On September 7, 1919, Louis Bennett Coverley was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Louise Simone Bennett-Coverley, known as Miss Lou, OM, OJ, MBE, was a Jamaican folklorist, poet, writer, activist, and educator. She was committed to preserving the language of Jamaican patois, or creole, performing songs, stories and poetry readings in patois. Miss Lou was called a “Living Language” and a “cultural icon” by Jamaicans.
Bennett was the only child of Augustus Cornelius Bennett, who owned a bakery in Spanish Town, and Kerene Robinson, who worked as a dressmaker. Her father died in 1926, and she was raised mainly by her mother. She wrote her first patois poem at the age of 14. She attended Ebenezer and Calabar and then went to St. Simon’s College and Excelsior College in Kingston. She enrolled at Friends College in Highgate, St. Mary, in 1943, where she studied Jamaican folklore. Also in 1943, her poetry was first published in the Sunday Gleaner newspaper. In 1945, she was the first black student to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, receiving a scholarship from the British Council.
After graduation, she toured with several repertory companies and reviews throughout England and hosted two radio programs for the BBC: Caribbean Carnival from 1945 to 1946 and West Indian Night in 1950.
Upon returning to Jamaica, Bennett worked for the Jamaica Social Welfare Commission from 1955 to 1959, and taught folklore and drama at the University of the West Indies. She produced Miss Lou’s Views from 1965 to 1982, a series of radio monologues. In 1970, she co-hosted a children’s program on television called Ring Ding, which was based on her idea that children should learn about their heritage: “de pickney-dem learn de sinting dat belong to dem.” Bennett appeared in several movies, including Calypso in 1958 and Club Paradise in 1986. She also lectured on Jamaica’s folklore and music in the United States and promoted Jamaican heritage and culture in countries around the world.
In 1954, she married Eric Winston Coverley and had a stepson and several adopted children.
Bennett-Coverley lived in Toronto, Canada, during the last ten years of her life and was held in high esteem by the expatriate West Indian community in Canada. She also had a large following in the general Canadian population. She was described as Jamaica’s top comedian and the “only poet who has really hit the truth” about Jamaican society through its own language. She was highly influential, using her work to raise the language of Jamaican folk to an art form.
As an author, Bennett wrote books and poetry in Jamaican Patois, which helped in its recognition as a “nation language” in its own right. She has been cited as an influence on many other writers, including Mutabaruka, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Yasus Afari. Similarly, Bennett released several recordings of traditional Jamaica folk music. She is credited with giving singer Harry Belafonte the basis for his 1956 hit The Banana Boat Song, telling him about the Jamaican folk song “Hill and Gully Rider.”
During her lifetime, Bennet-Coverley received numerous awards and honors, including the M.B.E., the Norman Manley Award for Excellence (in the field of Arts), the Order of Jamaica (1974). the Institute of Jamaica’s Musgrave Silver and Gold Medals for distinguished eminence in the field of Arts and Culture, the Gabriela Mistral
Commemorative Award from the Chilean government (1996), Hon. D. Litt from the University of West Indies (1983) and York University (1998), and the Jamaican Order of Merit (2001). She was appointed Cultural Ambassador at Large by the Jamaican government in 1990. And the National Black Arts Festival’s Living Legend Award in 1992. Her composition “You’re going home now” was nominated by the Academy of Canadian Cinema and, Television for the best original song in the movie “Milk and Honey” in 1988.
Bennett-Coverley died on July 26, 2006, at Scarborough Grace Hospital in Toronto. She and her husband, who died in 2002, were interred together in Kingston, Jamaica on August 9, 2006.
It’s Miss Lou Day on Jamaicans.com. We have a whole section on our website site dedicated to Miss Lou. It includes a photo gallery, an interview, tributes and more. Please free to post your comments on how “Miss Lou” has impacted you and also if you think she should be a Jamaican national hero.