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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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In 1935, Una Marson was the only Black representative at the 12th Annual Congress of the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship Conference held in Istanbul in 1935, at which she demanded the recognition of the struggles of Black women across the world and championed their human rights. She was the first Black woman to be able to attend this annual conference.

She returned to Jamaica for a brief spell between 1936 and 1938, during which she actively worked to challenge the antagonism of the colonial establishment on the island against any and everything distinctly African. In order to fulfil her goal of promoting authentically Jamaican national literature and other written works, Marson founded the Kingston Readers Club, Writers Club, and Drama Club, as well as the Jamaica Save the Children Fund, in order to help give the most disenfranchised on the island a chance to receive an education. Marson worked with prominent Jamaican writers, such as Louise Bennett (Miss Lou), and produced many plays and poems whose themes were deeply rooted in Jamaican culture. Dr. Lisa Tomlinson, a Jamaican researcher and scholar based in Kingston, describes one of Una Marson’s noteworthy plays, Pocomania, as follows in her analysis in AAIHS:

she includes the local vernacular, folklore, and African-centered religious practice called Pocomania to challenge middle-class respectability and Christianity. She does this through Stella, the middle-class character in the play, who journeys to the world of the black Jamaican working-class in a bid to experience the forbidden religious rituals of Pocomania. Given the fact that the reference to anything “African” was frowned upon in colonial Jamaica, Marson’s plays and poems reflected a transgressive intervention in conventional Jamaican literature.”

In her third published collection of poems, The Moth and The Star (1937), Marson grapples with the battles that Black women faced within a societal framework which heralded white supremacist beauty standards. In her poem, Cinema Eyes, a mother expresses her deep desire for her daughter to not attend the “Cinema” (which, interestingly, is always capitalised, signifying how the “Cinema” is intentionally described as a significant entity representative of the institutional white supremacist structures of Hollywood and the like). She speaks about how attending the “Cinema” when she was young like her daughter resulted in her cultivating a “Cinema mind”; one which led her embrace whiteness and to reject everything about herself and others that was Black:

“I saw no beauty in black faces,

The tender light and beauty

Of their eyes I did not see;

The smoothness of their skin,

The mellow music of their voice,

The stateliness of their walk,

The tenderness of their hearts

No, they were black

And therefore had no virtue.”

In two of her other poems, Kinky Hair Blues and Black is Fancy, Marson discusses in masterful detail the nature and historical significance of Black women and their natural hair, as well as the breadth of the pernicious effects of Eurocentric beauty standards. The use of Patois (a term which Marson herself refused to use, due to the heavy stigmatisation of Patois during her active years – she considered it a pejorative descriptor) throughout Kinky Hair Blues is quite a statement of her intention to reject the British colonial values of artistic expression which were foisted upon her in her formative years.

“I like me black face  

And me kinky hair.  

I like me black face  

And me kinky hair.  

But nobody loves dem,  

I jes don’t tink it’s fair.

Now I’s gwine press me hair And bleach me skin.

I’s gwine press me hair  

And bleach me skin.  

What won’t a gal do  

Some kind of man to win”

Work at the BBC: Calling The West Indies Caribbean Voices

In her final visit to the UK, she was hired by the BBC Empire Service in 1941 to host, and later produce, the programme, Calling The West Indies, in which messages from soldiers serving in World War II would be read over the airwaves to their expectant families. She was the first Black woman broadcaster at the BBC, and she held her post until 1945, after which she returned to Jamaica. Calling The West Indies developed into the iconic Caribbean Voices radio programme. Pioneered in 1943, Caribbean Voices served as a forum in which West Indian literary work was discussed and broadcast, becoming one of the most important factors in the worldwide recognition of a large number of Caribbean poets and writers, such as Derek Walcott, Kamau Braithwaite, George Lamming and V. S. Naipaul. Kamau Braithwaite had huge respect for the programme’s positive effect for writers within the Anglophone Caribbean, and described the programme as the “single most important literary catalyst for Caribbean creative and critical writing in English.”

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Una Marson, “The Girlfriend of the Forces”, broadcasting at the BBC

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Una Marson (left) as she compèred a session of Caribbean Voices

Later life, death, and legacy

Unfortunately, not a great deal is known about Una Marson’s life upon her return to the Caribbean. It is thought that she continued working in the same vein as before, but accounts of what she did are either conflicting, or they cannot be corroborated due to a lack of concrete evidence. Many sources claim she campaigned for Rastafari liberty and fought against their persecution at the hands of the deeply (neo-) colonial Jamaican state. Some also claimed Marson suffered a breakdown for many years, after which she recovered, married and divorced a dentist, Peter Staples, with whom she apparently met while travelling in the US.

After suffering from a heart attack, Una Marson sadly passed on 6th May, 1965 in Kingston, and was buried four days later at St. Andrews’ Church.

In her sixty years of life, Una Marson undoubtedly left a lasting legacy on the world. Her first journey to London influenced her in unprecedented ways; it led her on a journey of a deep exploration of Black internationalism and feminism, as well as to an awe-inspiring dedication to help pave the way for other writers and playwrights like her, not just from Jamaica, but the Caribbean as a whole, to gain a stronghold in the industry and make a name for themselves. Una Marson will surely be remembered fondly as one of the finest role models and contributors to Caribbean literature and discourse on Black womanhood of the past century.

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Sources:

http://www.aaihs.org/una-marson/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Una_Marson
http://www.nlj.gov.jm/BN/Marson_Una/bn_marson_umv_006.pdf
http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/69624
https://www.jstor.org/stable/23019744?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
http://www.bl.uk/learning/citizenship/campaign/myh/newspapers/gallery1/paper6/thekeys6.html
https://jenniferjsnow.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/una-marson.pdf
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ViGwxJloI70
http://media.gettyimages.com/photos/girlfriend-of-the-forces-una-marson-broadcasting-to-british-troops-in-picture-id73388542
research.ncl.ac.uk/media/sites/researchwebsites/scriptingempire/unamarsonbbcborder.jpg
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