“Kinky Hair Blues”: Una Marson’s Jamaican feminist poetry

Alexandra Edwards
Dec 21, 2016 · 3 min read

I arrived at today’s subject through one of those blissful internet rabbit holes. I’d set out to research Mulk Raj Anand, the Indian writer who once worked as an editor at Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, and who wrote a trilogy of novels about Indian political and social life while also fighting for the anti-fascist cause in the Spanish Civil War.

But while reading up on Anand’s life, I learned that in 1942 he participated in George Orwell’s BBC series “Voice,” alongside Jamaican feminist activist and poet Una Marson, who read her poem “Banjo Boy.” (Here’s Orwell writing to ask T.S. Eliot to participate in the same programme.) I’d never heard of Marson — her name alone begged for me to find out more.

Marson had already been working for the BBC since 1941, hosting and producing the series “Calling the West Indies,” which read letters from West Indian soldiers serving in the British army, so that their families in the Caribbean might hear them.

“West Indies Calling,” a 1943 newsreel featuring Una Marson introducing other West Indian public figures on the BBC

As the newsreel above demonstrates, World War II united the British with a number of colonial subjects in a common cause: the defeat of the Axis powers. This (not un-problematic) coalition-building allowed artists, writers, musicians, and other cultural workers to expose Brits (and Americans) to their art. Cultural production was brought in from the margins, so to speak, as colonial subjects like Anand and Marson used their writing to speak about their experience.

Inspired by Orwell’s series, Marson transformed “Calling the West Indies” into “Caribbean Voices,” a programme that promoted the work of Caribbean writers, many of whom would rise to 20th-century prominence (think V.S. Naipaul, Derek Walcott, and Gloria Escoffery, among many others).

At the same time, she continued to write poems, plays, and articles, many of which address the intersections of black, colonial, and female identity both in and out of Britain. “Kinky Hair Blues,” for example, laments the rigors of Western beauty standards and the pervasive feeling that a black woman must participate if she ever wants to find love.

Una Marson, from “The Moth and the Star.” Read the full poem.

Marson’s writing was part and parcel of her feminist activism. As Lisa Tomlinson notes,

In 1935, [Marson] represented Jamaica at the 20th Annual Congress of the International Alliance of Women Suffrage and Equal Citizenship held in Turkey. Marson was the only Black woman in attendance, and she presented a moving speech about her racial ordeals in Britain and challenged White women to stand in solidarity with African women in their struggle against racial and gender oppression.

A poem to the IAWSEC appears in her 1945 collection Towards the Stars, touching on that trip to Turkey:

Una Marson, from “Towards the Stars” (1945)

This poem — a sonnet with inverted sentence structure — is juxtaposed quite purposefully with the next in the collection, “The Stone Breakers.” The latter — a monologue poem about women’s excruciating physical labor written in Jamaican dialect — demonstrates why Marson is reaching out to the women of England, and how much work is left to be done “in freedom’s name… for women’s rights.”

Like her contemporary Woolf, Una Marson was unafraid of critiquing fascism at home as well as abroad, and her work shows us how it is not only possible but necessary to attack oppression on multiple fronts.


Welcome to Art Resists! Each week this newsletter promotes, discusses, and thinks through a variety of anti-fascist art. Our first “season” focuses on 1933–1945, a time when fascism and authoritarianism were sweeping Europe and Asia. Artists of conscience across the world spoke out against ethno-nationalist violence, repression, and war. Here is a glimpse of what they made.

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