Una Maud Victoria Marson (1905-1965)

Una Marson was a pioneer Jamaican feminist, poet, playwright and social activist. A black Jamaican woman, from the middle class and of strict Baptist upbringing, Marson emigrated to work in London in 1932, producing plays, poems and programmes for the BBC during World War II. She was the epitome of a black political artist.

Una Marson was born February 6, 1905 in Santa Cruz, St. Elizabeth. After leaving school, Marson worked as a volunteer social worker. In 1926, she got a job as assistant editor for the Jamaican political journal, Jamaica Critic. As the daughter of a middle‐class Baptist minister, Marson’s intellectual development took place within the context of a religious home and the conservative and colonial Hampton high school, where she had won a scholarship place. When Marson left school in 1922, she directed her studies at commerce and secretarial work, and her decision to work with the Salvation Army and the YMCA in Kingston was an early indication of her commitment to ideas of social justice. Her interests in journalism were also evident. In 1928 she became Jamaica’s first female editor and publisher of her own magazine, The Cosmopolitan in 1930, Marson published her first collection of poems, entitled Tropic Reveries, which won the Institute of Jamaica’s Musgrave Medal. The editorial statement of this bold and defiantly “modern” publication with a strong emphasis on women’s issues proclaimed: “This is the age of woman: what man has done, women may do.” Marson herself certainly lived up to this axiom, and by the time she left Kingston for London in 1932 she had also established her literary credentials, having published two volumes of poetry (Tropic Reveries in 1930; Heights and Depths, 1931) and staged her first play, At What a Price, to critical acclaim. In 1932 she left Jamaica for London.

From 1936 she moved back and forth between London and Jamaica. Her sojourn in England made Una Marson more aware of race equality issues around the world – from West Africa to the US. After working as an English-speaking secretary to Abyssinian minster Dr. C. W. Martin in London, Marson accompanied Haile Selassie as his a personal secretary on his last ill-fated plea for Abyssinia to the League of Nations on 30 June 1936. She subsequently returned to Kingston – having being told that she was heading from a nervous breakdown from over work. However, on her return to Jamaica, Marson continued at her usual pace. She promoted national literature by helping to create the Kingston Readers and Writers Club, as well as the Kingston Drama Club. She also founded the Jamaica Save the Children Fund, which was an organization that raised funds to give the poorer children money to get a basic education. In 1937 Marson published The Moth and the Star [poetry], followed by London Calling, [play] working with Louise Bennett, and Pocomania [play]. In 1938, Marson returned to London to continue to work on the Jamaican Save the Children project that she started in Jamaica, and also to be in the staff of the Jamaican Standard. Although Marson’s arrival in London in 1932 coincided historically with that of C. L. R. James, her cultural and intellectual ideas set her apart from both the “angry young men” who came in the 1930s and the later generation of emigrants. As her journalism and her creative works had already demonstrated, Marson was always concerned to represent issues of gender and women’s liberation alongside those of racial equality and cultural nationalism.

In London she lodged at the Peck ham home of fellow Jamaican Dr. Ronald Moody, and soon became involved with the League of Coloured Peoples, an organization founded by Moody in 1931 to address issues of racial division and prejudice. As editor of the League’s journal, The Keys, Marson was easily networked into black British circles and had opportunities to meet many of the key figures in the emergent nationalist and anti‐colonial movements. Her interest in Pan‐Africanism developed during this period, and in 1934 she met the King of Ghana, Ofori Atta. However, her interest in women’s rights continued to be equally strong and in the same year she gave a speech at the Women’s International League Conference in London. In 1935 her internationalism and conviction on issues of women’s rights meant that she was the first Jamaican invited to speak at the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship Conference in Istanbul and, in the same year, the first black woman invited to attend the League of Nations at Geneva, where a meeting with the Ethiopian delegation at the conference further raised her awareness of the urgent struggle against colonialism. Provoked and outraged by the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, Marson immediately offered her help to Dr. Charles Martin, the Ethiopian Minister. She went on to work as personal secretary to HIM Haile Selassie, but by September of 1936 she was severely depressed and unable to continue.

Marson returned home to Jamaica during a period of intense social and political unrest, but the sense of social ferment and the anticipation of certain change appear to have restored her public voice and her commitment to politics. By 1937 she had a regular column in Public Opinion, the weekly paper of the People’s National Party led by Norman Manley, and published a series of strident articles, including one entitled “Feminism”. It was also in September of this year that she published her third volume of poetry, The Moth and the Star, with many poems clearly and purposefully addressed to issues of gender and race politics that also animated her play Pocomania, staged in January 1938. Retaining her early practical commitment to social justice, Marson worked hard to raise money for a Jamaica Save the Children Association (Jamsave) while also reporting for the Jamaican Standard. In 1938 Marson returned to London in order to report on and give evidence to the Moyne Commission (a British government commission investigating the riots and unrest that had swept across the Caribbean region) and to fundraise for Jamsave. After the declaration of war in 1939 she witnessed changes in the black community in Britain, as fewer students made the journey and many of those based in London moved north.

In 1941, she was hired by the BBC Service Empire to work on a program in which World War II soldiers would have their messages read on the radio to their families. By 1942, she became the program’s West Indies Producer. During the same year, she turned the programme into Caribbean Voices, which was a forum in which Caribbean literary work is read over the radio. Her radio show was said by writer Kamau Brathwaite to be the single most important literary catalyst for Caribbean creative writing in English. In 1945 Marson published a poetry collection, ‘Towards the stars’. It is a mark of her prominence at that time that on her arrival she was met by huge crowds, and a lunch organized in her honour by the Poetry League of Jamaica was attended by Edna Manley, a prominent sculptor and wife of the future Prime Minister Norman Manley. Marson worked for some years for the nationalist Pioneer Press, the book‐publishing arm of The Gleaner. Post 1945 details about Marson’s personal life are sparse. Many or her works were unpublished or circulated mainly in Jamaica. However, in 1960 she moved to the United States, but after a failed marriage, returned to Jamaica, where she died in 1965 of a heart attack. It was only in the 1990s that her pioneering work as a writer, journalist, and intellectual found sustained acknowledgement in both Caribbean and black British histories.

– Most of her writings are found only in the Institute of Jamaica, the parent institution of the National Library of Jamaica

Works of Mason:

▪   Tropic Reveries (1930, book)

▪   Heights and Depths (1932, book)

▪   At What a Price (1933, play)

▪   Moth and the Star (1937, book)

▪   London Calling (1938, play)

▪   Pocomania (1938, play)

▪   Towards the Stars: Poems (1945, book)

Also published many articles in various periodicals

Criticisms of Mason’s Work:

Critics have both praised and dismissed Marson’s poetry. She has been criticized for mimicking European style, such as Romantic and Georgian poetics. Denise deCaires Narain suggests that Marson was overlooked because poetry concerning the condition and status of females was not important to audiences at the time the works were produced. Other critics, by contrast, praised Marson for her modern style. Some, like Narain, even suggest that her mimicking challenged conventional poetry of the time in an effort to criticize European poets. Regardless, Marson was active in the West Indian writing community during that period. Her involvement with Caribbean Voices was important to publicising Caribbean literature internationally, as well as spurring nationalism within the Caribbean Islands, which she represented.

Information Acquired from:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Una_Marson on March 27, 2011

http://www.flickr.com/photos/28320522@N08/2668447857/ on March 27, 2011

Book: The life of Una marson by Delia Jarrett-Macauley

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/womanshour/01/2009_09_tue.shtml on March 28, 2011



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