Louise Bennett-Coverley’s cultural significance lies in her commitment to telling the stories of everyday Jamaicans in their own language.
legacy room for Miss Lou Harbourfront’s living tribute to a cultural icon
by February 12, 2009|
Recognition of Canadian authors and cultural luminaries comes in many forms. Some, like commemorative plaques and statues, honour their subjects in a lasting but static form. Others – like the Toronto parkettes named for poet Gwendolyn MacEwan and musician Glenn Gould – create spaces for reflection and, perhaps, contemplation of the artists’ work. Still others go one step further, not only breathing life into the memory of the person they honour, but also continuing his or her life’s work and extending their legacy.
Miss Lou’s Room at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre falls into the latter category. Opened in July 2007, on the first anniversary of her death, it’s a living tribute to Louise Bennett-Coverley – Jamaica’s first lady of poetry and storytelling, an internationally renowned lecturer, and an artist who spent the last decade of her storied life in her adopted home of Toronto.
Miss Lou’s Room – a re-shapeable three-room venue – functions primarily as a reading-and-activity space for children. But it also houses a permanent exhibit highlighting Miss Lou’s life and work that has proven to have tremendous resonance for adults and children alike.
Louise Bennett: life and work
Louise Bennett-Coverley was born in Kingston, Jamaica – then a British colony – in 1919. She demonstrated an early talent for writing poetry. At age 14, she wrote her first poem in patois – the Jamaican dialect Bennett herself described as “the language of the people.”
In the 1940s, Bennett-Coverley received a scholarship to London’s august Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). She remained in England after graduation, performing with repertory companies throughout the country. Returning to Jamaica, she taught drama to young people and adults, often through the island’s social welfare agencies, but also through the University of the West Indies.
Bennett-Coverley’s cultural significance lies in her commitment to telling the stories of everyday Jamaicans in their own language. She eschewed the class-driven repudiation of patois as an inferior dialect, and went on to become the language’s most passionate advocate. She lectured extensively on Jamaican culture, folklore and music in the U.S. and Great Britain. Earning the nickname “Miss Lou,” she became the unofficial Ambassador of Jamaican culture throughout the world. In so doing, she fostered great cultural pride among the Jamaican people, whether they lived on the island or abroad.
Louise Bennett became a recognizable voice on Jamaican radio and, later, a familiar face on Jamaican TV as well. Her poetry addressed broad societal issues, as well as smaller, personal-is-political stories. In what is perhaps her best-known poem – the deceptively fanciful Colonizin’ in Reverse – she envisions Jamaicans doing unto the British what the British had done unto them, but also examines the related issues of displacement and split identity. In her poem Show-Off Speech, she lampoons the linguistic airs adopted by those who leave rural Jamaica for the big city. And in Oman Driver Praises, she takes a sociopolitical view of the independent female bus driver.
In addition to publishing books of her poetry, Miss Lou released many recordings from the 1950s through the 1980s. Generations of Jamaican children grew up listening to her songs, poems and stories.
In 1954, Louise Bennett married Eric Coverley, a producer of Jamaican theatre. The couple remained together until his death in 2002. Louise Bennett-Coverley passed away in Toronto in 2006, at the age of 86.
Miss Lou received countless honours during her lifetime, including:
- the Order of Jamaica
- the Order of the British Empire
- Honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of the West Indies
- Honorary Doctor of Letters from York University, Toronto
- a Genie nomination for best original song (“You’re Going Home Now”), which appeared in the film Milk and Honey
Perhaps these words from Jamaican Frankie Campbell sum up the impact and significance of Louise Bennett-Coverly’s life and work best of all:
“As a Jamaican poet she was unique. As a performer she was peerless, and as a cultural researcher and educator she was tireless, innovative and pioneering. She was our queen of folklore, in the spoken and sung world, and her unmatched ability to summarise what was unique and humourous about Jamaica made us love her instinctively.”
Miss Lou’s Room: a living tribute
“One cannot forget the energy and ease she brought to the stage and the rapt attention children gave to her as they watched her weekly television programme Ring Ding ... She taught us that though we were small, we had a valuable contribution to make to the world.”
Miss Lou’s Room is a dynamic remembrance of the great Jamaican icon, whose influence is felt around the world, with a particular resonance in Toronto. Miss Lou herself once performed in the bright, airy space, which overlooks Lake Ontario. Vibrant, tropical colours and potted palms recall her Jamaican homeland and pique the senses of the children who come to the space for an afternoon storytelling or to make their own storybooks in the crafts areas outside the main room.
From the photos that adorn the walls, to the listening stations which offer sound of her voice, to the printed text of some of her songs and poems, Miss Lou’s is a strong presence in the space that bears her name. While during the week it’s mainly children who visit Miss Lou’s Room, as part of Harbourfront Centre’s School Visits Program, on weekends the venue is open for public viewing. The very personal nature of the comments in the visitors’ book makes clear the depth of the impact that Louise Bennett-Coverley had on so many now-grown children, many of whom address her directly:
“How proud we are of you, Miss Lou ... Thanks for your joy, dedication and creativity. Rest in Peace. Yours was a life well-spirited!”
“Miss Lou, I love you. Clearly to my heart, you'll always be a part of my life and my children’s children! I respect you for not denying your culture, I love your pride and joy. Speaking patois, you have made me proud, tears comes to my eye ... I love you so much, I miss you, But [you’re] a legend that will always live.”
“Your memory, stories, laughter and love will forever live on for generations to come.”
Louise Bennett-Coverly’s memory, stories, laughter and love will indeed live on – in part through the remembrances of those who knew her through her art, and in part through Miss Lou’s Room, a living tribute to a beloved cultural icon.
“Miss Lou’s legacy of storytelling and pioneering promotion of Jamaican culture worldwide will now live on forever through this permanent tribute. Black History Month is a time for all Ontarians to reflect on the accomplishments of African-Canadians throughout our history and into the present. Miss Lou’s Room is a fitting addition to this legacy.”
Miss Lou’s Room is available for rental, the space offers special rates for not-for-profit, performing-arts, cultural and community organizations.