Updated: Mar 18
Black History Month
Una Marson (6th February 1905 - 6th May 1965) Jamaican feminist, activist and writer, producing poems, plays and radio programmes.
Marson was born in Santa Cruz, as the youngest of six children of Rev. Solomon Isaac Marson, a Baptist parson whom she was very close to, and his wife Ada Wilhelmina Mullins. She had a middle-class upbringing with access to culture and literature (mostly English classics) and became an avid reader. At the age of 10 she began attending Hampton High, a girl’s boarding school, but that same year her father suddenly died, leaving the family in financial difficulties and so they moved to Kingston. Marson did manage to complete her education at Hampton High, but didn't go on to college.
Instead she found work as a volunteer social worker and stenographer, a job which was only starting to become open to Afro-Jamaican women in 1920s Kingston. Then in 1926 she was appointed assistant editor of the Jamaican political journal Jamaica Critic where she acquired her journalism skills and was exposed to new political and social opinions. Two years later, at the age of 23, she became Jamaica’s first female editor and publisher of her own magazine, The Cosmopolitan, which featured articles on feminist topics, local social issues and workers’ rights, Jamaican poetry and literature.
In 1930 Marson published her first collection of poems entitled Tropic Reveries which dealt with love and nature, with elements of feminism. It won the Musgrave Medal from the Institute of Jamaica. A year later she wrote her first play At What a Price about a Jamaican girl who moves from the country into the city of Kingston for work and falls in love with her white male boss. The play opened in Jamaica and later London to critical acclaim.
In 1932, she decided to go to London to find a broader audience for her work and to experience life outside of Jamaica. This move would become a crucial turning point in her life, not just in terms of her writing style and message, but also in her own inner (and outer) indentity.
Arriving in London, Marson became all too aware of the colour bar which severely restricted her ability to find work and began campaigning against it. She was also greatly affected by the stereotype of superior white beauty and within months of her arrival in Britain stopped straightening her hair and went natural. Many poems in her 1937 publication 'Moth and the Star' are a call to black women to embrace their looks and be confident in their own physical beauty.
“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”
- 'Kinky Hair Blues', Moth and the Star
The racism and sexism she found in the UK "transformed both her life and her poetry". The voice in her poetry became more focused on the identity of black women in England. In July 1933, she wrote a poem called 'Nigger' that would appear in the League of Coloured Peoples' journal, The Keys which she worked on in an editorial capacity and became Editor for in 1935; one of Marson's more forceful poems addressing racism in England, 'Nigger' only saw light seven years later when it was published in 1940.
During her time in London Marson became involved in the branch of the International Alliance of Women, a global feminist organisation. For the next 13 years she moved back and forth between London and Jamaica, continuing to contribute to politics and feminist discussions, with an emphasis on the race issue in England. During a trip back to Jamaica in 1938, Marson worked with Louise Bennett - Jamaican poet, folklorist, writer, and educator - to create the play 'London Calling', in which a woman moves to London to further her education, but becomes homesick and returns to Jamaica. The play shows a "strong heroine" who is eventually able to "force herself to return to London" in order to finish her education there.
It was in the same year that Marson wrote her third play and perhaps her most important work, 'Pocomania', which discusses the dangerous allure of Pocomania, an "Afro-religious cult", for middle-class Jamaican women wishing to discover more about their African heritage. Pocomania, sometimes referred to as Revivalism, is an African form of religion that enslaved Africans brought to the Caribbean and it has been practised in Jamaica for more than 200 years. The name is derived from the word “Pukkumina" meaning “a little madness” and the religion was demonised by the white colonisers. Critics such as Ivy Baxter said that "Pocomania was a break in tradition because it talked about a cult from the country", and, as such, it represented a turning point in what was acceptable on the stage.
On her last trip to England in 1941, she was hired by the BBC Empire Service to work on the programme Calling the West Indies, in which World War II soldiers would have their messages read on the radio to their families. Her appointment to the BBC at this time meant she became the first black woman to be employed by the corporation and by 1942 she had become the producer of the programme. During the same year, Marson turned the programme into Caribbean Voices, a forum in which Caribbean literary work was read over the radio. It was this programme that helped garner worldwide recognition for a large number of Caribbean poets and writers, such as Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, George Lamming and V. S. Naipaul. Kamau himself described the programme as the “single most important literary catalyst for Caribbean creative and critical writing in English.”
One of Marson’s goals was to promote national Jamaican literature and so helped create the Kingston Readers and Writers Club, as well as the Kingston Drama Club. She also founded the Jamaica Save the Children Fund, an organisation that raised funds to give the poorer children money to get a basic education.
Not much is known about Marson's life after WWII, but in 1945 she published a poetry collection entitled Towards the Stars which marked a shift in the focus of her poetry. In the past she had written about female sadness over lost love, but the poems in Towards the Stars are focused much more on the independent woman.
Bibliography: Tropic Reveries (1930, poetry), Heights and Depths (1932, poetry), At What a Price (1933, play), Moth and the Star (1937, poetry), London Calling (1938, play), Pocomania (1938, play), Towards the Stars (1945, poetry)
For further reading I can highly recommend the following articles:
'Pocomania' on The Millennial Jamaican blog