B is for Vera Bell (1906-1984)

Born in Jamaica in 1906, Vera Bell’s mid-century writing life provides an important (if now almost-invisible) alternative to the dominant Windrush myth of West Indian literary careers. Bell worked for Jamaica’s Welfare Commission before studying at Columbia University and London University.  Her writing career in Jamaica made an impact across drama, fiction and poetry. A contemporary of Louise Bennett and Una Marson, Vera Bell belonged to a generation of remarkably talented and committed Jamaican women whose creative works were central to the cultural nationalism of the 1940s and 1950s and who have only achieved full recognition belatedly.

While the name Louise Bennett is rightly associated with Jamaicanizing Pantomime, Bell’s “Soliday and the Wicked Bird”—the third ever pantomime staged by the Little Theatre Movement, in which Bennett performed—is widely acknowledged as the first consciously to indigenise this theatrical form. Mervyn Morris explains that Bell’s script was based on the ‘Man-Crow’ folk legend collected in Walter Jekyll’s 1907 Jamaican Song and Story. Renowned Jamaican artist Albert Huie designed the set.

Bell’s most cited work today is her poem “Ancestor on the Auction Block,” originally published in Focus (1948: 187) and quoted by the Jamaican Prime Minister, Portia Simpson Miller, in her 2014 Emancipation Day Message. Articulating the humanising call of ancestral memory and the significance of preserving a historical consciousness of slavery—‘Across the years your eyes seek mine/Compelling me to look.’—this poem has reached generations of readers by being anthologised in Caribbean Quarterly’s 1958 “An Anthology of West Indian Poetry,” in New Ships: An Anthology of West Indian Poems (1972) and in The Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature (1996).

Bell’s short stories seem to have been originally published in the political weekly Public Opinion and the Jamaican little magazine FOCUS, edited by Edna Manley, again suggesting her place in a community of progressive Jamaican writers. “The Bamboo Pipe” and “Joshua,” were also included in two early edited volumes of short fiction: 14 Jamaican Short Stories (1950) and Caribbean Anthology of Short Stories (1953) respectively—both part of The Gleaner’s mid-century book publishing series, The Pioneer Press, which Una Marson initially proposed and edited.

More about the author

cover of 14 Jamaican short stories, including bell's work

Bell’s biography on Wikipedia.

cover of Caribbean anthology of short stories

In 1953, Pioneer Press in Kingston published Caribbean Anthology of Short Stories, including Bell’s work.

screenshot from ltm pantomime website, featuring play by bell

More details relating to the production “Soliday and the Wicked Bird” can be found on the website of the Little Theatre Movement Pantomime.

All Authors A to Z

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Vera Bell (1906-1984)

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Peter Kempadoo (1926-2019)

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Hilton A. Vaughan (1901-1985)

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