Una Marson: the most important woman you’ve probably never heard of

See The Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature edited by Alison Donnell and my colleague Dr Sarah Lawson Welsh. This contains a selection of Una Marson’s work, including the poems below, and critical writing on her, providing a context for both her earlier and later work.

Una-Marson400x314Like me, many people in the UK probably haven’t heard of Una Marson (1905-1965), pioneering Jamaican feminist, journalist, poet and broadcaster. Which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is more than a little surprising, as she became the first black female producer at the BBC in 1942!  Her poetry is not as well known as that of many of her compatriots. In part, this was because it was initially heavily influenced by the Romantic European conventions of her colonial education, but in part it is because she appears to have spent more time and energy promoting her fellow Caribbean writers’ works over her own, both through print and radio. However, if her poetic voice was initially conservative, her political awareness wasn’t. In 1928, at 23 years old, whilst living and working in Kingston, she founded the magazine The Cosmopolitan in order to publish Caribbean creative and non-fiction writing, which often had an overt social or political slant.  Then, in the 1930s, deciding that she wanted to broaden her horizons and fulfil greater publishing ambitions, she took herself to London, where she had two significant sojourns, between 1932-38 and again from 1938-45. Anna Snaith points out that, as well as this being a personal and professional choice for her as an individual, this also plays into the narratives of Modernist voyages, in which Caribbean women such as Marson and Jean Rhys travelled the “wrong way”, “subverting the logic of imperial expansion” (p1). “Invariably travelling alone, in search of employment, publication and asserting their rights to political, domestic and sexual freedoms, these women were figures of modernity” (p 2).Una and fellow modernist heroes Too right they were, and the impact that Marson’s journey had on the concept of a multicultural Britain is not to be understated. For  it was during her second period in London that she made her imprint at the BBC, producing and presenting content for Calling the West Indies, later turning it into the ground-breaking Caribbean Voices. So even if you have not read a poem by Marson, it’s probably in part down to her promotion of Caribbean artistic voices that you have come across the work of her peers. Just how central she was to British cultural life is captured in this amazing picture from 1942 – yes, that’s the famous T. S. Eliot sitting at her elbow. That’s the very well-known George Orwell, peering over Marson’s shoulder, leaning in to be in on the action. Others at the table – writers like Anand and Tambimuttu, were central to London’s literary circles. Although, like Marson, broadcaster Venu Chitale (far left)has largely been over-looked outside of post-colonial studies.

So the Una Marson story is not as dream-come-true as the picture above suggests however. One of my students had recently read Small Island by the late Andrea Levy. Perhaps like Celia, Hortense’s childhood school-friend, she suggested, Marson had once fantasised about the end of this journey to London:

“When I am older, Hortense, I will be leaving Jamaica and I will be going to live in England.” This is when her voice became high-class and her nose pointed into the air – well, as far as her round flat nose could – and she swayed as she brought the picture to her mind’s eye. “Hortense, in England I will have a big house with a bell at the front door and I will ring the bell.” And she make the sound, ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling. “I will ring the bell in this house when I am in England. That is what will happen to me when I am older.”

Of course, everybody’s experiences and thoughts are individual. Either way, like Hortense, many of Marson’s dreams were disrupted by realities of the cold, wet, class-divided, and frequently racist society that  was Britain in the 1930s and 40s. Sadly, racism is once again on the rise in this small island. Whilst this article from African Stories from Hull and East Yorkshire  once again looks at her significant place in UK culture, including being invited by the Lord Mayor of Hull to participate, along with other League of Coloured Peoples members, in the Wilberforce Centre Centenary Celebrations in Hull in 1933, it also looks at the impact of casual, overt and institutional racism on her mental health, and her permanent return to Jamaica in 1945. On the one hand, Marson was producing and broadcasting for that Great British Institution, the BBC, and even being part of the war-time propaganda machine. For example, see this archive footage from 1943 of the “Hello, West Indies!” World Service broadcasts.

Underscoring the key role the inhabitants of the West Indies played in the war effort, it focuses on black, Asian, white and mixed race Caribbeans, depicting them working and socialising side by side with each other and their British colleagues. One mixed couple even dance together at the end.    Yet on the other hand, from her first arrival on these shores she was subjected to racism. She hadn’t been here very long when she published the poem “Nigger” in in the League of Coloured Peoples newspaper The Keys (1933), in response to the verbal abuse she received  This hard-hitting poem, currently featured in the British Library’s Campaign! Make an Impact/Campaign! Make Yourself Heard digital exhibition, opens with a chilling image of white children verbally abusing her with the N* word.

N word 1Who is this poem addressed to? At first it seems like a personal reflection on her horror, tears and rising anger, but in the central stanzas she refocuses it to “You of the white-skinned Race,/You who profess such innocence”. But ignorance is not innocence, hypocrisy is not something that cannot be helped. She systematically exposes the N* word’s etymology, originating in slavers’ mouths as a way of dehumanising their victims, then following it through so-called emancipation, and its continued use in the colonies, until she swings the poem around full circle, back to that image of a contemporary, young, educated, professional woman walking down the streets of London. The N*word’s repetition is flung at her like stones because children have been taught to think that one skin colour is superior to another.

She returns to the racism she encountered in this small isle in her 1937 poem “Little Brown Girl”. This time the poem explores a much more insidious type of racism. It is addressed to a curious, perhaps well-meaning white person, perhaps the very same type of person for whom Reni Edo-Lodge recently wrote Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race . “It makes me feel uncomfortable,” one of my students confessed in our seminar on Marson earlier this week. It makes me feel uncomfortable too. Maybe, after all, it is addressed to me. How often in my life have I let my ignorance infect my perceptions of a person? Have I ignorantly jumped to conclusions about a person based on their way of dressing, their gender, their accent, their ethnicity? How easy is it as somebody from the majority group to ask somebody from a minority group where they are from and then be surprised when they answer “from here, this place”? My dual heritage daughter gets this all the time. When she was about 13 she said, “I tell them York, but then they say they don’t mean that, they mean where am I from originally. I just say Thailand because they won’t have heard of Laos.” She had only visited Laos once, with an overnight stopover in Bangkok. She was born in Wiltshire.

Little Brown Girl 2UM at the BBC

In “Little Brown Girl” the poem’s white persona bombards her companion with questions born out of ignorance and assumptions. My students found the most shocking lines were the ones above: “How can a language be owned by people just because of the colour of their skin? Language is language. Isn’t it owned by whoever speaks it?” There’s a whole other

stage-society-2seminar there. If the “little brown girl” hadn’t already felt alone in a “white, white city”, my students noted, she certainly would do now. Assumptions of poverty are made as the nameless “little brown girl” looks at an expensive coat in a shop window. Marson doesn’t voice here what Levy voices through the middle-class, educated Hortense – that she had never realised that so many white people in England would be so poor and uneducated. My mum tells me that my Trinidadian step-dad had also been taken aback by this when he arrived in the 1960s. As I continue to read the poem, not only can I picture Marson’s ironic laugh at the narrator’s surprise at a Caribbean woman’s mastery of theLittle Brown Girl 1 English language, but also the dry, humourless hilarity at finding herself being asked if she has theatres in her country. Marson put on the first play with a black colonial cast in London’s West End in 1933.

Marson struggled with depression, no doubt seriously exacerbated by her negative experiences in Britain and at the BBC, where despite the inclusive publicity shots and documentaries, everyday racism still flourished and impacted on her and her colonial colleagues. Nonetheless, Marson’s poetry, broadcasting and charity work indicate a woman who refused to be ground down and refused to be silenced. In “N*” she doesn’t end with a tirade against the white urchins, nor does she give in to that initial urge to throttle them. She is angry, very angry but she uses that anger constructively in writing and activism. She refuses to hate, urging both herself and her reader to see that the hearts of “all humanity” beat “in unison”.

As we come up to International Women’s Week, Una Marson is a voice to be celebrated, both in her own right as a poet, journalist and broadcaster, and because of her pioneering work to give a cultural voice to fellow writers from the Caribbean. Our English Literature curriculum in the 21st Century is considerably more diverse thanks to her efforts and vision. As I said above, my colleague, Dr Sarah Lawson Welsh, is a leading expert in this area, and edited The Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature with Alison Donnell. She taught Marson for many years on her undergraduate module Writing the Caribbean, and she also features her some years on our MA in Contemporary Literature.

And Marson’s finally been given a blue plaque by Southwark Council.

blue plaque

Further Reading and interesting links:

“West Indies Calling” – a short documentary about Una Marson’s wartime broadcasts

Little Brown Girl: Una Maud Victoria Marson National Library of Jamaica Digital Resource

Lisa Tomlinson on the Black Perspectives blog

Anna Snaith hosts a roundtable on Una Marson at the BBC here (audio of panel discussion and additional text information)

See also Snaith’s “Little Brown Girl in a White, White City: Una Marson and London” if you have access to online academic journals

See my Black History Month post on Olaudah Equiano here

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