May 30, 2007

Tribute to Miss Lou

Jamaican poetMiss Lou in her life and poetry had many things to teach us. And she taught in a way that only the best teachers can—without us knowing.

She has been called the “original dubber” and certainly Miss Lou was an advocate of what the poet, Kamau Brathwaite calls “nation language” or patwa. But what is often overlooked is that Miss Lou was also about choice and dignity. She could speak the Queen’s English and she could speak patwa. However, in either setting, one thing is clear: she has a firm sense of who she is, what she is doing, and why she is practicing her vocation. How many of us can say that about ourselves?

Miss Lou also had the uncanny ability to put herself in the place of other, a great empathy for the underdog, the neglected in our societies, but in the speakers in her poems are never victims. Despite the humiliation that the speaker in the poem may be facing, Miss Lou as a revolutionary practitioner of that last weapon that Africans in the New World had—humor—practiced her craft with deadly accuracy and care.

In the poem “Bans A’Killin’,” examine how Miss Lou uses her knowledge of the history of the English language and literature to undermine the position of the person, Mass Charlie, who sought to denigrate her “nation language” by reminding Mass Charlie that English was once a patwa. She defends herself by coming from a position of knowledge and power and shows up Mass Charlie’s ignorance or her, her history, himself, or his history. Watch how she slices and dices Mass Charlie’s argument until he is reduced to the object of humor. Or as Bob Marley and Peter Tosh would have said, “Slave driver, the tables are turned.” Instead of calling Miss Lou the “original dubber,” she should have been called the original “Stepping Razor.”

Bans a Killin
by Miss Lou (from Aunty Roachy Seh)

So yuh a de man me hear bout!
Ah yuh dem seh dah teck
Whole heap a English oat seh dat
yuh gwine kill dialec!

Meck me get it straight, mas Charlie,
For me no quite understan

Yuh gwine kill all English dialec
Or jus Jamaica one?

Ef yuh dah equal up wid English
Language, den wha meck
Yuh gwine go feel inferior when
It come to dialec?

Ef yuh cyaan sing 'Linstead Market'
An 'Water come a me yeye’
Yuh wi haffi tap sing 'Auld lang syne’
An ‘Comin through de rye'.

Dah language weh yuh proud a,
Weh yuh honour an respec –
Po Mas Charlie, yuh no know se
Dat it spring from dialec!

Dat dem start fi try tun language
From de fourteen century -
Five hundred years gawn an dem got
More dialec dan we!

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

Yuh wi haffi get de Oxford Book
A English Verse, an tear
Out Chaucer, Burns, Lady Grizelle
An plenty a Shakespeare!

When yuh done kill 'wit' an 'humour',
When yuh kill 'variety',
Yuh wi haffi fine a way fi kill

An mine how yuh dah read dem English
Book deh pon yuh shelf,
For ef yuh drop a 'h' yuh mighta
Haffi kill yuhself!

The tribute poem“bob marley in the daycare center,” may seem an odd choice because the poem is not written in patwa and it’s not about Miss Lou. But Bob Marley like Miss Lou always defended his right to be himself and be free as he sang in ‘Three o’clock, Roadblock”: “Oh why can’t we be what we want to be? / We want to be free.” For the ultimate lesson that Bob and Miss Lou have to teach us is to have the courage to be who we are, and to speak how we must speak, in our own voice.

In “bob marley in the daycare center” (I got the idea from Allen Ginsberg’s “ A Supermarket in California) I am imagining the kind of work that Bob would take if he reincarnated back on this plane where we are now. And I imagined, given his love for children, he would probably come back to work in a daycare center.

bob marley in the daycare center

when i first glimpsed him, the smile,

as he played peek-a-boo in the communal playpen,

inside the young president's club, mt. sinai,

after circle time with the toddlers, reading

real-life stories of heroes whose only weapons

were words aimed at the dragon's heart,

they stared, transfixed, at the sound

uncoiling from his mouth like smoke;

he placed them gently on their blue cots

while the older kids built castles with blocks,

unsteady as jericho's wall to the rastaman's song,

then retreated to the infants' area to sponge bathe

the early risers--he'd burned through life so fast,

he'd never really grown accustomed to this

human softness--no longer the hard, bitter seed

filled with a desperation that couldn't wait to shatter

its shell, like the eucalyptus pods that fell

on the playground where he'd decided

almost a lifetime ago, this time, he'd take it slow.



Stephen A. Bess said...

Her personality really shines through in her pictures. I'm in love with her for what she stood for and her love for who she was as a Caribbean woman of African descent. I love to read poetry/literature in "patwa". I wish that I could have heard her recite it.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Stephen, Miss Lou was a much beloved poet/performer, and a whole generation grew up watching her on "Ring Ding."
She exuded pride in who she was and what she stood for and this often went beyond words.
Miss Lou was a star!


Unknown said...

Excellent tribute. Though she passed some time back, the feelings remain the same. She helped us to be proud to be Jamaican. R.I.P Miss Lou.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Give thanks, Leon.
I forgot to say this was an excerpt from a speech I gave at the Miami Historical Society on May 17, 2007.


Fuzz said...

Thanks for highlighting this poem of Miss Lou's, Geoffrey. I'll add it to my arsenal of Jamaican works in patois that directly address the validity of the language variety. From time to time, I train teachers to be aware Creoles are languages in their own right, not "bad" versions of something else. I also like "Jamaica Language" in Aunty Roachy Seh.