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.
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?”