Miss Lou Passing Away
A giant has made her transition.
The Hon. Louise Bennett Coverly died earlier this week, and her life was briefly described in one of the many article saluting her life including this one entitled: The Life and Times of Louise Bennett from the Gleaner.
The following passage caught my attention:
When Louise Bennett began writing and reciting her dialect poems in the late 1930's and early 1940's she was regarded as an embarrassment. Speaking dialect was felt to be socially unacceptable and only the poor and illiterate spoke patois. The British (Oxford) accent was regarded as the epitome of cultured speech.
At Excelsior High School even some of the teachers did not see the value of Louise Bennett's poetry. But she was encouraged by persons such as W.A. Powell, Hugh Sherlock and the late Astley Clarke. She remained undaunted by the sometimes hostile attitude toward dialect. She insisted on presenting dialect poetry which reflected the lifestyle, philosophy and sense of humour of the Jamaican people.Now, I have no idea what it took for her to persevere through what must have been some impossibly hard times. As a pioneer in the use of the Jamaican dialect, she gave life and legitimacy to the experience of the everyday Jamaican, and in fact to the experience of the everyday Caribbean person.
But that was done while working against the grain of the established British orthodoxy of the time. Jamaica was still a colony at the time, and would only achieve limited self-governance in 1944.
This past week, I had to draft a report that brought an end to a project I was working on that included some very strong feelings by members of staff.
I found myself drifting to the actual language that they used -- Jamaican patois -- simply because it was more accurate, but also because it was more expressive of their true feelings. In communicating feelings as well as words, nothing beats Jamaican patois (or that of any other island.)
In Haiti, the local dialect has an official name and is recognized as an official language. Not so our Jamaican patois which the majority of our citizens speak exclusively, and just about everyone understands.
The mark of an educated person is still measured by the quality of the English they speak. Someone who has mastered patois, with all its dynamism and subtle use of tones and invented words, is not recognized for their mastery, intelligence and ability to communicate.
This, years after Louise Bennett broke though and pioneered a new genre of poetry, writing and theater that allows Jamaicans to express themselves with words and sounds that are much closer to the expression of our souls than the Queen could ever come.
My wife, after a year, is only starting to come to grips with this strange new language (which to her sounds as foreign as Portuguese.) Nevertheless, she has quickly picked up that patois is the language to use when expressing the deepest feelings, regardless of what they might be.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger stated that "Language is the House of Being." If so, then patois could be said to be the House of Being... Jamaican.