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Walk good, Miss Lou

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.”

4 comments

  • I was saddened to hear of her passing, but rejoiced that she’d led a long and full life, and had meant much to many of us. (And BTW, I’m Jamaican-born — with Trinidadian and Guyanese roots as well.)

  • She now walks the other shore, but during her stay here with us Miss Lou was a woman of substance. But I am happy that she will continue her conversation with Sor Juana Inez, Sappho, and others of her caliber.

  • Clova

    Miss Lou, you have made me proud of my Jamaican roots and culture, my patois language. So many laughs and happy moments, my memories of you shall live on forever in my heart and mind. I see your picture and your famous signature of “walk good me chile” and my heart fills with gratitude for having known you, for meeting you in person and having felt your arms around me. I shall miss you but walk good me chile until we meet again.

  • Dean Van Alstyne Johnson, DSP, Jamaica Constabulary Force

    I had the honour of planning and executing the ceremonial aspects of Miss Lou’s arrival, lying in state and funeral at the Norman Manley International Airport, the National Arena and the Coke Methodist Church, Kingston Jamaica. As an Officer of the Jamaica Constabulary Force I was most proud of the response by the members of the rank and file and inspectorate who were called upon to perform these duties and who did them willingly and shared that deep sense of the honour these tasks bestowed. It is clear that this sense of honour was the driving force behind the manner that they faced each challenge that the duties imposed. Standing perfectly still for collective hours in vigil at Miss Lou’s casket while she lay in state for public viewing; standing in the hot afternoon sun awaiting her arrival at Coke Methodist Church; enduring the heavily pouring rain during her funeral and the flooded conditions at the National Heroes’ Circle; and lifting, lowering and carrying Miss Lou’s more than considerable weight – the heaviest ever at this level and category of national events. Their attitudes to these endeavours can be summed up in these two phrases: “Ah fi Miss Lou, mon!”, and “Mi nah let dung, Miss Lou”. I whole heartedly share these sentiments and continue to remain aware of the institutions of Jamaican excellence that was created by Miss Lou and others like her. An institution that drives Jamaican’s to the top of the world in human achievement at several areas of pursuit such as culture, entertainment, sports, academics, global politics and others. If these institutions are actively maintained, then I see no reason that we, as a nation and diaspora, would not realise the aspirations implicit in these pursuits.

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