While citizens in this hemisphere are reconsidering heroes and monuments, in Jamaica the government is moving forward to erect another statue to honor an outstanding citizen who many agree has contributed to nation building.
According to spokespersons for the government, Louise Simone Bennett Coverley AKA Miss Lou, “the mother of Jamaican culture” is slated to take up permanent residence in Gordon Town.
Announced Sept. 7, the date the beloved cultural icon would have celebrated her 98th birthday anniversary, double honors of a statue and square were presented as honorariums to the beloved poet, folklorist, comedienne and performer who regularized the island’s dialect by communicating using patois comedy to tell island stories.
During a Miss Lou Day celebration which also launched a month-long series of activities commemorating her life’s work, it was announced that the Gordon Town location was decided because the role model resided, wrote and created some of her most memorable works there.
Slated to be unveiled two years from now, on the 100th anniversary of her birth, the public monuments will be erected under the auspices of the Jamaica Cultural Development Corporation.
“She was one of Jamaica’s leading poets who gave the truth through our own language,” Kenneth Salmon, chairman of JCDC said.
“You can’t mention the words Jamaican culture without referring to Miss Lou.”
“Miss Lou is a timeless cultural icon whose life’s work has caused us to understand who and what we are,” Olivia Grange, the island’s minister of culture added.
“She taught us to accept, value and celebrate ourselves.”
Born on Sept. 7, 1919 in downtown Kingston, Louise Bennett became the first Black student to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
She was awarded a scholarship from the British Council and after graduation resided in England.
While there she hosted two radio programs for the British Broadcasting Corporation — “Caribbean Carnival (1945–1946)” and “West Indian Night (1950).”
On returning to Jamaica she taught folklore and drama at the University of the West Indies.
She produced a series of radio monologues and won wide acclaim for hosting Ring Ding, a children’s television program.
For more than a decade Bennett invited children from the rural and urban areas to share their artistic talents on the popular program. Using the television as a teaching medium she advanced patois dialect usage substituting common vernacular for the more pretentious, proper, colonial, standard English.
Instead of saying ‘talk’ she said ‘labbrish’ or simply ‘chat.’
In addition to her television appearances, Bennett appeared in the movies “Calypso” in 1958 and “Club Paradise” in 1986 with Jimmy Cliff, Peter O’Toole and Robin Williams.
Prior to that Miss Lou collaborated with local comedian Ranny Williams for a weekly radio series that held captive audiences to tune into the social experiences of a couple whose domestic life mirrored more than many residing in the fictitious rural community of Susumba Walk.
The program garnered high ratings presenting an empowered woman who often outwitted the antics of her cunning husband.
Bennett wrote several books and poetry in Jamaican patois.
Her work influenced many other writers and poets among them — Mutabaruka, Oku Onuora, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Mikey Smith, and Yasus Afari — who published in the language of the majority of Jamaicans.
According to Wikipedia “She is credited with giving Harry Belafonte the foundation for his 1956 hit “Day-O” by schooling him about the Jamaican folk song “Hill and Gully Rider” (the name also given as “Day Dah Light.”)
To the delight of her fans living in New York City, in the 1980s Bennett performed at WIADCA’s annual pre-Labor Day festivities at the Brooklyn Museum.
In 2001, she revisited her birthplace to accept the Order of Merit, the fourth highest award bestowed to nationals.
On that occasion, Dr. Basil Bryan, former Consul General to New York, praised Bennett as an inspiration to Jamaicans because she “proudly presented the Jamaican language and culture to a wider world and today we are the beneficiaries of that audacity.”
She lived the last decade of her life in Canada and died there on July 27, 2006.
Following tributes in the North American nation, her body was returned to Jamaica for interment in the cultural icons section of Kingston’s National Heroes Park.
Among her awards and honors are: Order of the British Empire (1960), Norman Manley Award for Excellence (1972) Order of Jamaica (1974) Honorary Doctor of Letters — York University (1998).
The permanent structure will be formalized as a Jamaica 55 Legacy Project in association with Miss Lou’s estate, the Gordon Town Community Council, the Kingston and St. Andrew Municipal Corporation and the Jamaica 55 Steering Committee in Canada.
Last month to coincide with the retirement of Usain Bolt, Jamaica unveiled statues of the Olympic gold medal winner along with one of Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, a fellow Olympian and track and field star.
Both were placed at the National Stadium Park along Statue Road.
Marking Miss Lou Day recently were: a fashion show, floral tribute at National Heroes Park, Tenky Miss Lou: A Tribute concert at Louise Bennett Garden Theatre and Miss Lou Marathon Broadcast aired on Jamvision, the island’s number one cable channel for culture and arts.
Throughout the month of September numerous festivities will hail the cultural ambassador and will likely end with her signature signoff — “walk good! And may good duppy follow you.”
— Catch You on The Inside