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The Story of Una Marson – Jamaican Writer, Feminist, and International Activist

Una Marson is one of the important names which will always come to mind when discussing influential Jamaicans in world history. From being one of the first Black women to be prominent in forums such as the League of Nations and the International Alliance for Women, to cementing her central role in bringing Caribbean literary creativity to the wider world, Marson achieved a great deal in her life, and her accomplishments had, have, and will continue to have, a lasting effect on millions worldwide of generations past, present, and future.

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Early life and education

Una Maud Victoria Marson was born in Santa Cruz in St. Elizabeth Parish, Jamaica, on 5th February 1905. She belonged to a middle-class family, and was the youngest of the six children of Reverend Solomon Isaac and Ada Marson.

She attended Hampton High from the age of 10, which is an all-girls boarding school situated in Malvern, a village to the south of Santa Cruz. Her father was a member of the school’s board of trustees up until his passing, which occurred in the year of his daughter’s enrolment in 1915. This left the family financially strapped; although the young Una Marson continued to board at Hampton, the untimely death of the Reverend forced the family to relocate to the capital, Kingston, in St. Andrew Parish.

The Cosmopolitan, early poetry, and the success of At What a Price

Not long after leaving Hampton, Marson did volunteer work as a stenographer, a job which was only starting to become open to Afro-Jamaican women in 1920s Kingston. Not long afterwards, she began working for the political journal, Jamaica Critic, and was appointed as the publication’s assistant editor in 1926. It was this experience she gained as editor at the Jamaica Critic that helped her to not only cultivate and hone her skills as a writer, but to also develop her social and political standpoints, all of which would prove to form the crux of her later and most notable work. This exposure to socially pertinent topics inspired Marson to start an independent publication, and, in 1928, at the tender age of 23, she became the first Jamaican woman in the country to both edit and publish her own magazine, The Cosmopolitan. With her newly found platform, Marson used The Cosmopolitan to tackle racial and social issues within Jamaica, as well as to engage with important, feminist values. She was an ardent advocate for women’s suffrage in Jamaica, as well as for the widening of opportunities in education and employment, and for the development of comprehensive self-help groups for women.

In the early 1930s, Marson released several notable pieces, such as Tropic Reveries (1930), for which she received the Musgrave Medal, and Heights and Depth (1931), both of which were a collection of short poems. What is interesting to note here is that her early work was very reflective of the British colonial education system to which she had been exposed for all of her life in Jamaica, and carried many European and Victorian themes. Leaving Jamaica to move to London for the first time in 1932 signalled a unique turning point in her life, resulting in a change in her writing style, and even her own racial consciousness.

The release of her first play, At What a Price, in 1931 was received with exceptional praise and critical acclaim, and Marson used the funds generated from its success to move to London the next year, as she had a desire to broaden her horizons by exploring the world outside of Jamaica. She arrived in London in July of 1932, and got involved with the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP), founded by the fellow Jamaican-born physician and activist, Harold Moody, whose primary focus was campaigning for the rights of Black Britons. In addition to the success of At What a Price in Jamaica, the play was also performed at the Scala Theatre in West End; with the cast being members of the LCP, it was the first all-Black cast performance staged in London.

Arrival in the UK, engagement with Black internationalism, and development of her Black feminist politics

Upon arrival in England, the racism and sexism she was subjected to on a daily basis “transformed both her life and poetry”; Marson became much more invested in Black internationalism and her feminist work was influenced greatly by the new experiences she had as a Black woman in 1930s Britain. In her poem, Nigger (1933), published in The Keys by the LCP, Marson delivers a damning critique of British racism, and also portrays the pain, humiliation, and blatant hurt she and other Black people felt after being racially abused:

“They called me “Nigger,”

Those little white urchins

They laughed and shouted

As I passed along the street

They flung it at me:

“Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!”

What made me keep my fingers

From choking the words in their throats?”

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The Story of Claudia Jones – A Pioneering Black Feminist, Political Leader, and Educator

Claudia Jones was one of the most influential Black woman thinkers and leaders of her time, whose theories and politics have shaped the world in ways most fascinating and unimaginable. The importance of her contributions to Black liberation movements, in the UK, US, and elsewhere, is extremely and severely underappreciated, and many of those without an extensive grounding in Black feminist/communist/liberation theory will have, unfortunately, never heard of her. Fortunately,thanks to the internet and social media more and more of us are becoming aware of the magnificent work of the illustrious Claudia Jones.

Early life, death of her mother, and high school

Born as Claudia Vera Cumberbatch on February 21st, 1915 in Belmont, Trinidad & Tobago, she migrated to Harlem in the US with her parents in 1924, following the crash in the price of cocoa following the First World War. Early life in America for Jones and her family was extremely difficult; the premature death of her mother five years after arriving forced her to temporarily drop out of school and take up factory work in order to help supplement her family’s low income. Due to the poor living conditions she had, she contracted tuberculosis in 1932 and, though she survived it, this terrible illness caused permanent damage to her lungs, the effects of which affected her all throughout her adult life.

Despite being an erudite high school graduate, her position as a Black, Caribbean immigrant woman in a pre-civil rights United States was evidently restricted, and she could only find employment in a launderette, and subsequently, in retail. Claudia Jones’ first hand at writing for a publication came in the form of a column, named Claudia Comments, for the National League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes (now simply known as the National Urban League), whose drama group she was a member of.

The Scottsboro Boys, the CPUSA, and An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!

The infamous Scottsboro Boys case in 1930s Alabama caught the attention of the whole country. The Scottsboro Boys were nine Black teenagers who were falsely accused by two white women of rape during a train journey between Chattanooga and Memphis, Tennessee. In the first case in 1931, eight of the nine teenagers were convicted and thus sentenced to death, which was the common sentence in Alabama for a Black man found guilty of raping a white woman. Jones’ determination to support the cases of these teenagers brought her into contact with the Youth Communist League USA, the youth wing of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), of which she became a member in 1936. Following huge pressure from CPUSA (as well as the NAACP and other bodies), after a protracted battle involving several retrials and an intervention from the US Supreme Court, all nine avoided execution, but five of them still unjustly served jail time.

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The nine Scotsboro Boys who were falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931

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