Saturday, 12 October 2019

Louise Bennett-Coverley Celebrated at York University

By Neil Armstrong

From left: Lillian Allen, Olive Senior, Clive Forrester, Pamela Appelt and Honor Ford-Smith at York University, Toronto on September 17, 2019

Scholar, poet and playwright Honor Ford-Smith says no other performer before Bob Marley was as loved by Jamaicans of all classes and race than Louise Bennett.

“Though most people have a general sense of her as a performer who advocated for the Jamaican language and culture few are aware of the breadth of her contribution and the context within which she worked,” Ford-Smith said while speaking about Bennett’s achievements in the context of her time.

She was speaking on a panel about the life and legacy of Louise Bennett-Coverley which included Olive Senior, Lillian Allen, Clive Forrester and Pamela Appelt at an event organized by the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora at York University in Toronto on September 17.

Ford-Smith said Miss Lou came to voice in the context of worldwide anti-colonial resistance, the most vibrant and varied social movement of the last century. When Bennett was born in 1919 European colonial powers directly controlled about eighty per cent of the globe.

“That this is no longer the case has to with the achievements of the social movements with which her life and work intersected. Bennett’s work overlapped with several generations of men who are far better known nationally than she is for their critique of the ideas and practices that underpinned the colonial regime.”

One such writer was Aimé Césaire, the celebrated Martinican founder of Negritude, the poet, playwright and patriarch of the transformation of the French Antilles.

She said Bennett’s work unlike Césaire was marked by the use of laughter as “a weapon and with it she broke through those bars of hunger and poverty that created those prisons of despair again and again over a period of more than sixty years.”

“Never a sterile spectator she insisted on breaking the barriers between spectator and participants in a search for a social progress and a social unity in a deeply divided island. Her words pick sense out of the nonsense of calamity to reveal a sea of vibrant possibility created by the people that she loved.”

The professor said Bennett’s work was part of the process of voicing the intellectual and cultural ideas of the Caribbean. She noted that the difference between Bennett and men like CLR James, Césaire and others was that she was a woman and one of the only black women of her generation and race to come to visible and popular voice in the context of the anti-colonial struggle.

Ford-Smith noted that unlike Césaire and James she chose to speak from the position of a working class peasant woman and to speak in the language that they spoke. She was neither working class nor peasant but that was what her persona became.

She said Miss Lou’s brilliance was that she did not do this and the price that she paid for it was that she was not taken seriously as an intellectual until quite recently.

Ford-Smith said Bennett was supported by two significant developments which are often forgotten in describing her trajectory. First, she was supported by a popular performance tradition which was considered in its time quite vulgar and which had developed a significant following by the 1930s.

She noted that Miss Lou’s early career was supported by the women’s movement of the time. Black feminists like Amy Bailey, Mary Morris Knibb and Madame de Mena Aiken of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) had fought for women’s political rights. This movement became subsumed into the Jamaica Federation of Women for whom Bennett worked as a kind of cultural animator.

 Senior, a poet and author, said the early decision by Bennett to give voice to the ordinary people of Jamaica was one that she boldly defended.

“In the process Miss Lou opened the gates for not only a long list of spoken word artists and performers but was also a profound influence in freeing up the so-called literary heavyweights from the straightjacket of conformity. Miss Lou did not say we must throw out or disrespect the English language, what she affirmed was that we should also claim respect for our own language alongside our inherited English tongue.”

Senior said this opened the gateway for writers such as herself who was struggling to find “our own voices, one that would allow us to be true to ourselves and to the culture we come from while writing our way into a global culture.”

She said it is important to consider Miss Lou as a teacher who had subtle messages enshrined in her own persona and activities – “the legacy she bequeathed to us as gifts in the form of story, the gift of memory, history and ancestry, the gift of manners and broughtupsy, the gift of social harmony.”

Senior said the greatest monument to Miss Lou “that we can create is this -- to demonstrate by gesture and by example the value of all human life, to create stories for our youth that are woven from the fibre of the everyday strengthened with the warp of ancestral wisdom, to find the means to allow youth themselves to tell their own stories as a way of finding the lessons within.”

Senior said Miss Lou must not be seen as simply an icon for that is no more than a picture, a surface representation of a revered person.

She said perhaps then the conversation should be about Miss Lou as a national hero, not a hero of deeds but of words, words that are mightier than the sword.

Forrester, a professor of literature and language at the University of Waterloo who developed two courses at York University in 2008, examined the journey of the Jamaican language from the plantation to where it could be at the end of this year.

Forrester noted that there were people developing the Jamaican identity in 1865 and between that time and 1962 Louise Bennett would come to prominence.

Forrester said in November this year there will be a petition opened on the website of the Office of the Prime Minister in Jamaica requesting that people sign it to indicate whether they want Jamaican to be an official language.

Professor Michelle A. Johnson, moderator of the panel discussion examining the life and legacy of Louise Bennett-Coverley (Miss Lou) on September 17 at York University

Allen, a dub poet and professor, said Miss Lou is one of the most significant and important individuals to be produced by Jamaica.

She performed a poem she wrote as a tribute to Miss Lou 25 years ago recognizing the influence that the late cultural icon had on her, Bob Marley, and other reggae artists.

Sharing her memories of Bennett-Coverley, Pamela Appelt, co-executor of the Louise Bennett Estate, said in 1990 while a judge of the Court of Canadian Citizenship she administered the oath of citizenship to Miss Lou who immigrated to Toronto with her husband, Eric Coverley in 1985.

 Miss Lou lived in Toronto, Canada for 21 years and died there on July 26, 2006.

[An edited version of this story was published in the North American Weekly Gleaner, September 26-October 2, 2019.]

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