I wrote this column in August 2006, as Jamaica mourned the passing of our beloved Louise Bennett.
Miss Lou made us 'smaddy'
by Jean Lowrie-Chin
When we left the Pantomime, "Queenie's Daughter" that night in the sixties, we took Miss Lou home with us. She was captured in a bright green vinyl record, and as she spun on the turntable we jigged on the "stage" of our living room:
"Queenie tu'n queen – ah-hah! Yu see what ah mean – Queenie tu'n Queen!"
Every Monday night she and Ranny Williams took centre stage with the "Lou & Ranny Show" in thousands of Jamaican homes. To her imperious, "Pass mi flatboa'd!", Ranny would give out a pitiful "Woi-oy!"
The Honourable Louise Bennett Coverley introduced us to her know-it-all 'Aunty Roachie', whose radio commentaries influenced public opinion as much as our more serious talk-show hosts. And since there was no medium that she could not master, she moved smoothly to television to share our folklore with Jamaican children on "Ring Ding".
Writer Sandy McIntosh remembers Miss Lou telling her in an interview, "I refused to believe that Jamaican patois was 'bad English.' Most of the good people I knew as a child spoke patois, so how could I believe there was anything bad about it!"
Indeed, our Jamaican dialect is as economical as it is musical. How many sentences would you have to use to convey the meaning of "Eh-eh!", "cooyah" or "carry go bring come." In re-reading Miss Lou's collection of poems, "Jamaica Labrish", we are entranced by the vibrancy of our language.
Louise Bennett easily spoke the Queen's English, but she was also the Queen of our beautiful dialect. She distilled six decades of national ferment into a heady, witty narrative of Jamaica's struggle for self-determination.
Here is a sampler of Jamaica's milestones incomparably recounted by the people's historian.
Women's Federation call for the registration of fathers' names on birth certificates:
Lawd a massi, me feel happy!
For me glad fe see at las'
Ooman dah-mek up dem mine fe
Serve back man dem sour sauce!
The end of World War II:
Den, baps we prayer answer, an
Baps, Hitla get him fall –
An wat did sweet him wicked heart
Tun eena bittagall.
Hard times (our nurses, police and teachers can relate to this):
One poun gawn awn pon we pay, an
We noh feel noh merriment,
For ten poun gawn on pon we food
An ten poun pon we rent!
There were poems on the introduction of Universal Adult Suffrage:
Everybody got a vote, an
Every vote gwine swell de score;
Missa Issa, Missa Hanna,
An de man wat sweep de store.
And on the correct way to vote after there were attempts to mislead the public:
Yu doan haffe cross out nutten
Nor haffe draw no line
Jus mark a X side o' de name
A who deh pon yuh mine
She reflected on our rejection of Federation:
Beg yuh pardon Federation
Fe de sudden separation
If we sufferin' survive
We acquaintance might revive
And wryly welcomed our Independence:
Independance wid a vengeance!
Independance raisin' cain!
Jamaica start grow beard, ah hope
We chin can stan' de strain!
She chuckles at the 'shade' consciousness of the forties:
Miss Jane jus hear from 'Merica,
Her daughter proudly write
Fe sey she fail her exam, but
She passin' dere fe wite!
She comes to the stout defence of her beloved dialect:
Ef yu kean sing "Linstead Market"
An "Wata come a me y'eye",
Yuh wi haffe tap sing "Auld lang syne"
An "Comin thru de rye".
Having moved to Canada some years ago so that her late husband, Eric "Chalktalk" Coverley could avail himself of specialised medical care, Miss Lou had an ever widening circle of fans, including my brother-in-law Leslie Chin, a talented musician. He had enjoyable visits with her, playing his guitar while they sang her old favourites. Miss Lou shared the same doctor with him and he could attest to her good humour even in her declining years. "She told me she went for an anti-flu shot, but despite that, she caught a cold. She said they didn't give her 'anti-flu' but 'flu Auntie'!" recalls Les.
Miss Lou's brilliant use of our language made us all 'smaddy' – united in laughter, delighted with this awesome daughter, the essence of Jamaican excellence. In her memory, let's recapture the spirit of our Independence as she saw it:
"Teet and tongue was all united,
heart and soul was hans and glove
Fenky-fenky voice gain vigour pon
"Jamaica land we love'."
Walk good, Miss Lou, we'll be 'tallawah' for you!
Observer column for MON 31 Jul 2006