Sunday, 6 November 2016

Lecture explores the Anansi poetics of Louise Bennett (Miss Lou)

Lecture explores the Anansi poetics of Miss Lou
By Neil Armstrong

Dr. Carolyn Cooper, recently retired Professor of Literature and Cultural Studies, University of the West Indies (Mona campus) delivered the 2016 Michael Baptista Lecture in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the passing of “Miss Lou” (1919-2006) -- Jamaica’s iconic and beloved poet and folklorist – on Nov. 3 at Founders College, York University in Toronto, Canada.
Entitled “'Disguise Up De English Language':  Louise Bennett's Anansi Poetics,” it examined Louise Bennett use of humour, in her multiple roles as poet, storyteller, folklorist, actress, dramatist and comedian, to simultaneously mask and expose a whole range of grave socio-political issues in “post-colonial” Jamaica. 
The devaluation of African-derived culture, particularly language, was a central preoccupation in Bennett's oeuvre. Like the trickster, Anansi, Bennett assumed many voices to tell the complex story of cultural identity in Jamaica.
Louise Bennett-Coverley amassed an impressive body of artistic work beginning in the late 1930s and covering more than 50 years.
Her contributions included poetry, Jamaican folk music, work on television and radio, and on the theatre stage. She spent the last two decades of her life in Canada and was awarded an honorary degree from York University in 1998.
Dr. Cooper started her presentation with a video clip of Miss Lou speaking about language and the value of music in shaping a community at play and at work.
“When you see and hear the joy of children reveling in their culture, you will begin to apprehend the epic tragedy that results from the failure of the school system in Jamaica to take the children’s first language seriously as a medium of instruction in primary schools,” said Cooper.
The video also included musicologist, Olive Lewin, sharing her views on the power of music.
Professor Cooper noted that on her radio program, “Miss Lou’s Views,” Bennett addressed a whole range of topical issues.
The jacket of a Federal Records album describes the program as a popurrí of typical and topical happenings in the dialect of Louise Bennett as related by Aunty Roachy.”
Professor Mervyn Morris, Jamaica’s premiere Louise Bennett scholar, edited a selection of these monologues that were published in 1993 as “Aunty Roachy seh.”
“In the opening piece, “Jamaica Language,” Louise Bennett deploys the tropes of trickery and disguise to signify the ways in which enslaved Africans creatively exercised agency in order to claim their humanity and reclaim their linguistic heritage,” said Cooper reading the English translation and then the Jamaican version.
She noted the way in which Bennett used language and dialect interchangeably to describe the Jamaican vernacular.
“The popular names for the local language in Jamaica are dialect and patois. Linguists prefer Jamaican Creole or simply Jamaican. Furthermore, Bennett acknowledges the role of language in defining community. The colonizers alienating imperative to privilege English and devalue African languages is systematically resisted by Africans who instead colonized English.
“The emergence of a Jamaican language is conceived by Bennett as the end result of a subversive political process. The new language is a cunning revolutionary assertion of African verbal creativity and cultural autonomy. Now, this is not at all how the Jamaican language is perceived by the social and political elites. It is routinely dismissed as nothing but a corruption of English.”
Cooper alluded to Professor Rex Nettleford’s 1966 Introduction to Bennett’s “Jamaica Labrish,” in which he describes her experimental creative writing in Jamaican in this way, with a measure of irony Cooper supposes – “In a quarter of a century she has carved designs out of the shapeless and unruly substance that is the Jamaican dialect.”
“Nettleford’s use of the metaphor of the plastic arts further alienates the Jamaican mother tongue from conventional discourses of what constitutes a language. Unlike real languages that have shape and rules, i.e. grammar, and which do not behave unseemly, the promiscuous vernacular is according to Nettleford “an idiom whose limitations as a bastard tongue are all too evident.” Now to be fair to Nettleford, that statement was published half a century ago, I suspect that he must have changed his mind over time. But even today, there are many supposedly intelligent Jamaicans who have not moved beyond this primitive emotional view of the local language.”
She said Bennett’s struggle, in the first instance, was to achieve dialect status for this “shapeless and unruly bastard tongue” as expressed in her satirical poem, “Bans O’ Killing.”
“Bennett’s persuasive argument was that English-speaking communities in Britain had regional dialects. The fact that Jamaica also had a regional dialect should be recognized without embarrassment. The later Louise Bennett moving beyond the limiting conception of Jamaican as a bastard dialect of English herself contests the popular corruption of language way of Jamaican. In that same monologue, “Jamaica Language,” she humorously argues that English is just as corrupt as Jamaican since it is derived, in part, from Norman French, Greek and Latin. Jamaican should be similarly derived from other languages, quote “English is a derivation but Jamaica Dialect is corruption. What a unfairity.”
Cooper said Bennett concludes with, “we derive to.”
She noted that Bennett’s inclusion of  “wi English forefathers in the family history craftily acknowledges the English elements in Jamaican and simultaneously underscores the deracinating compulsion that is an essential element of the enslavement process.”
“Bennett also derives the limitations of the English colonizers who could not master the African languages. Indeed, the Africans who colonized English are represented as far more inventive than the mono-lingual English who are trapped in the castle of their skin and culture, to cite George Lamming’s brilliant anticolonial novel. And even today, the English are the least multilingual of the Europeans. They feel as if everybody is learning English they don’t need to learn anybody else’s language.”
Professor Cooper said Louise Bennett’s representation of the cunning of the African Jamaican extends beyond the linguistic domain.
“More broadly, the politics of disguise is a manifestation of the morally ambiguous craftiness of Anansi, the Akan spider god, transmuted in Jamaican folklore into Bre Anancy, the archetypal trickster. Folktales of the mighty outwitted by the clever proliferate throughout the African diaspora. The shared history of plantation slavery in the Americas consolidates within the psyche of African peoples in the hemisphere cultural continuities, ancestral memories of sabotage and marronage, systemic resistance to servitude. It is within this broader tradition of neo-African folk consciousness, the Anancy syndrome, that Bennett’s elaboration of the African Jamaican sensibility can be best understood.”
In 1988, Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s classic, “The Signifying Monkey,” a theory of Afro-American literary criticism was published which has on the cover an image of Eshu-Elegbara.
“Eshu, the quintessential trickster, both male and female, the indeterminate intermediary between the divine and the human presides over the crossroads, both literal and metaphysical. Eshu signifies the displaced African in the diaspora.”
Professor Cooper noted that in 1970, a collection of so-called slave narratives edited by the American historian, Gilbert Osofsky, was published.
“Its title, “Puttin’ On Ole Massa: The Narratives of Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown, Solomon Northup” signifies a putting on ole massa, making a fool out of ole massa.”
Cooper thinks these narratives should be called ‘freedom narratives’ not ‘slave narratives’ according to convention, “for these self-reflexive narratives disclose a consciousness of free people reclaiming their humanity through acts of revelatory agency.”
She said Anancy is Jamaica’s version of the ubiquitous trickster.
Louise Bennett wrote several collections of Anancy stories which are now out of print. The first was “Anancy Stories and Poems in Dialect,” published by the Gleaner in 1944.
Then there was “Anancy Stories and Dialect Verse” by Louise Bennett, Dorothy Clarke, Una Wilson and others published by the Pioneer Press in 1950. A new series of the book was published in 1957 and “Laugh with Louise” was published in 1961.
In 1979, “Anancy and Miss Lou” was published bringing back into print a body of stories that bears Miss Lou’s indelible imprint, said Cooper.
“In her author’s note in the collection, Louise Bennett characterizes the trickster in this way: ‘Anancy, the trickify little spiderman who speaks with a lisp and lives by his wits is both comic and sinister, both hero and villain of Jamaican folk stories. He points out human weaknesses and shows how easily we can be injured and destroyed by our greed, our stupidity, or by confidence in the wrong people and things. Anancy is an Ashanti spider god that has magical powers. He can change himself into whatever and whoever he wishes at certain times and his stories make it quite clear that he is able to get away with tricks which ordinary mortals can’t. He’s a rascal but loveable and every existing custom is said to have been started by Anancy. Is Anancy mek it.
‘Most Anancy stories have songs and these have been the true lullabies to Jamaican children for generations Each Anancy story ends with Jack Mandora mi nuh choose none which means I take no responsibility for the story I have told. Jack Mandora – Keeper of Heaven’s Door – mi nun choose none – it is not of my choosing.’”
Sharing a story about Anancy and Fire from the collection, Cooper said: “That cunning Jamaican woman as we saw there who is celebrated and satirized with equal gusto in Louise Bennett’s ample corpus is a composite character, an aggregation of the multiple persona employed by Bennett, the ventriloquist, to voice the lives of representative Jamaican women of all social classes.”
“This multifarious heroine victim of Bennett’s comic satirical sketches presents us with a diversity of social class values and behaviours that attest to the accuracy of Bennett’s detailed portraiture. Indirection is the quintessential attribute and all dubious distinction of the crafty Jamaican woman of whom Bennett herself is a prime example for she creates with cunning irony out of the raw materials of Jamaican life a dramatized world of paradoxical characters who simultaneously mask and disclose the ambiguously shifting Bennett point of view.”
Professor Cooper said that since 1978 there has been a great flowering of writing by Caribbean women and she paused to introduce some of them attending the lecture – Dionne Brand, Olive Senior and Ramabai Espinet.
“Nevertheless, Louise Bennett remains a powerful voice for working class Jamaican women who are still very much underrepresented. And her poem, “Jamaica Woman,” is a classic articulation of the cunning of Anancy. The Bennett persona employs an earthy metaphorical proverb to expose with obvious relish the ginalship, as we say in Jamaican,  and fortitude of the Jamaican female.”
She said like Edith Clarke’s anthropological research, “My Mother Who Fathered Me,” Louise Bennett’s own sustained research into Jamaican folk cultures helped to generate real knowledge of the foundations of our society. The perception of work in Jamaica, for example, is rather complex.
“Professor Mervyn Morris cites a lovely quote from Anancy in his introduction to “Anancy and Miss Lou”: ‘Anancy sorrowing declares I don’t know what fi do. I try dis, I try dat. The ongle ting lef fi mi do is work. Why muma, a hope tings don’t come to dat.’”
She said there are several Jamaican proverbs around what appears to be “an entrenched counter-productive work ethic that seems to be the byproduct of the slavery experience. In circumstances where workers feel that reward is not commensurate with effort very little energy will be extended. Thus dawg seh before im plant yam fi look like mosquito foot, im satisfy fi tun beggar.”
Andrea Davis, Chair of the Department of Humanities and former director of the Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean (CERLAC) said working alongside Honor Ford-Smith in 1995 as graduate students at York University they hosted an event with Miss Lou in Founders College the turnout was overwhelming.
Ford-Smith, now Associate Professor, Environmental Studies at York University, in her introduction of Dr. Cooper noted that: “Carolyn is very important to us because she is the person who has put Caribbean popular culture on the map, an in particular Jamaican popular culture. And she has joined us into global debates about the significance and meaning of popular culture worldwide and its role in the formation of cultural values and cultural struggles.”
She said Cooper is one of the chief advocates who has given leadership to the movement to popularize and legitimize the vernacular in formal media and in formal academic work.
“Carolyn Cooper is a true popular intellectual committed to widening debates on cultural politics beyond the walls of the academy and to making her work and the work of others who study the things that she does the centre of public intellectual inquiry,” said Ford-Smith.
The lecture was presented by CERLAC and co-sponsored by the Department of Humanities, Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on Africa and its Diasporas, and the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora.

Carolyn Cooper, retired Professor of Literary & Cultural Studies, University of the West Indies (Mona Campus) left, and Andrea A. Davis, Chair, Department of Humanities/Former Director of the Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean (CERLAC).

The 2016-2017 Michael Baptista Lecture: 'Disguise Up De English Language': Louise Bennett's Anansi Poetics presented by Dr. Carolyn Cooper at York University

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