The last national hero was chosen over 20 years ago. A new addition is long overdue, and what better time to debate the question than black history month? Many say former Prime Minister Michael Manley should be the next official hero, while others argue for reggae legend Bob Marley. Both made great contributions to their country and neither would be a bad choice. But there is someone with far greater claims than either - the person who almost single-handedly gave Jamaicans pride in their cultural heritage and is at the same time the most universally loved personality this nation has produced – Louise “Miss Lou” Bennett.


For over 50 years as poet, broadcaster, actress, television personality and stage performer she tirelessly championed Jamaican folk customs. Yet Miss Lou was more than a brilliant entertainer, she is in all likelihood the greatest poet this country has produced. Certainly she is the only Jamaican poet whose works are continuously in print and she still outsells all the others put together.


But Miss Lou’s impact on the national psyche is perhaps even more important than her artistic legacy. It was her insistence on the inherent worth of Jamaican expression that established in the populace a respect for their language and tradition - the belief that ‘patwah’ wasn’t merely corrupted English but a creation of immense vitality, creativity and humour. As she put it:


‘Some thought Jamaican-English was vulgar, out-of-order language. It came out of the African heritage and at that time anything African was bad: hair, colour, skin, language, music. But I thought it was fascinating. Everything had a rhythm. It was a creation of the people. One reason I persisted in writing in dialect in spite of the opposition was because nobody else was doing so and there was such a rich material in dialect that I felt I wanted to put on paper some of the wonderful things that people say in dialect. You could never say “look here” as vividly as “kuyah”.


 In her 1944 poem 'Bans O' Killing' she laughed at the snobbery which denigrated all common Jamaican speech


 ...Meck me get it straight Mass Charlie

   For me no quite undastan,

   Yuh gwine kill all English dialect

   Or jus Jamaica one?


   Ef yuh dah-equal up wid English

   Language, den wha meck

   Yuh gwine go feel inferior, wen

   It come to dialect?


  Ef yuh kean sing 'Linstead Market'

  An 'Wata come a me y'eye',

  Yuh wi haffi tap sing 'Auld lang syne'

  An 'Comin thru de rye'


  Dah language weh yuh proud o'

  Weh yuh honour and respeck

  Po' Mass Carlie! Yuh noh know sey

  Dat it spring from dialect!


Her dialect performances were the direct precursors of deejay music and dub poetry. Tony Rebel, who uses Jamaican dialect as effectively as anyone in reggae, acknowledges Miss Lou as his greatest influence. Luciano puts it this way


‘She has worked forward into my consciousness that I can be proud of my culture and proud of myself’.


No single individual has been more responsible for the Jamaican nation’s emancipation from colonial mental slavery. In Rex Nettleford words


'…she has carved designs out of the shapeless and unruly substance that is the Jamaican dialect - the language which most of the Jamaican people speak most of the time - and raised the sing-song patter of the hills and towns to an art acceptable to and appreciated by people from all classes...'


The concept of a living national hero might seem unusual. But why should persons have to pass on before we honour them? Louise Bennett epitomizes the phrase ‘living legend’ and naming her the first living national hero would be an act of universal popularity. Not even the crankiest curmudgeons would quibble.


To object that she is not well known outside Jamaica is nonsense. Every Jamaican is fully aware of what she has done for us as a people. Those who did become more famous abroad would never have gotten where they did without Miss Lou’s contributions. All who came after her reached their heights by standing on the shoulders of a giant.


Moreover only one of our national ‘heroes’ is a woman, the semi-mythical Nanny. Considering that women have done at least as much as men to build this country, this is ridiculous. Miss Lou’s official acclamation would go a long way to redress this imbalance.


Surely one of the originating impulses behind the concept of national heroes was to unite the Jamaican people. And where else can so universally beloved a figure be found? Michael Manley still has his political enemies, and many Christians frown at Bob Marley’s Rastafarianism. But Miss Lou engenders unabashed feelings of pride and affection in Jamaicans of all colours, classes and creeds. For all her cultural glory, this love she inspires in every Jamaican heart is the most compelling reason for her ascension into the official national pantheon. What more appropriate symbol of national unity could there be than the mother of Jamaican culture? Miss Lou, Miss Lou - We love you!


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