Jamaican poet and journalist, Una Marson, was a role model for women within the Black Internationalist community and her work contributed greatly to the recognition of West Indian literature – her own writing included.
Una Maud Victoria Marson was born in 1905 in Santa Cruz in St. Elizabeth Parish, Jamaica, where she grew up in a middle-class family as the youngest of six children to Ada Marson and Solomon Isaac. Her father was a pastor and also a member of the board of trustees at the all-girls boarding school that Una would attend. In 1915, the same year as Una’s enrolment at the school, her father passed away, leaving the family in a financial crunch. His untimely death meant that they had to move to the much bigger city of Kingston, but Una was able to stay in school nevertheless. About her father, Marson’s biographer, Dr. Delia Jarrett-Macauley, said that “[s]he had a loving but tough relationship with him and explored how young Jamaican women can break away from their patriarchal men in her later work, including her first play ‘At What A Price.’”
In her early 20ies, Una became Jamaica’s first magazine publisher when she started her own independent publication The Cosmopolitan, which she used as a platform to discuss racial, social, and feminist issues of her country. As an advocate of women’s suffrage in Jamaica, she was especially concerned with women’s education and employment opportunities as well as self-help groups.
Her play, At What A Price, was such a great success that, in 1932, she was able to finance her own journey to London, where she would live and work for many years. Moving to London ended up making Marson more conscious about her appearance and her Caribbean cultural heritage.
Una Marson’s work was fundamental to the Caribbean peoples’ representation in the international community, and through her role as an activist and intellectual, she was able to discuss issues such as race, class, and gender politics from her own point of view – a black woman. When she moved to London, she experienced racism and sexism for the first time. Her seven-part poem series N***** from 1933 addresses the kind of episodes that she was exposed to in this new place:
“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?”
In London at this time, Una found herself at the centre of a Pan-Africanist movement – Black Internationalism, which is a loose term that describes an ideology that connects all people of African heritage no matter their place of birth. It urges political and intellectual solidarity within the movement which includes key figures such as Malcolm X. However, Marson managed to introduce a women’s perspective to the movement, which was a space that was otherwise dominated by black men, who were occupied by a struggle to become independent from European colonialism and racism. Her feminist spin on mainstream black internationalist discourse also demanded the attention of white feminists. She presented struggles that black women in particular had to endure; for instance, she addressed the influence of Eurocentric beauty standards in contrast to the natural looks of Black woman. In the poem Kinky Hair Blues, she writes:
“I like me black face
And me kinky hair.
But nobody loves dem,
I jes don’t tink it’s fair.”
In 1935, Marson attended the Congress of International Women in Istanbul. As the only black woman there, she made a case for solidarity among feminists regardless of ethnicity, and thereby bringing the reality of racism into the, predominantly white, feminist forum.
Back in London, she spent her time working as a journalist for BBC, and, in this job, she would go on to become the station’s first black producer in 1942. This is when she hosted and produced the iconic radio programme Caribbean Voices in which messages to families of soldiers serving in the second world war were read over airwaves. The show became a discussion forum for West Indian literature and ensured world-wide recognition of several Caribbean writers.
On May 6, 1965, Una Marson died of a heart attack in Kingston, Jamaica. Her work and style of writing stayed true to her Jamaican roots and delivered a message that would not have had the same punch had she opted for the British literary style that dominated writing at the time. Her deviating sense of direction within the community inspired future generations of activist writers to embrace their background and present their struggles for cultural assertion through it.
By Ida Larsen, WAVE Intern