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On taking Louise Bennett very seriously, indeed

Lance Neita

Sunday, May 13, 2018

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I first saw Louise Bennett at my primary school (it was known as elementary school in those days) when she made repeated visits on behalf of the Jamaica Welfare and the Education Department.

Reference to Miss Lou went back much further than her appearance at our school, as we had been hearing her on radio with Maas Ran (Ranny Williams), and her dialect poetry had been published in the newspapers since 1943. When she began writing and reading her poetry in patois — considered then and even now the language of poor people and the largely uneducated — she was regarded by the upper echelon and the more literate as an embarrassment. After all, such was thought to be socially unacceptable, yet not only did Louise speak the dialect, she made fun of the British accent and parlance, which was supposed to be the epitome of social mobilisation.

We were very excited when she came to our school. My father, like headmasters of his time, was teaching us the respectable English songs, Mid Pleasures and Palaces, Sweet Afton, and others which I believe would have been part of the curriculum set for Jamaican government schools in those days.

We had singing classes then, and the entire school, from A to sixth standard, belted out these 'respectable' songs every Thursday afternoon. Never mind the difficulties with the pronounciation; we took off the 'hs' when it suited us and added the 'ss 'where they never should have gone. We took the English songs and were making them our own.

Now, Sweet Afton was a restful gentle poem written by Robert Burns, who verse after verse kept warning off the river not to wake his Mary, who was sleeping peacefully on the bank. It was to be sung almost as a lullaby, but the river must have been in spate, because by the time we got to the last verse we were all roaring in unison and at the top of 300 young voices telling the river to flow gently and not to disturb sweet Mary's dream.

Well, Miss Lou didn't wake Miss Mary when she came calling, but what a difference we heard when this lady spoke to us in our language and helped us to recognise it as a language in its own right. It was around that time, too, as she visited and sang and lectured on behalf of the Jamaica Welfare, that we started singing Jamaica folk songs such as Linstead Market, Judy drown 'n ded, and Hill and Gully, as my father deftly and gladly made the transition from Sweet Afton in the music books to Di Ribber Ben Come Down and other sweet folk songs.

In those days we had many famous visitors at school, and my father was proud to introduce individuals who we, hitherto, knew only as voices on the radio, or from photographs in the newspaper.

I remember George Headley, and later Alfred Valentine, spending hours at the big teacher's table talking cricket, the Frats Quintet pausing for refreshments before concert time at the local church, Les Laing, 4 x 400 yards gold medallist of the Jamaica 1952 relay team Herb McKenley, Jamaica Agricultural Society presidents Rudolph Burke and Percy Broderick, who became familiar faces, and Eddie “Newsy Wapps” Burke, Stella Gregory, and Tom Girvan, pioneers of the Jamaica Social Welfare Movement of the 1950s.

At secondary school, Munro College, our Jamaican culture was swallowed up by the British public school system of a Munro of the 1950s largely staffed by English teachers, the Anglican hymn book, and dressing in the school blazer for compulsory evening wear. All that until Mervyn Morris introduced his sixth formers to the joy and pride of reading Louise Bennett. I remember him delivering her Dry-Foot Bwoy poem with such perfect dialect diction that the class, emerging from a boring British history session, found Miss Lou too hard to resist and were asking for more, which must have kind of shocked the starch and the daylights out of Morris's Oxford and Cambridge colleagues in the staffroom.

Louise Bennett's iconic Colonisation in Reverse is one poem that turned around the perception that Jamaicans were migrating to England on the Empire Windrush as workers and serfs, when in fact we were going there to colonise England in reverse.

The MV Empire Windrush arrived in England on June 22, 1948, bringing workers from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and other island colonies, as a response to post-war labour shortages in the United Kingdom. It carried 492 passengers and many of them became manual workers, drivers, nurses, and cleaners. But many broke new ground and went on to represent England as cricketers, footballers, political leaders, business leaders, bankers, educators, making invaluable contributions to the development of the so-called 'Mother Country'.

Generations later, the descendants of the Windrush arrivals, who were welcomed as nation-builders, are now being treated with scant disdain, with rule and immigration changes meaning thousands who arrived from the Caribbean with their parents in 1948 would be facing deportation.

It took the son of a Jamaican migrant, Patrick Vernon, to whip up a windstorm and a petition that called on the Government to grant an amnesty to anyone who had arrived in the UK as a minor between 1948 and 1971.

Prime Minister Theresa May was caught up in the growing anger over this treatment of migrants and her Home Secretary Amber Rudd had to issue an apology. May also apologised to Caribbean leaders who were attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting last month, and had a meeting with Andrew Holness, Jamaica's prime minister, at which time, we are told, she assured him that looking ahead there would be great opportunities to enhance and rebuild any broken relationships with the Caribbean countries.

So, see here, the Jamaican spirit has prevailed, the tide that washed the Windrush up by the Tilbury Docks in 1948 has turned once again, and those Windrush colonisers are back with a gleam in their eye — a hereditary place in the court of St James, an apology from the State, and Miss Lou's Colonisation in Reverse come to pass.

I quote at length from that poem as a staunch reminder not of when I first met Louise Bennett, but also as an amusing antidote for the upset to the Jamaican psyche and pride that was troubled last month, as 70 years after the Windrush movement we have again stormed the Tilbury docks, and we have to wonder one more time: “How dem goin' to stem another round of colonisation in reverse?”

“What a joyful news, Miss Mattie?

A feel like mi heart going burs',

Jamaica people colonising Englan' in reverse.

By di hundred, by the tousan, from country an' from town,

by di shipload, by di plane load, Jamaica is Englan' boun'.

Oonu see how life is funny, oonu see di turnabout,

Jamaica live fi box bred out a English people mout'.

Wat a devilment a Englan', dem face war an' brave di worse,

But we wonder how dem gwine stem colonisation in reverse.”

Lance Neita is a writer and public relations consultant. Send comments to the Observer or lanceneita@hotmail.com.

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