For Women’s History Month we’re dedicating our March posts to women and their stories.
My first introduction to Louise Bennett-Coverely, also known as Miss Lou, was in a library book called Mango Spice and its accompanying tape recording. These materials were filled with many Jamaican folk songs arranged or written by Miss Lou, as well as music from other Caribbean islands. My younger sister and I were children at the time and were so excited to finally find a book that reflected our culture and sounded the way we spoke at home. Using these materials, we memorized the songs as I fumbled their melodies on the piano. Hearing our efforts jogged the memories of our parents who immigrated to Canada from Jamaica in the early 1970s. With nostalgia and smiles on their faces, they told us of Miss Lou and her radio show, which they listened to as children.
Enough cannot be written about Miss Lou’s contribution to Jamaican arts and culture. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, on September 7, 1919, Louise Bennett-Coverley embodies warmth, creativity and humour. Her impact has been felt throughout the Caribbean diaspora and the world. Her poems at times play on language; others comment on race, class and colonization – like calypso songs with political lyrics – harkening the African oral tradition that Jamaicans inherited. She shared the mento folk songs, proverbs and stories of Jamaica in her books, onstage, and on her radio show and Ring Ding, her children’s television show. Miss Lou added pioneer in the Jamaican pantomime tradition, drama teacher, playwright and actress to her credit. She lived in the United Kingdom, United States and spent the last twenty years of her life in Canada, where she died in 2006.
When I was asked to write about Women’s History Month for this blog, I thought instantly of Miss Lou. Although I never met her, I would have loved to. Like her, I am a teacher, an author, a budding playwright, and I love to sing and have performed Caribbean folk songs dressed in traditional costumes. Miss Lou performed in Jamaican Creole at a time when speaking the language was discouraged. Thanks to her, it was embraced internationally and she created spaces for poets like Mutabaruka and Linton Kwesi Johnson, and singers like Bob Marley and Harry Belafonte to centralize and popularize Jamaican English, Creole and patois in their work. In Canada, poets like d’bi.young, Lillian Allen and Clifton Joseph perform in this tradition. My first picture book, Malaika’s Costume, is written in “patois lite”— what I call written English that conveys the rhythm and candor of Caribbean creole yet retains the traditional spellings and grammar of English words. We owe all this to Miss Lou’s legacy.
Perhaps one of the things that has made Miss Lou even more special to me is something that she shares with millions of women. For many women in cultures around the world, womanhood is defined by motherhood. Louise Bennett-Coverley could not experience childbirth nor have a biological child due to lack of technology in the field of fertility science during her lifetime. As a young woman, Louise Bennett had a hysterectomy—the removal or partial removal of her uterus. Despite infertility, Louise Bennett did become a mother. Along with her husband, Eric Coverley, she adopted his son Fabian whom they raised, and took in children from her community. Miss Lou was an “other mother” — a term which refers to women, “aunties”, big sisters, family friends, older cousins, grandmothers, who have taken on roles to assist in the raising of children — who nurtured children regardless of biological relation, a common occurrence across the African diaspora on the continent, the Americas and in the Caribbean. It takes a village to raise a child, says an old African proverb. Miss Lou became the village. As she redefined family and womanhood, Miss Lou displayed generosity throughout her life, gracing us with a legacy of books, poetry and videos. Still today, Miss Lou inspires and nourishes growth through her words, arts and people, and has given us a love and appreciation for a language and culture as rich as that of Jamaica and the Caribbean.
Thank you, Miss Lou, for all of the many gifts you have given to this world and for being a phenomenal woman. In your words, may we all “walk good.”
Nadia L. Hohn is a writer, musician and educator. The manuscript of Malaika’s Costume, her first picture book, won the Helen Isobel Sissons Canadian Children’s Story Award. She is also the author of two forthcoming non-fiction titles, Music and Media Studies, part of the Sankofa series, which won the Moonbeam Children’s Book Award for Multicultural Non-Fiction. She lives in Toronto, where she teaches French, music and the arts at an alternative elementary school.