By Lincoln DePradine.
The late Dr Louise Bennett-Coverley, the internationally renowned Jamaican folklorist and poet, who also held Canadian citizenship, ought to be regarded as more than an icon, according to Jamaican-born poet and novelist Olive Senior.
She made the argument at an event last Tuesday at Founders College, York University. The panel discussion, titled “The Life and Legacy of Louise Bennett-Coverley’’, was hosted by the Jean Augustine, Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora at the university.
“We should not see Miss Lou simply as an icon, for that is no more than a picture, a surface representation of a revered person,’’ Senior told the audience.
“Miss Lou will always be revered but her life and work would be in vain if we do not go beyond the surface of laughter and joy, of the language she gave us, still available in her books and recordings and films and her memories, to find the wellspring of wisdom that lies so much beneath her; wisdom that we need now more than ever; wisdom that can unite us.’’
Senior was joined on the panel by fellow Jamaican nationals Honor Ford-Smith and Lillian Allen, who are both poets; university lecturer Clive Forrester; and artist and former Canadian Citizenship Court Judge Pamela Appelt.
The panel discussion coincided with celebrations in Jamaica in memory of Miss Lou, who would have been 100 years old on September 7.
Miss Lou, who lived the last decade of her life in Canada, taught folklore and drama at the University of the West Indies and wrote and performed her poems in Jamaican Patois.
She died July 27, 2006, at Scarborough Grace Hospital. Her body was repatriated to Jamaica for burial in the cultural icons’ section of the country’s National Heroes Park.
Miss Lou received numerous honours and awards in Jamaica and Canada for her work, including an honourary doctorate from York University.
Appelt, a close friend of Miss Lou, also lobbied and was able to have a “Miss Lou Room’’ opened at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto.
“We are using the room for multiple purposes,’’ Appelt said.
The Jamaican government now is renaming the Parish of St Andrew Gordon Town Square, where Miss Lou lived for many years and where there is a statue of her. It’s now called Miss Lou Square.
Tuesday’s discussion at York University generated exchanges among panelists and the audience on a range of issues, such as Patois as a language and on the status of Miss Lou and her contribution to Jamaica.
Allen, who read a poem called “Tribute to Miss Lou’’, described her as the “most significant and important individual to be produced by Jamaica’’.
The government of Jamaica is launching an online petition seeking the feedback of Jamaicans on whether Patois should be recognized as an official language, just as English is. It’s something that’s being supported by Ford-Smith and Forrester.
“Sign the petition,’’ urged Forrester, who taught a Jamaica Patois course at York University for 10 years. “It’s very important that we celebrate ourselves.’’
Some Jamaica also are lobbying the government to have Miss Lou declared a National Hero.
Senior suggested that Miss Lou should be considered not as “a hero of deeds but of words; words that are mightier than the sword’’.
Dr Carl James, a professor of education and the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora, said the discussion was exciting and enjoyable.
“Looking at the energy in the room, it’s very evident that people thoroughly enjoyed the evening,’’ James said.
“When it comes to language, when it comes to gender, when it comes to national origin, when it comes to culture, Miss Lou has something to say to all of us,’’ he added. “It’s always nice when community comes to the university to discuss what it means to be a Caribbean person living in Toronto, what it means to be a Jamaican and having to think about language. All these kinds of things were discussed this evening and it’s excellent.’’