Student Article: Annual Michael Baptista Lecture explores the enduring legacy of Jamaica's 'Miss Lou'
“Unifying,” was the word Dr. Carolyn Cooper, the keynote speaker at the annual Michael Baptista Lecture, used to express the spirit of the Honourable Louise Bennett-Coverly on Thursday, November 3, 2016, as she addressed the large and diverse audience of students, faculty and community members.
The Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean (CERLAC) coordinated the 2016-2017 lecture, in commemoration of both Michael Baptista, a Guyanese immigrant and former Senior Vice-President of the Royal Bank of Canada, and the Honourable Louise Bennett-Coverly, Jamaica’s beloved and iconic poet commonly known as “Miss Lou,” who received an honorary degree from York in 1998. As Dr. Andrea Davis, Chair of the Department of Humanities and former interim director of CERLAC explained, “by paying tribute to these two exceptional lives, the event offered an example of the very best that can emerge out of the spirit of cooperation that links Canada and the Caribbean.”
Dr. Carolyn Cooper, retired Professor of Literary and Cultural Studies, University of the West Indies (Mona campus), delivered a remarkable account of the life of “Miss Lou.” Her lecture, “‘Disguise Up De English Language’: Louise Bennett’s Anansi Poetics,” described the importance of “Miss Lou” as a consolidating force in Jamaican culture. Similar to the trickster Anansi, she succeeded in expressing Jamaican cultural identity across racial, gender, and class lines using a multitude of voices.
Cooper discussed Bennett-Coverly’s efforts in, “helping us to take language seriously and recognize its potential as a means of realizing a common Jamaican identity.” Bennett-Coverly was indeed largely concerned with correcting the widespread disregard of African-derived language in Jamaica. Much of her work focused on the recovery of Jamaica’s original “dialect,” while refuting the elitist perception of the language as “corrupt.”
Additionally, Cooper drew on Bennett-Coverly’s use of folklore to portray the role of her art in resisting class servitude, in showing how the mighty was often outwitted by the powerless, and by employing the Anansi figure to “play the fool.” She also emphasized Bennett-Coverly’s portrayal of the “cunning Jamaican woman” as increasingly relevant to modern times. Bennett-Coverly successfully utilized Anansi poetics to elucidate subversive attempts to reassert humanity in the face of class and racial subjugation.
Davis explained the importance of the lecture to CERLAC and the university: “The lecture is a powerful endorsement of CERLAC’s continuing commitment to community-engaged research and socially progressive scholarship and its role in bridging the gap between Canada, the Caribbean, and South and Central America.”
Indeed, individuals of Latin American, Caribbean, and African descent living in Canada are tasked with the burden of adapting to mainstream society with little or no guidance. The 2016-2017 Michael Baptista Lecture brought together these diverse constituents in genuine exchange as was evident in the laughter and shared emotion that marked the diverse gathering. Faculty of Education Professor Carl James, the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, explained: "Lectures like these provide for local communities to be on campus and engaged in intellectual exchanges. This Michael Baptista Lecture, with a renowned scholar of Jamaican background, provided that rare and vital intellectual space.”
Alan Durston, acting director of CERLAC, spoke about how “one of CERLAC’s functions is community outreach in the GTA, and this was very much in evidence at the event. A significant number of people from the Jamaican and Caribbean communities were in attendance, and there were quite a few whose laughter indicated that they understood the witticisms in Jamaican before Dr. Cooper provided a translation.”
To a non-Jamaican, Cooper’s occasional use of the Jamaican language may have seemed incomprehensible. However, there was a powerful lesson to be learned here. We cannot simply be content with a mere “translation” of our differences, but must seek instead to understand each other in all of our entirety. It is this understanding and embrace of other cultures that may help obliterate injustice in Canada and allow us to attain meaningful connections across our differences. While the commemoration of the lives of Michael Baptista and the Honourable Louise Bennett-Coverly in the 2016-2017 Michael Baptista Lecture may have reinvigorated a sense of nostalgia for those Canadians living in diaspora, ultimately it also reaffirmed the possibilities available to all of us when we truly recognize the value of cultural diversity in Canada.
The Michael Baptista Lecture was established by the friends of Michael Baptista and the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) to recognize the areas central to his spirit and success: the importance of his Guyanese/Caribbean roots, his dedication to and outstanding achievements at the RBC, and his unqualified drive and love of learning. This year’s lecture was sponsored by CERLAC, in partnership with the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora; the Department of Humanities; and the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on Africa and its Diasporas.
Written by Carlo Panaro, student in HUMA 1300, Cultures of Resistance in the Americas.
Photo credits: Niloofar Abedzadeh, Work Study Student in the Department of Humanities