Saluting Miss Lou
New anthology pays tribute to cultural iconSunday, January 16, 2022
BY RICHARD JOHNSON
In 2019, gender specialist and cultural activist Dr Opal Palmer Adisa wanted to initiate a most tangible and long-lasting activity to observe the centenary of the birth of renowned folklorist, writer, poet and social activist Louise Bennett Coverley, popularly known as Miss Lou.
For Palmer Adisa, Miss Lou's work goes far beyond her collection of poetry, but delves deep into the heart and soul of Jamaica and Jamaicans to expose and comprehend various aspects of the society.
“Miss Lou was a warrior with her pen and she used words and literature to breakdown complex situations and ideas in the Jamaican society to our benefit. I was always intrigued by her and in 1988 when I was doing research for my doctoral dissertation I came back to Jamaica to interview Miss Lou. The idea was to write a biography but that never materialised, so when her centenary came about I wanted to do something. A number of activities were staged and I realised an anthology with persons from various quarters, all the areas that Miss Lou touched was most appropriate.”
Come this week 100+ Voices for Miss Lou, edited by Palmer Adisa, is scheduled to become available which was published by UWI Press. Palmer Adisa noted that initially she was looking at a 225-page publication but based on the response the work is now 435 pages essays, poetry and commentary from 107 contributors, which was arrived at from the 170 submissions received.
100+ Voices for Miss Lou is broken down into four sections — One Big Family, Reaffirming Our Culture, Aunty Roachy Seh and Colonisation in Reverse. Each section explores a particular area Miss Lou's work which includes the theatre and creative arts, Jamaican nation language, social stratification and Jamaican colonial and post-colonial society.
In 'One Big Family' the sections opens with Love Letta by Miss Lou and the contributors include her son Fabian Coverley, actress and poet Joan Andrea Hutchinson; academic and Poet Laureate Mervyn Morris, who was one of the first to study the work of Miss Lou; theatre practitioners Easton Lee, Fae Ellington, Barbara Gloudon, Pauline Stone Myrie, Oliver Samuels, and Faith D'Aguilar. Ethnomusicologist Marjorie Whylie; percussionist Bongo Herman and dub poet Mutabaruka also pay tribute in this section. Trinidadian storyteller Paul Keens Douglas also pays homage to Miss Lou and highlights the influence she had on his work.
In the second section 'Reaffirming the Culture', Palmer Adisa raises the curtain with the popular Nuh Likkle Twang. The contributors in this section are storyteller Amina Blackwood Meek; Member of Parliament Juliet Holness; writer and director Michael Holgate, actress and writer Jean Small, arts critic Margaret Bernal and writers Fabian Thomas and Kei Miller and poet Tommy Ricketts.
'Aunty Roachy Seh', based on the popular character in Miss Lou's work, headlines the third section which explores her social activism. Dutty Tough by Miss Lou prefaces the section which sees contributions from a number of persons including likes of poets Cherry Natural and Malachai Smith; writers Pamela Mordecai, Raul Davis and Kwame Dawes, as well as academic and cultural commentator Professor Donna Hope.
100+ Voices for Miss Lou concludes with the section titled 'Engaging in a Quarrel with History' and is led by Colonization in Reverse Miss Lou's look at the mass migration of Jamaicans to England following World War II. In this section the contributors include Professor Carolyn Cooper, Dr Hubert Devonish, Carolyn Allen, the library at The University of the West Indies, Mona and the National Library of Jamaica.
“It has been a labour of love. The end result is more that I anticipated and I am proud of it. What is outstanding is the variety of voices which have come together to pay tribute this formidable Jamaican woman. I hope readers will walk away with the realisation that Miss Lou was a serious scholar, subversive which challenged the status quo and master strategist. She was able to organise the pieces in such a way, in a language understood by many, that she could get the message across. This was not just by accident. She used her talent, sense of humour and dismissive presence to the benefit of the areas she championed,” said Palmer Adisa.
In recent weeks, following the naming of international pop star Rihanna as a National Hero in her native Barbados, there have been calls for Miss Lou to be named a national hero and Palmer Adisa firmly agrees.
“Definitely, unequivocally. No one else has spread Jamaican culture across the work in so many ways like Miss Lou. Bob Marley is up there too but he only did it music. Miss Lou did it in poetry, drama, research.. so if her body of work doesn't qualify for national hero, I don't know what does,” Palmer Adisa added.