Poet, storyteller, folklorist
When news of Louise Bennett's death was announced on July 26, 2006, Jamaicans on the island and around the world mourned the loss of one of their greatest cultural icons. Known affectionately as "Miss Lou," Bennett was throughout her life a passionate champion of Jamaica's culture, its rich folklore tradition, and particularly its unique language. She pioneered the use of West Indian English, also known as "Creole" or "patois," as a medium for artistic expression and helped nurture a distinctively Jamaican style of theatrical performance. Her career as a poet and as a performer on the radio, stage, and screen spanned more than half a century. Described as the "first lady of Jamaican comedy," she was one of the most notable Jamaican personalities of the twentieth century.
Louise Simone Bennett was born on September 7, 1919, in Kingston, Jamaica, the only child of Augustus Cornelius Bennett, a baker, and Kerene Robinson, a dressmaker. After her father's early death, Bennett was raised by her mother. A self-described "average student," Bennett attended primary and secondary schools in Kingston, during which she developed a keen interest in literature, drama, and Jamaican language and folklore.
Bennett came of age during a time when Jamaicans began to seriously challenge the authority of the British empire, which had controlled the island as a colony for over three hundred years. A revolt among sugar and dock workers in 1938 fueled nationalist sentiment on the island and prompted the British to grant Jamaicans some measure of self-governance in the 1940s, though full independence would not come for almost two decades.
Loved Writing and Jamaican Language
Bennett began writing poetry as early as age fourteen. She made her first public appearance in 1936 at age seventeen, reciting a poem in Jamaican dialect at a concert on Christmas Day. In the audience was the Jamaican entertainer and theater impresario Eric Coverley, known popularly as "Chalk Talk," who awarded her a prize for her composition. Their relationship, both personal and professional, would grow over the next decade and a half until their marriage in 1954.
Even though Bennett appreciated the English literature she studied in school, she wondered why Jamaicans did not write in their own dialect. During the 1930s and 1940s, she experimented with "dialect verses," that is, poetry written in Jamaican patois. Some criticized her "improper" manner of speaking—a stark contrast to the Oxford English spoken by educated Jamaicans—but her poems instantly became popular among Jamaicans on the island and abroad. The island's newspaper, the Gleaner, initially refused to publish her work but eventually it began featuring her in a regular Sunday column.
In her comedic and satirical verses and monologues, Bennett sought to capture the experiences of Jamaicans in their own language. She resisted the notion that Jamaican patois was an "embarrassment," that it was the language of the poor and illiterate; instead, she viewed the dialect not only as a legitimate language in its own right but also as a rich medium for artistic expression. She railed against the self-hatred that centuries of colonialism had instilled in Jamaicans and criticized prejudices based on class and color. Bennett published her first book of poetry, Dialect Verses, in 1942.
The following year Bennett took to the stage, performing in her first pantomime with the local actor Ranny Williams. The duo quickly became one the most popular acts in Jamaican theater.
In 1943 Bennett enrolled in Friends' College in Highgate, where she began to study Jamaican folklore in earnest. In 1945 she auditioned for and received a British Council scholarship to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, which proved to be a remarkable opportunity that would distinguish her as the school's first black student. Within months she was working for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as host of the radio program Caribbean Carnival.
Bennett returned to Jamaica after graduation in 1947 but found little work there. By 1950 she was back in London. There she hosted the BBC program West Indian Guest Night, which showcased emerging West Indian artists, and she acted for repertory theater companies throughout England. In 1953 she moved to New York City, where she reunited with Coverley. Together, they directed the touring musical Day in Jamaica, while Bennett continued to do radio work in Greenwich Village. Bennett and Coverley married on May 30, 1954, and returned to Jamaica the following year.
Made a Name in Jamaica
Bennett began working as a drama officer with the Jamaica Social Welfare Commission in 1956, becoming the organization's director from 1959 to 1963. In her work with the commission, she traveled across the island, immersing herself again in the study of Jamaican folklore and oral tradition. She taught drama and folklore to groups on behalf of the commission and as a faculty member in the extra-mural department of the University of the West Indies.
During this time, Bennett became a popular radio and television personality in Jamaica. "Miss Lou" became a household name, and Bennett was instantly recognizable by her traditional Jamaican dress and catchphrase "walk good," a common Jamaican good-bye. She hosted the radio programs Laugh with Louise; Miss Lou's Views, a series of brief monologues on topics of the day; and The Lou and Ranny Show, which reunited Bennett with her old partner Ranny Williams. In 1970 she began hosting the much-loved Ring Ding, a Saturday morning children's television show that often featured Jamaican stories and folk characters; the program ran for twelve years. Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Bennett remained active on the stage, writing several plays with Williams and continuing to act in the pantomimes she had popularized early in her career.
Bennett's best-known book of poetry, Jamaica Labrish (labrish means "gossip" in Jamaican patois), was published in 1966. The volume contains "Noh Lickle Twang" (meaning "not even a little accent"), one of her most popular poems. The humorous verse derides a Jamaican expatriate who returns to the island from the United States without a hint of the patois.
At a Glance …
Born Louise Simone Bennett on September 7, 1919, in Kingston, Jamaica; died on July 26, 2006, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada; daughter of Augustus Cornelius (a baker) and Kerene (Robinson; a dressmaker) Bennett; married Eric Coverley (an entertainer and impresario), May 30, 1954 (died 2002); children: Fabian (stepson). Religion: Presbyterian. Education: Attended Friends' College, Highgate, Jamaica, 1943; attended Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London, 1945-47.
Career: British Broadcasting Corporation, Caribbean Carnival, host, 1945-46, West Indian Guest Night, host, 1950-53; radio, television, and stage performer in New York City, 1953-55; Jamaica Social Welfare Commission, drama officer, 1956-59, director, 1959-63; University of the West Indies, Extra-Mural Department, lecturer in drama and folklore, 1959-61; radio, television, and stage performer in Jamaica, 1955-82.
Awards: Member of the British Empire, 1960; Musgrave Gold Medal, Institute of Jamaica, 1965 and 1978; Norman Manley Award for Excellence, 1972; Order of Jamaica, 1974; Centenary Medal, Institute of Jamaica, 1979; Honorary Doctor of Letters, University of the West Indies, 1983; Honorary Doctor of Letters, York University, Toronto, Canada, 1998; appointed Cultural Ambassador at Large by the Jamaican government, 1998; Order of Merit, 2001.
Bennett made many recordings of her poems, monologues, and songs, often speaking over background music. Her recordings are recognized as influencing later rap music and "dub," a Jamaican genre that evolved out of reggae in the 1960s.
Known as Ambassador for Jamaican Culture
Bennett received many accolades for her contributions to Jamaican arts and culture. In 1960 she was made a Member of the British Empire for her work in literature and theater. The Jamaican government honored her with the nation's highest award, the Order of Jamaica, in 1974. In 1998 she was appointed as the cultural ambassador at large by the Jamaican government in recognition of her work on behalf of Jamaican culture. Finally, in 2001, Bennett was inducted into the Order of Merit by Queen Elizabeth II.
Bennett and her husband left Jamaica in the early 1980s to seek medications and medical treatment that Coverley required. The couple first moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and then to Toronto, Canada, in 1987. Though she lived far from home, she maintained that "any which part mi live—Toronto-o! London-o! Florida-o!—a Jamaica mi deh!" (Wherever I live—Toronto, London, Florida—I am in Jamaica). Coverley died in 2002. At the behest of Percival J. Patterson, the Jamaican prime minister, Bennett made a final and much-celebrated return to the island in 2003 to participate in celebrations commemorating thirty years of Jamaican independence. She died three years later on July 26, 2006, in Toronto.
Dialect Verses, Herald, 1942.
Jamaican Humour in Dialect, Jamaican Press Association, 1943.
Miss Lulu Sez, Gleaner, 1949.
Anancy Stories and Dialect Verse, Pioneer Press, 1950.
Laugh with Louise, City Printery, 1961.
Jamaica Labrish, Sangster's Book Stores, 1966.
Anancy and Miss Lou, Sangster's Book Stores, 1979.
Selected Poems, Sangster's Book Stores, 1982.
Aunty Roachy Seh, Sangster's Book Stores, 1993.
Anancy and Beeny Bud, 1958.
Jamaica Way, 1959.
Carib Gold, 1960.
Jamaican Singing Games, 1953.
Jamaican Folksongs, 1954.
Miss Lou's Views (compilation of radio broadcasts), 1967.
Listen to Louise, 1968.
Carifesta Ring Ding, 1976.
Yes M'Dear: Miss Lou Live, 1981.
Ring Ding (children's program), 1970-82.
Club Paradise, 1986.
Henricks, A. L., and Cedri Lindo, editors, Independence Anthology of Jamaican Literature, Jamaican Ministry of Development and Welfare, 1962.
Morris, Mervyn, "Louise Bennett," in Fifty Caribbean Writers: A Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Daryl Cumber Dance, Greenwood Press, 1986.
Morris, Mervyn, editor, Making West Indian Literature, Ian Randle, 2005.
Caribbean Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 1-2, 1968, pp. 97-101.
Guardian (London), August 1, 2006.
Jamaica Observer, July 27, 2006.
New York Times, July 29, 2006.
Dr. The Hon. Louise Simone Bennett Coverley,http://louisebennett.com (accessed June 9, 2008).
—Deborah A. Ring
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