[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] This is Part 1 of a two-part article by Michael Reckord (Jamaica Gleaner) on the new book Una Marson (Caribbean Biography Series, The University of the West Indies Press, 2019) by Lisa Tomlinson. Here are excerpts:
[. . .] Tomlinson said that Marson, her “favourite literary and cultural icon”, produced four collections of poetry and three plays between 1930 and 1945, but she was more than just a writer. She was also “a cultural activist, who worked to revive the cultural scene, not just in Jamaica, but regionally and internationally”.
By the end of her tumultuous life in May 1965, she had travelled far from the tiny district of Sharon, St Elizabeth, where she was born on February 6, 1905, the youngest of six children of the Rev Solomon Isaac Marson and Ada Marson. She and two of her sisters went on to attend Hampton School, “an elite and conservative boarding school for primarily upper-class white and light-skinned girls … known for its educational excellence”. It was there, writes Tomlinson, that Marson developed “an awareness of race and class as she observed the racial differences and prejudice directed towards dark-skinned girls” like herself. Her light-skinned sisters, on the other hand, “were favoured by the school teachers and administration”.
Tomlinson laments the fact that “Marson’s presence in Caribbean literature is often overlooked despite her tremendous achievement in internationalising a Caribbean literary canon” through, for one, the BBC radio show she established and hosted, ‘Caribbean Voices’.
Tomlinson quotes West Indian critic Lloyd W. Brown’s statement that Marson was the “first female poet of significance to emerge in West Indian literature”. And that is only one of Marson’s many important ‘firsts’ cited in the lecturer’s handsome, easy-to-read book.
At age 20, in Kingston, she started working as assistant editor for the political journal Jamaica Critic, gaining skills which led to another ‘first’ – her becoming a co-founder, main editor and writer of the monthly magazine Cosmopolitan. The first of its kind in Jamaica, it became “a major outlet to politicise feminist views, as well as cultural and literary topics”.
[. . .] In 1935, after landing a short-term job with the League of Nations in Geneva, she got to work with Emperor Haile Selassie in his fight against the Fascist takeover of Ethiopia. Tomlinson writes: “Influenced by Garvey, Marson’s support of African cultural expressions was intended to be a vehicle to challenge white cultural hegemony and was also to be seen as a connecting force to unite African people and to ignite African pride.”
That same year, Marson became the first black woman to go to the 12th Annual Congress of the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship in Istanbul, Turkey. There she delivered her “most emotional speech ever”. In it, she demanded that white feminists recognise the struggle of black people across the world and, as a result, received commendation from the British press.
Back in Jamaica for two years, from 1936, she started a column in the newly established weekly Public Opinion, and continued to write on women’s issues and “the class system that exploited and dominated the labouring classes”. She and fellow activist Amy Bailey not only worked together “to challenge the leadership of white upper-class women”, but they started Jamaica Save the Children (JamSave) to support poor children and their families. [. . .]
Also see article by Jemimah Norman, “Who was… Una Marson? Notes on the BBC’s first black woman broadcaster” at https://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/aboutthebbc/entries/e672b021-d9a0-473b-acbd-36a11cf47782