Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Louise Bennett, 1919-2006

Louise Bennett has died. This great folklorist, singer, actress and poet was, as obituaries from Kingston, Jamaica, New York, and London attest, an inspiration to Bob Marley, Harry Belafonte, and many, many more: an icon of Jamaican culture.

I first heard of her from Jahan Ramazani’s book, The Hybrid Muse--a really readable and smart effort to bring postcolonial criticism to poetry (there are chapters on Yeats, Walcott, Bennett, and others). Jahan’s book made me interested enough to take a chance and include her in a class. It was tough to get ahold of her work, mostly out of print, but I got a copy of Jamaican Labrish (1966) and photocopied bits for my students.

If you want to read poems from the Windrush generation—that first group of emigrants to England after WWII—Bennett is your woman.
What a joyful news, Miss Mattie
Ah feel like me heart gwine burs’
Jamaica people colonizin’
Englan’ in reverse
By de hundred, by de tousan
From country and from town
By de shipload, by de planeload
Jamaica is Englan’ boun

As you can see here, she also made a point of celebrating Jamaican English—something that gave Marley and Belafonte the courage and model to follow suit. She deserves to be much better known outside Jamaica.

1 comment:

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Anne,
Yes, Miss Lou was a great inspiration to many of us because she chose--and this took a great deal of courage--to write in Jamaican.
There are people who look down on her for that and people who still feel uncomfortable about Jamaican. But in many ways, Miss Lou was our Chaucer and she made a bright path for us to follow.