Getting many of Jamaica’s colonially educated persons to value aspects of Jamaican Heritage was a task that Louise Bennett-Coverley (‘Miss Lou’) stuck to throughout her life, despite much opposition.
Miss Lou, who was a poet, writer and folklorist, was chastised, particularly during the earlier stages of her career, for the language she used in her work, which many felt did not coincide with what was supposedly accepted dialect.
As told by Professor Mervin Morris, Poet Laureate of Jamaica, at one of Miss Lou’s early performances, delivering Creole material, a voice called out from the audience, «A dat your modda send you a school fah?»
«In 1943 when The Gleaner started publishing a column of her verse each week, there were people writing to say no one will be able to speak the standard language (English) if Louise Bennett is allowed to continue. But she said, ‘mi never tek notice, and The Gleaner never tek notice, because Gleaner was a sell’,» Morris told a gathering at the launch of the Louise Bennett Archives at the National Library of Jamaica last Friday.
To Morris, Miss Lou was a profoundly influential figure in the development of our self- confidence as a people. She was seen as someone who spoke the Jamaican language with love, and one who represented her people well.
«She investigated and taught Jamaicans about the beliefs and practices inherited from African ancestors, which were transplanted in the Caribbean. Miss Lou’s nationalism did not seek to exclude. Its mission was to deepen self-recognition and to encourage respect. She was also a diligent researcher who became an authority on Jamaican language and culture, and she was a sensitive teacher, formally and informally, of adults as well as children,» Morris said.
Miss Lou simply promoted a language that most of the people of Jamaica could understand and relate to.
«Though our official language is English, the first language of most Jamaicans is Jamaican Creole. The language you acquire when you first begin to speak is your mother tongue. Slavery in Jamaica was abolished in 1807 and full emancipation was declared in 1838. As Pauline Christie explains in her book on language in Jamaica, it was the slaves’ need to communicate with Europeans and with each other that led to the establishment of the Creole that has survived alongside English, and the prestige naturally accorded English as the language of the colonisers was underscored by the contrast between it and the seemingly malformed speech of the slaves, which was attributed to the Africans’ lack of intelligence,» said Morris.