Louise Simone Bennett-Coverley or Miss Lou, OM, OJ, MBE (7 September 1919 – 26 July 2006), was a Jamaican poet, folklorist, writer, and educator. Writing and performing her poems in what was known as Jamaican Patois or Creole, she was instrumental in having this "dialect" of the people given literary recognition in its own right ("nation language"). She is located at the heart of the Jamaican poetic tradition, and has influenced other popular Caribbean poets, including Mutabaruka, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Paul Keens-Douglas.
Louise Bennett was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and attended Ebenezer and Calabar Elementary Schools, St. Simon’s College, Excelsior College, and Friends College (Highgate, St Mary). On a British Council scholarship she attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where she studied in the late 1940s. After graduating, she worked with repertory companies in Coventry, Huddersfield and Amersham, as well as in intimate revues all over England.
On her return to Jamaica she taught drama to youth and adult groups both in social welfare agencies and for the University of the West Indies Extra Mural Department.
Miss Lou was a good resident artiste and a teacher from 1945 to 1946 with the "Caribbean Carnival". She appeared in leading humorous roles in several Jamaican pantomimes and television shows. She travelled throughout the world promoting the culture of Jamaica through lectures and performances. Although her popularity was international, she enjoyed celebrity status in her native Jamaica, Canada and the United Kingdom. Her poetry has been published several times, most notably the volumes Jamaica Labrish (1966), Anancy and Miss Lou (1979).
Her most influential recording is probably her 1954 rendition of the Jamaican traditional song "Day Dah Light", which was recorded by Harry Belafonte as "Day O", also known as the "Banana Boat Song", in 1955 on a Tony Scott arrangement with additional lyrics. Belafonte based his version on Bennett's recording. The Louise Bennett version of "Day O" is available and documented in both French and English on the Jamaica - Mento 1951-1958 album. Belafonte's famous version was one of the 1950s' biggest hit records, leading to the very first gold record.
Among Loiuse Bennett's many recordings are: Jamaica Singing Games (1953), Jamaican Folk Songs (Folkways Records, 1954), Children's Jamaican Songs and Games (Folkways, 1957), Miss Lou’s Views (1967), Listen to Louise (1968), Carifesta Ring Ding (1976), The Honorable Miss Lou, (1981), Miss Lou Live-London (1983) and Yes M' Dear (Island Records).
She wrote her poems in the language of the people known as Jamaican Patois or Creole, and helped to put this language on the map and to have it recognized as a language ("nation language") in its own right, thus influencing many other poets, such as Mutabaruka, to do similarly things.
Louise Bennett married Eric Winston Coverley on 30 May 1954 and has one adopted son, Fabian Coverley. She died in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where she had resided for the last decade of her life. "Louise Bennett-Coverley, 1919-2006".
Awards and honours
In 1960, Louise Bennett was made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for her work in Jamaican literature and theater. "Louise Bennett, Jamaican Folklorist, Dies at 86",
In 1974, she was appointed to the Order of Jamaica. The Jamaican government also appointed her Cultural Ambassador at Large for Jamaica. Among numerous other awards, she received the Institute of Jamaica's Musgrave Silver and Gold Medals for eminence in the field of Arts and Culture, the Norman Manley Award for Excellence (in the field of Arts), an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of the West Indies (1983), an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from York University, Toronto.
On Jamaica’s Independence Day in 2001, the Honourable Mrs. Louise Bennett-Coverley was appointed as a Member of the Jamaican Order of Merit for her invaluable and distinguished contribution to the development of the Arts and Culture.
Cultural significance and legacy
Louise Bennett's poem “Colonization in Reverse” (1966) provides a historical context for many minorities living in the UK in post-colonial times. Her portrayal of the Jamaican experience of dislocation and racial inequality parallels that of South Asian people living in London. Additionally, in both cases issues of cultural specificity and identity are salient. Both Jamaican and South Asian people shared a similar experience in their move to England for employment and a better life while also implying the complexities of assimilation and dual identity.
Bennett pinpoints her concept of cultural disloyalty when she writes about Jamaicans on their quest for better job opportunities: “Dem a pour out a Jamaica/ Everybody future plan/ Is to get a big-time job/ An settle in de mother lan.” Her reference to the “mother lan” here has an irony to it in that she is applying that England is the new mother land as opposed to Jamaica. By her referencing to England in this way it implies that her fellow Jamaicans are assimilating to England’s culture and leaving behind Jamaica, or the “mother lan.”
A similar notion of assimilation is expressed by the South Asian hip-hop group Hustlers HC through the lyrics in their song “Big Trouble in Little Asia”. Similarly to Bennett, they combat the idea of colonisation; only their music references it through the lens of India’s relation to Britain. They express the variety of oppressions experienced in Britain, yet refer to Britain as a land of opportunity. Additionally, they reveal the struggles of mindless “bum jobs” just as Bennett does. Throughout their music, Hustler HC struggle with their cultural history of oppression: “colonial displacement, capitalist work relations and racial oppression” (Sharma 46). These struggles are shared by Jamaicans due to the similarities in their experience of colonisation. Moreover, South Asian and Jamaican music aesthetic merged in many music scenes in the UK. In essence, Jamaicans and South Asians in London both struggled in similar ways to claim a culture and identity—music formed as a tool to achieve this.
- "Biography of Dr. the Honourable Louise Bennett Coverley", Louise Bennett official website.
- Bennett, Louise. “Colonization in Reverse”. 1966
- Sharma, Sanjay. "Noisy Asians or 'Asian Noise'?" in Dis-Orienting Rhythms: The Politics of the New Asian Dance Music, London: Zed Books, 1996.
- "Miss Lou's Room".
- Jamaican Performing & Recording Artists (www.Jamaicans.com)