Remembering Una Marson: black feminist pioneer
‘What man has done women may do.’
When Una Marson (1905-1965) uttered those words in 1928 she anticipated her own trajectory as one of Jamaica’s most important feminist writers. Becoming the country’s first magazine publisher at 21-years-old, Marson went on a journey that would see her publish poetry, write plays, challenge racism and sexism in London and the wider world, and bring a black feminist’s sensibility to the male-centric black internationalist movement.
The youngest of six children, Marson had a traditional Jamaican middle-class childhood. ‘Her father was a pastor, and died when she was 10,’ says Dr Delia Jarrett-Macauley, Marson’s official biographer. ‘She 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.’
It was Marson’s decision to move to London in 1932 that galvanised her politics and changed the tenor of her poetry. While her first collection, Tropic Reveries, which was published two years earlier, focused on questions of identity and love, the racism and discrimination she felt in the metropole changed not only the themes she engaged with, but also how she wrote about them.
In the searing seven-part ‘N*****’, written in July 1933, Marson expresses fury at a young white girl’s taunts: ‘What made me keep my fingers / From choking the words in their throats?’, she writes, presaging the disillusionment and frustration that future generations of Caribbean migrants would face as they moved to an unwelcoming England after World War II.
Being in London at that time also meant being at the heart of the Pan-Africanist movement. Marson soon attracted attention for her outspoken ideals about empowering black women to stand up and speak about their ordeals, and espousing pride in one’s heritage. ‘Lord ‘tis you did gie me/All dis kinky hair,’ she writes in the poem ‘Kinky Hair Blues’, an ode to black beauty written in the dialect of her home. ‘All dis kinky hair,/And I don’t envy gals/What got dose locks so fair.’
Her views and her work both as a playwright and a journalist at the BBC led to her formally becoming part of the black internationalist movement as a member of the League of Coloured Peoples, where she championed radical feminism.
Black Internationalism is a loose term used to define an ideological movement that sees a common link between all people of African heritage, be they from the continent or part of the wider diaspora, and urges political and intellectual solidarity among them. At the time that Marson began participating in one of the myriad organisations linked to this broad movement, its key concerns were independence from European colonial domination and challenging the racist thought that underpinned them. What was special about Marson’s contribution was her championing of the role women had to play in the struggle for liberation and equality in a space defined by black male intellectuals and politicians like Haile Selaisse, Jomo Kenyatta, Amilcar Cabral and Malcolm X.
‘She found a way to navigate through a very male dominated terrain at the time via her poetry,’ says Dr Jarrett-Macauley. ‘Marson provided a black feminist spin on the mainstream black internationalist discourse – but she also challenged white feminists to recognise the racism that Black women had to endure.’
In 1935, Marson travelled to Istanbul to address the Congress of International Women. She was the only black woman in attendance and challenged her audience with her experiences of racism and urged them to stand in solidarity with their African counterparts in the struggle for race and gender equality.
Marson wrote a poem in honour of the Istanbul conference a decade later as part of her collection Towards the Stars where she hailed the ‘[w]omen of England who in freedom’s name/Work with courageous women of all lands,/For Women’s rights, yet not for women’s fame.”
The poem is purposefully juxtaposed with ‘The Stone Breakers’ a raw, gritty composition, written in Jamaican dialect, that centres on the painful physical labour that is demanded from women. ‘Liza me chile, I’s really tired/But wha fe do – we mus’ brok de stone’ was Marson’s way of highlighting how much work in freedom’s name was still left to do.
Marson would spend this part of her life criss-crossing between Jamaica and London, expressing her political views and thoughts via her words and championing of literature. Her response to the burgeoning Jamaican nationalist movement back home was to embrace it; but in a manner that highlighted the role that Jamaican women needed to play in the building of their home through access to better education and being given the space to express themselves.
In London, Marson’s prolific poetry and plays, especially 1938’s Pocomania which features African musical arrangements and a story about an Africanist revivalist sect in rural Jamaica, helped cultivate Jamaican literature. Her work at the BBC led her to become the public broadcaster’s first ever black producer in 1942. With a little help from George Orwell, Marson transformed a show about wartime messages from West Indian servicemen into Caribbean Voices; a landmark moment which helped showcase the talents of the first generation of writers from the region in England, like Derek Walcott and VS Naipaul.
How do we evaluate Marson’s contributions to black internationalist thought? The work she produced in her life shows how her ideas about black identity and womanhood changed as she encountered racism and sexism abroad. What she was able to do was provide a new perspective: one that championed the experience of black feminism and challenged the efficacy of an ideology which was not willing to listen to all the people it claimed to stand for, men and women.
Another black feminist writer, Audre Lorde, coined the term ‘sister outsider’ to refer to erasure from mainstream feminist and Africanist thought. Something similar can be said of Marson too, and the absence of other radical Caribbean women from the story of Pan-Africanism as well.
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