Native Tongues: Celebrating Jamaica's Miss Lou and Her Insistence on Cultural Pride

by Bee Quammie

Historically, important Black women are determined. They’re risk-takers. Their art inspires culture and their culture inspires art. They defend their people, encouraging us to dream bigger, stand taller, and speak louder. They rewrite history, urging their community to embrace the authenticity within our birthrights, even when others say we shouldn’t be proud of who we are. They may do one or some or none of these things, but there is one woman who did them all: the Honorable Dr. Louise Bennett-Coverley, better known as Miss Lou.

Her life began in Kingston, Jamaica in 1919. And Toronto, Canada was where it ended in 2006. Her 86 years on this earth were marked by notable achievements like being the first Black student to attend England’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and being the inspiring force behind Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O” song, which he styled after Miss Lou’s recording of “Day Dah Light.” An award-winning Jamaican folklorist, writer, and educator, Miss Lou was many things to many people, yet one could argue that her greatest impact was in her ovation of Jamaican patois, or Jamaican Creole.

“Creole” is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a mother tongue formed from the contact of a European language (especially English, French, Spanish, or Portuguese) with local languages (especially African languages spoken by slaves in the West Indies).” The Collins Dictionary describes it as “a language that has its origin in extended contact between two language communities, one of which is generally European. It incorporates features from each and constitutes the mother tongue of a community.” The community of West African slaves who were forced into servitude in Jamaica created this mother tongue from the languages of their colonizing masters and those of the homes they left behind. Speaking patois was an act of survival, an act of solidarity, and an act of rebellion—and patois itself has grown and morphed from those days until now.

“Miss Lou made Jamaican Creole valid,” states Marlene Gaynair, a doctoral student at Rutgers University studying Black Atlantic history. Miss Lou’s life spanned the days of Jamaica’s staunch British allegiance through its independence in 1962, and from her time as a Kingston girl to her time as a Jamaican in Britain, in Canada, and beyond. Her work reflected those experiences. In a climate that was rife with the effects of colonialism alongside bubbling Black pride, Jamaica tried to assert its identity through the perception of social conservatism. The country that has more churches per square mile than any other country in the world cloaked itself in respectability imposed upon it via colonialism. Patois, the language of the community, was cemented as something undesirable, improper, and “broken.” It is because of these things that Miss Lou’s work was so radical, and so necessary.

In her 1944 poem “Bans O’Killing,” Miss Lou speaks to a figure intent on “killing” the dialect of Jamaican patois, and illuminates the fact that so-called “proper English” consists of many dialects itself. Invalidating Jamaican patois while celebrating Cockney slang or Irish brogue was simply a way of centering the superiority of whiteness, and Miss Lou did not shy away from making her audience confront those beliefs. “Formerly colonized spaces are automatically seen as backwards or primitive or regressive. But Jamaicans like Miss Lou were going back into Jamaica's history to find something worth celebrating or being proud of,” says Gaynair.

Miss Lou’s work explicitly focused on instilling pride in Jamaican culture, folklore, and language. Her method of writing, speaking, teaching, and performing in patois was intentional and unapologetic. In the face of her critics she pressed on, becoming one of the Caribbean’s strongest advocates for the rejection of colonial thinking and investment in cultural pride. Miss Lou’s influence is in the background of conversations defending Rihanna while music critics call her dancehall-tinged single “Work” gibberish. Her upliftment of Afro-Jamaican patois and culture is reflected similarly in discussions of the nuances of AAVE and Black American culture, linking with the literary expressions of noted authors like Zora Neale Hurston. Her presence inspired and continues to inspire others to embrace the essence of who they are, motivating us to “walk good,” as she often said as a farewell.

Miss Lou described her motivations by saying:
Some thought Jamaican-English was vulgar, out-of-order language. It came out of the African heritage and at that time anything African was bad: hair, colour, skin, language, music. But I thought it was fascinating. Everything had a rhythm. It was a creation of the people. One reason I persisted in writing in dialect in spite of the opposition was because nobody else was doing so, and there was such a rich material in dialect that I felt I wanted to put on paper some of the wonderful things that people say in dialect. You could never say 'look here' as vividly as 'kuyah.'
Richness. Rhythm. Creation. Uniqueness. Strength. These are pieces of what makes Blackness great, and parts of what made Miss Lou tell us to be proud of “fi wi language.”

Bee Quammie is a Toronto-based health care professional, writer, and founder of ‘83 To Infinity and The Brown Suga Mama. Recognized by Black Enterprise & the Black Canadians Awards for her digital work, Bee aims to live '83 To Infinity's motto: "It's never too late to learn something new, do something new, or be someone new." Follow her on Twitter at @beequammie.

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