselves, love ourselves.
We appreciate her and honour her for her lengthy contribution to the arts and to humanity. Through her, a significant part of Jamaican heritage and way of life remains alive for us to pass onto generation yet unborn.
I remember my first encounter with Miss Lou. I was a six-year-old pupil at Townhead Primary School in Westmoreland, Jamaica, when she visited the school as a guest promoting the dialect – the Jamaican patois – and folklore.
She was a young, vibrant woman with a contagious smile, attractive with a real attitude – I now characterize it as a Jamaican attitude – with pride and gusto. It was then that I heard the songs: “Hog in na mi coco, and a six week coco and a left-man coco,” and “Chi Chi bud O! Som a dem a halla som a bawl”.
My childhood reaction was one of astonishment, if not amazement, but it was sweet…very sweet to hear her singing those songs. It was not the norm in those days to speak patois, or to be folksy, not to mention doing so in an academic setting. Such language was labeled as the expressions of the underclass and uneducated. It was not dignified to speak patois…the Queen’s language must be spoken and promoted. It was the requirement and the tool through which one must advance in the society.
But Miss Lou was speaking a language peculiar to Jamaica. She came at a time in Jamaica when colonialism was strong – a post World War period – when children at schools were taught to sing without fail: “Rule Britannia rule, Britannia shall never fail…”
It is true that there is something about speaking the language with a kind of courage and pride that only Miss Lou could. She spoke it with that something for every Jamaican.
Miss Lou was a special person of indomitable spirit and character. She developed her work at a time in Jamaica when it was not fashionable to speak patois…and many people did not recognize her work as such. She must have been a person of immeasurable courage and loyalty to stay the course with her art. She was magnificent.
She was honoured appropriately by the government of Jamaica and other institutions. However, no honour can be enough to match the commitment and contributions the Honourable Dr. Louise Bennett-Coverley has made to the Jamaican cultural scene and its people.
“Walk good Miss Lou. Fantabulous! Fantabulous! Most magnificent! Sing de sang…as yu di to me as a child: Chi Chi bud O! You have sweetened the hearts of many of us. We pray the good Lord abides eternally wid yu soul — Cherio”!
Derrick McLennon is a past president of a multicultural organization in Scarborough and formerly a government of Canada Senior Analyst, human rights officer, and counsellor. He is a public member on the Council of the College of Dental Hygienists of Ontario and a resident of Scarborough. He is a social work graduate of Ryerson University.