gall and gumption

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Louise Bennett Coverley 1919-2006

Today a caller on Motty's show said, "She was good to all of we." And while you watch Jamaica tearing itself apart, you know that on one thing every Jamaican will agree -- that this incredible creative woman spread joy and love inexplicably and steadily and widely throughout her country over the course of her whole life.

She was like reality and not like reality, in the way that great poetry is. She told Anancy stories, the same Anancy stories that our maids and grandparents told us, but she told them somehow filling out the dramatic possibilities of such telling with this wonderful wonderful comic gift. She formalized something like the telling of Anancy stories -- it managed to be high art and, simultaneously, the same stories we had grown up on, she hadn't taken them out of the flow of normal life, but elevated normal life so you could see how grand it was, even in a little thing like that.

She had a little radio show that she did, called "Miss Lou's Views" in which she would read a commentary of her own composition, in patois. It was witty and animated and sharp, and along with her own views she would quote the views of a mysterious person who was simply referred to as "My Auntie Roachie," as in, "My Auntie Roachie say..." She had a children's TV program that played every Saturday morning, with round games, folklore, a little bit of acting and all sorts of things. She did all these things with such boundless energy. She sang, acted, wrote plays, a book of Jamaican dialect poetry, produced her own media programs, was a living archive of Jamaican culture and folklore, she was a cultural ambassador for the country and was one of the first who spoke for all. She did all this in a culture that doesn't really do much to help the creative artist, though it does value theater: that it does value theater even now owes a lot to what she brought to the theater. The effect she had on children was simply electrifying: she liked energy in children, and they adored her for it. When she appeared on the stage in the pantomime, in her tie-head and her old-time madras cotton dress -- which she just about singlehandedly made into the national folk costume -- the children in the audience went wild. By the time I was a child watching her at the theater and on TV, that costume was long gone, you didn't actually see people wearing that outfit, but it was familiar, it was us, it was part of our history, because Miss Lou helped us to understand that it was so. She raised consciousness of what it was to be Jamaican, of the unique history that manifested itself in the way we spoke, the way we thought and acted.

All this, and with this common sense, kindness and a sort of radiant generousity of spirit. I should think it would have been impossible to ever say no to her. I never heard a mean word spoken of her.


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