Louise Bennett, Queen of Jamaican Culture

Born in Kingston, Jamaica on 7 September 1919, Louise (Simone) Bennett was the daughter of Kerene (née Robinson, a seamstress) and Cornelius Augustus Bennett (a baker in Spanish Town). Her father died when she was 7 years old. She attended Calabar elementary school, St. Simon’s College (1933-6), and Excelsior High School (1936-8). In the late 1930s, she completed a course in journalism. She also studied social work in 1943 at Friends’ College in Highgate, St. Mary. Also in 1943, her poems were first broadcast on radio ZQI in Jamaica and appeared in the Sunday Gleaner.

In 1945 Bennett was awarded a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in England. She had her own radio program, "Caribbean Carnival," on the BBC. Returning to Jamaica in 1947, she taught at Excelsior, but in 1950, she was back in England where she worked for the BBC on "West Indian Guest Night" and with various repertory companies. In 1953 she moved to New York and co-directed "Day in Jamaica", a folk musical at the St. Martin’s Little Theatre in Harlem. On 30 May 1954, she married Eric Winston Coverley (1911-2002), impresario, actor, radio personality, and calligrapher. She had first met him in 1938 at a Christmas concert where she made her professional debut.

The Coverleys moved back to Jamaica in 1955. Until 1959, Bennett was the Drama Officer with the Jamaica Social Welfare Commission. Continuing her studies of Jamaican folklore, she wrote poetry and stories often in Creole, had a weekly column in the Gleaner, pioneered the Jamaican annual Pantomimes (until 1971), lectured at the University of West Indies, appeared on radio ("Lou and Ranny Show," began 1959; "Laugh with Louise" and "Miss Lou’s Views," 1965-74; and "Smile Jamaica," 1974-82)  and then on television ("Ring Ding," a children’s show, 1970-82). On radio she created the character of Aunty Roachy. In 1986 she played the role of Portia in the comedy film Club Paradise. She was the author of many books. The first of these - Jamaican Dialect Verses, and Jamaican Humour in Dialect and Anancy Stories and Poems in Dialect - appeared in 1942-4. Her most notable book is entitled Jamaica Labrish (1966). She also recorded many albums, such as Jamaican Folk Songs (1954) and Children’s Jamaican Songs & Games (1957). The inspiration of Bennett’s Anancy stories stems from Jamaican folk stories and lullabies of the nineteenth century. Anancy  is a "lovable rascal," a West African spider god who speaks with a lisp and conventionally ends a story with the line: "Jack Mandora me nuh choose none" ("Jack Mandora, keeper of heaven’s gate, takes no responsibility for the story he has told").

During her life Bennett was the recipient of many awards and honours: MBE (1960), the Silver and Gold Musgrave Medals (1965, 1978), the Norman Manley Award for Excellence in the Arts (1972), the Order of Jamaica (1974),  the National Black Arts Festival’s Living Legend Award (1992), 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). In 1990 she was appointed Cultural Ambassador at Large by the Jamaican government. Bennett died on 26 July 2006 at the Scarborough Grace Hospital in Toronto. Although she and her husband had moved to Canada in 1987, she never forgot her homeland. Their bodies were interred together in Kingston, Jamaica on 9 August 2006. At Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, Miss Lou’s Room (a reading and activity space for children) was opened to the public in July 2007 on the first anniversary of her death. For the last four years on an annual basis in February at the beginning of Black History Month, there has been a reading festival in Bennett’s name held at the South Regional Broward College Library in Pembroke Pines, Florida.

Please see the Louise Bennett finding aid for the contents of her archives at the William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections.

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