September 7, 2012

Happy Birthday, Miss Lou!

On the surface, no one would describe the matronly Louise Bennett-Coverly as a warrior. But Miss Lou, as she was known to many Jamaicans, realized from an early age that freedom and language are tied to our breath, and if we cannot speak freely, we die. Her verse was a poetry of liberation that was intimately linked to her freedom to speak in her own tongue, and in her unwavering defense of her rights, she provided an example of the negotiations that Caribbean people sometimes need to undertake in order to survive, especially in hostile environments. In an interview collected by Mervyn Morris in Is English we Speaking, Miss Lou describes her childhood: “When I was a child nearly everything about us was bad, you know; they would tell you she yuh have bad hair, that black people bad... and that the language you talk bad. And I know a lot of people I knew were not bad at all, they were nice people and they talked this language” (20).

Language is a source of power and it is for this reason that colonial powers have always frowned upon the development of dialects because local power disrupts imperial hegemony. Fluency in the language of power is also a gateway to social mobility and power as George Bernard Shaw dramatized in Pygmalion. In her own way, Miss Lou challenged the demands of the British Empire to her body and breath by writing in Jamaican while being fully articulate in English and aware of its origins:

"Like my Auntie Roachy say she vex any time she hearing the people a come style fi we Jamaica language as 'corruption of the English Language'. You ever hear anything go so? Aunt Roachy she say she no know why mek dem no call the English language corruption of the Norman French and the Greek and the Latin where they say English is derived from. Oonu hear the word: English 'derive' but Jamaica 'corrupt'. No, massa, nothing no go so. We not corrupt and them derive. We derive, too. Jamaica derive!" British Library.

It was this pride that endeared many Jamaicans to Miss Lou’s dramatic monologues which often used irony to effect a “combination of sympathy and judgment” (Morris 20). Miss Lou’s comic verse employed a kind of cognitive dissonance that seemingly upheld the status quo while undermining the foundation of its claims. For example, by exposing the double-standard in using the word “corrupt” instead of “derive” she tactfully avoids a confrontation while asserting her equality. This ingenuity is also seen in the poem “Bans O’ Killing” where she exposes the duplicity of those who would denigrate Jamaican in favor of English.

Meck me get it straight Mass Charlie
For me noh quite undastand
Yuh gwine kill all English dialect
Or jus Jamaica one?

She then argues that if eradication of dialect is the aim, then other English dialects should suffer the same fate:

Yuh wi haffi kill de Lancashire
De Yorkshire, de Cockney
De broad Scotch an the Irish brogue
Before yuh start to kill me!

Yuh wi haffi get de Oxford book
O’ English verse, an tear
Out Chaucer, Burns, Lady Grizelle
An plenty o’ Shakespeare

The suppression of dialect, in this case Jamaican, is a murder of the human spirit and Miss Lou would have none of it. Nor would she be an accomplice to those who would kill in the name of etiquette and empire. Beneath the humor, the subtlety of her intellect almost goes unnoticed; beneath the comic mask is a fierce warrior. In closing his essay on Miss Lou, in Mervyn Morris expresses the impact of her poems: “They expose people ashamed of being Jamaican or ashamed of being black. They ridicule class and colour prejudice, but are more concerned to tackle black self-contempt or to express pride in being black” (23).

Miss Lou was a compassionate warrior whose weapons were satire, wit, and the very air we breathe. And if as Pablo Neruda says, “When the earth blooms, the people breathe freedom,” then with her passing a mighty Mahoe has fallen and we are all lessened.

Give thanks, Miss Lou.



Anonymous said...

"Beneath the humor, the subtlety of her intellect almost goes unnoticed; beneath the comic mask is a fierce warrior."

I started feeling the intellect and the fierceness near the beginning of her words?

This is all the more impressive when one considers the difficulties inherent in writing authentic accent. I've discovered a great writer I dod not know.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Rethabile,
Miss Lou made Jamaican acceptable--she made us feel that we didn't have to put on airs, and she poked fun at people who would readily trade their identity for something else.
A great poet...

Unknown said...

Thanks to Metaxu Cafe, I found your blog and this great post. Her passing last month made me hungry to read more. Your post reminded me why I was so enthused about her in the first place. Thanks!

So happy to find this blog--I look forward to coming back!

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Anne,
Yes, and give thanks to Metaxu Cafe for the great work they are doing.