On 26 July, Jamaicans were shocked by news of the death, at age 86, of Louise Bennett-Coverly, better known as Miss Lou, the beloved poet and actor who entertained three generations of Jamaicans and played a groundbreaking role in legitimising “Jamaica talk”, the distinctive dialect of most Jamaicans, which had long been considered inferior to standard English.
Dozens of public figures in Jamaica, from the prime minister to members of the theatre world, paid tribute to Miss Lou, and the Jamaica Observer called for her to be named a National Hero, the highest honour Jamaica can bestow on citizens. And in the fortnight between her death and her official funeral in Kingston on 8 August, tributes poured forth from bloggers as well, not just in Jamaica but across the Caribbean and its wide diaspora. Miami-based Jamaican writer Geoffrey Philp, admitting that “as a youngster” he found Miss Lou embarrassing, explained how he came to believe that “the work of Miss Lou and artists such as Bob Marley, Sparrow, and Kitchener is the reason why so many Jamaican/Caribbean people can walk around as if they own the planet”. Writer Nalo Hopkinson, who lives in Canada but has Trinidadian and Guyanese roots, paid simple tribute by quoting “Evening Time”, one of Miss Lou's signature songs.
At the Caribbean Beat blog, Jeremy Taylor noted that Miss Lou “managed to engineer crucial cultural change in parallel with the movement for political independence”, and in so doing “make Jamaicans feel at home with themselves”. Jamaican Leon Robinson of My Thoughts … On Stuff mused that “we need a Miss Lou, now more than ever, as our country seems to have lost its identity, as we purse American and European standards and values.” Melody of Moppet on the Go! composed a tribute in verse, explaining that Miss Lou “did the dramatic cultural wordwork of one hundred or two”.
Other bloggers wondered if Jamaicans have really learned the lessons of Miss Lou's poems. Gela's Words asked:
with this new surge of nationalism and renewed appreciation for de local vernacular in the wake of the passing of the iconic Miss Lou, uhm, when de pickney dem chat bad (beg pardon, ah mean use the local dialect), we nuffi badda correct dem and tell dem fi chat proper Henglish?
Francis Wade shared this story:
This past week, I had to draft a report that brought an end to a project I was working on that included some very strong feelings by members of staff.
I found myself drifting to the actual language that they used — Jamaican patois — simply because it was more accurate, but also because it was more expressive of their true feelings. In communicating feelings as well as words, nothing beats Jamaican patois (or that of any other island.)
Spliffie of the green room lamented that JBC TV never preserved the archival recordings of Miss Lou's groundbreaking TV programme Ring Ding.
And the official Louise Bennett-Coverly website posted two pages of tributes. As Andrene Bonner–folklorist “and above all Miss Lou's Friend”–put it, “Just remember how bright her light shone and take a beam and light your pathway.”