By Alicia Sealey
As a storyteller and media broadcaster, Jamaican-born Louise Bennett‑Coverley (1919-2006) – affectionately known as ‘Miss Lou’ – paved the way for many of her fellow Caribbean word-smiths in her day by showing that speaking in one’s local language is valuable and acceptable.
For that conviction alone, I like she! That was a ballsy thing for a woman to do back then and Miss Lou did that selflessly, on behalf of the Caribbean culture … walking brave into the future.
I had the pleasure of interviewing her in her home in Toronto. I have to admit that it was not lost on me that I was in the presence of a living legend. I was nervous. Noticing this, she did everything she could to put me at ease. Her spirit was so generous which echoed her mantra of “Walk good, and good duppy walk with you” (duppy, meaning a heavenly spirit).
Her “good duppy” spirit is everywhere in her career, starting with her first foray up against the BBC.
In 1945, Miss Lou went to London on a British Council Scholarship to study at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. During her first Christmas there, she was selected as one of the foreign students to send greetings back home, live, on the BBC World Service. With theatrical finesse, she did so in Jamaican patois!
Her presentation was a hit with the audience in attendance, and internationally, including with the managing director of the then BBC General Overseas Division, Grenfell Williams.
As fate would have it, he had always wanted to do a Caribbean‑based show and, after hearing Louise’s unique style and winning rapport, he knew he had found its host. So, at the tender age of 25, Miss Lou was offered a radio contract with the BBC and was on her way to becoming an international celebrity.
Her broadcast career included Caribbean Carnival (BBC Radio, 1945‑46); West Indian Guest Night (BBC Radio, 1950‑53) and many years later, Black on Black (BBC TV, 1983).
However, for all her international assignments ‑ and there were many ‑ she never forgot her roots and made time for Jamaican projects as well. Miss Lou’s View aired on Radio Jamaica (1965‑74), followed by Smile Jamaica on Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) Radio (1974‑82).
Now Miss Lou’s stock in trade was her storytelling, spoken in Jamaican patois, punctuated often by her infectious laughter.
She is credited with single‑handedly teaching generations of children (and adults) about the characters of Jamaican and, indeed, Caribbean folklore and about “mento” ‑ the accompanying music to the folklore which, according to her, is THE roots of todays’ reggae music. Jamaican mento even has dance movements unique to it called the “yanga,” which she said still survives in the “weak‑kneed” stance so prevalent in Jamaican dancing.
Miss Lou hosted her ground‑breaking original children’s TV show Ring Ding which aired live on JBC TV every Saturday morning from 1970‑82. It started as a 15‑minute introduction to Sesame Street in 1970. However, her show quickly became more popular than the U.S. import with local audiences.
Subsequently, in its first year the format was expanded twice, first to a half‑hour format and then into an hour‑long show. As one past performer reflected, “You had your mother, and then you had Miss Lou. And sometimes the two were interchangeable.”
Miss Lou’s achievements didn’t go unnoticed by local and international politicians and academia. Among her many awards were the Order of Jamaica in 1974 and designation as an official Cultural Ambassador at Large by the government of Jamaica in 1989. And from her many international and academic acknowledgements, she was conferred twice with a doctor of letters (honoris causa), one from the University of the West Indies in1983 and one from Toronto’s York University in 1998.
She and her husband immigrated to Toronto in 1987. When asked if Canada affected her work, she said, “There were and are many Jamaicans living here, so we both felt quite at home here.”
Miss Lou was laid to rest beside her beloved husband, fellow Jamaican celebrity Eric ‘Chalk Talk’ Coverley (1911-2002), in Jamaica’s National Heroes Park.
On the day of Miss Lou’s nationally televised funeral in Jamaica on Aug. 9, 2006, the country emotionally stopped and took pause.
The local heavens cried tears of rain that day. Yet the streets remained lined with her fans for her funeral procession from the church to the cemetery. Even I – a Trini in Toronto – cried that day.
Walk good, Miss Lou. Continue to rest in peace.