A Likkle Miss Lou: How Jamaican Poet Louise Bennett Coverley Found Her Voice, by Nadia L. Hohn, illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes
It is easy to respect and appreciate the obvious message of this book, which is that people appreciate having their voice respected, even if that language is not particularly elevated or cultured in nature. Admittedly, this book is easiest to appreciate if the reader speaks a similar dialect, as it is a bit hard to understand and appreciate for those who are not familiar with Jamaica’s creole. Not all aspects of the desire to be appreciated and respected for who one is are equally to be appreciated, as the book ends up endorsing the decision on the part of the book’s subject to abandon a more elite education because with that education comes a sense of disdain for the low and common speech of the common Jamaican and an appreciation and endorsement only of the polished speak of the educated elite. One wonders if the writer and publisher of these books are conscious of the soft bigotry of low expectations that comes with denigrating the sort of education that can bring advancement to people by celebrating the example of someone who became appreciated as a cultural figure precisely because of her love of the vernacular.
This is a book about linguistics that demonstrates the cultural wars that exist over languages and different forms of language. The author, despite her fondness for the Jamaican patois that was (and remains) looked down upon by cultural elites in the Anglophone world, is clearly portrayed as someone who was fond of the colorful language of her people, including her grandmother, mother, and neighbors who were all rather common people. And her decision to go to a less prestigious school that appreciated her patois accent led her to create vernacular poetry for Jamaica that created a cultural space that would accommodate later Jamaican poets and singers to the present day who continue to speak and sing in patois. Yet there are a great many people who make a different choice and choose to engage in rigorous and prestigious education precisely to lose the perception that they are uneducated by speaking in proper speech. And there are a great many others who are ambitious enough to speak properly with school friends and in the academic world but also enjoy code switching to a less refined speech around their neighborhood friends and relatives, even if this involves a great deal of personal tension.