The political and intellectual life of Jamaica’s Una Marson — Black Caribbean Feminism vol. 1

Uma Marson pictured at her office desk, courtesy of the BBC.

Outside of Jamaica and a handful of academic circles, few are familiar with the life and times of the distinguished writer, radio producer, social reformer, and diplomat Una Marson.

Una Marson was a leading Caribbean intellectual and Pan-African feminist thinker who found prominence between 1928–1945 with her socially conscious poetry and drama, dedication to the Caribbean arts, seething political commentary, and tireless activism. That her life and works are without wider audiences is an unfortunate historical circumstance, largely symptomatic of her position as a woman and her Afro Caribbean heritage. Marson was a luminary whose body of literary, broadcasting, and political works spanned the geographies of three continents, earning the Jamaican national a kind of international stature presumed unattainable for Caribbean-born and Black women of the early to mid 20th century.

Her life began inauspiciously as Una Maud Victoria Marson in 1905 St. Elizabeth parish, Jamaica, where she was born to a devout pair of Protestant parents on February 6th of that year. Few details are known about Marson’s mother, Ada Marson, but we do know that her father, Solomon Isaac Marson, was a Reverend in a local Baptist church, also serving on the Board of Trustees for the Hampton High girls school. When Marson reached the tender age of 10, she was afforded her first and only opportunity at formal education. Her father, Solomon, would die in 1915. Whatever the arrangements prepared around his passing, it ensured the family a middle-class standing and made it possible for Una to attend Hampton High, the academy over which her father once served. She would remain enrolled at Hampton from 1915 until graduation in 1922, receiving up to what could be best described as an 8th or 9th grade education here in the United States.

Up until 1962, Jamaica was a colonial possession of Great Britain. The education available for Afro Jamaicans, and particularly Jamaican girls at the time, would have hardly set the stage for the literary, creative, and political achievements Una was able to garner over her lifetime. The gender-segregated colonial curriculum, formalized in 1898, would have emphasized vocational and domestic skills, instructing Una and other Jamaican girls in basic literacy, arithmetic, sewing, and some occasional lessons in social studies. The colonial government of Jamaica looked to the education of Blacks as a conduit for maintaining a reserve of cheap labor, readily available for the bevy of custodial, manual, plantation, and domestic work ruling whites deferred to Black Jamaicans.

Undereducated, yet teeming with curiosity and fitted with the importunate work ethic of her people, Una seized every opportunity available in Kingston, Jamaica for creative, intellectual, literary, and civic development. Higher education would not be available on the island for another 26 years.

After graduation from Hampton High in 1922, Una found work, largely volunteer, as a community service worker with the Salvation Army and YMCA, and as a stenographer with The Jamaica Critic. Her community service experiences in urban Kingston is likely to have played a role in shaping her commitments to the impoverished and disenfranchised of Jamaica and the world. While working as a stenographer with The Jamaica Critic, a position just opening up to Afro Jamaica women, Una received professional exposure to the media and access to current affairs and the leading social issues of the day. These experiences would prove invaluable to her literary, intellectual, and political careers.

By 1926, Una was already demonstrating her drive to outmaneuver all conventions outfitted for Black women in Jamaica. At the young age of 21, with 7 years of formal education under her belt, Una made history becoming the assistant editor at The Jamaica Critic. She would break glass ceilings and reprise similar roles on numerous occasions throughout her career.

In 1928, she made history again becoming the first woman in Jamaica of any race to found, own, publish, and or serve as the editor for a publication. With the experiences garnered at the Critic, Una launched her own journal and magazine The Cosmopolitan, which proved a progressive, and perhaps even radical publication for 1920s Jamaica. Aimed primarily at middle-class Jamaican women, Una sought to raise the social and political consciousness of her countrywomen and provide an outlet for female creativity and intellectual exchange. The periodical published short stories, poems, and articles that tackled racial and gender issues, championing progressive causes and advocating for universal suffrage. “This is the age of woman,” she proclaimed in her Kingston offices, “what man has done women may do.”

By 1932, in addition to her prized editorial and commentative accumen, Una became an award-winning author and celebrated playwright, publishing two poetry collections: Tropic Reveries (1930) and Heights and Depth (1931) as well as staging her first play: At What a Price (1932). Tropic Reveries would win her the country’s highest honor, The Musgrave Medal. Her stage play would become a commercial and critical success. Available sources would indicate Marson as the first woman of any race in Jamaica to accomplish any of these feats.

With the money flowing in from her play, Una decided to embark on a journey to London in July 1932. By the time she left at 27 years old, Una had already become an established editor, publisher, poet, author, and playwright. She became the most decorated female intellectual in Jamaica. Her political awakening was waiting around the bend.

Una had originally planned on a four month excursion to London, but after becoming connected and politically involved with some of the world’s leading Black intellectuals while stationed in Britain, Marson’s stay wounded up lasting a whopping four years.

In March 1931, Charles H. Wesley, the Harvard educated African American historian and divinity scholar, had temporarily relocated to London from America on a Guggenheim Fellowship. While he remained there, he became acquainted with Harold Moody, a Jamaican-born physician who travelled to London in 1904, a year before Marson’s birth, to study medicine.

Moody had experienced the anti-Black racism and discrimination characteristic of imperial Britain, and had been campaigning against discrimination in the London job market with the London Christian Endeavour Foundation. With Wesley, who in the United States had been a member of the NAACP, they conceived of a new organization, that would be modeled after the famed NAACP, and would champion the rights of Black Britons. Out of these conversations emerged one of the most famous British civil rights organizations in history, the League of Coloured Peoples.

Within a matter of months of touching down in London, Una had already made acquaintance with Moody and had managed to become the editor for The Keys in 1932, the journal-publication for the year old League of Coloured Peoples. This remarkable achievement cannot be understressed. For starters, the League would later claim membership of some of the century’s greatest intellectuals and rising political figures including: Trinidadian-born Marxist C.L.R. James, Kenya’s first prime minister Jomo Kenyatta, and communist and leading Pan-African thinker Trinidadian national George Padmore. Additionally, and most notably, the League had been structured correspondingly with the NAACP, making Una the British-equivalent to the editor of the NAACP’s The Crisis, none other than famed W.E.B. Du Bois himself.

Both female and under 30, Una was the first woman to reach this level of prominence within the League of Coloured Peoples, a feat that no woman could claim within the organization or the NAACP.

In 1933, a year after her arrival, Marson was able to stage her acclaimed play At What a Price at the Scala Theatre in London. It became the first play written or directed by a Black woman to grace a British stage and also became the first play in Britain to consist of a majority-Black cast. Her fellow Leaguers reprised the roles.

Her political career also peaked during this period, particularly between 1934–1936. Una became the leading and most recognizable Black female figure in international politics. In 1935, she was invited to speak at the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship conference, the first and only Black woman to attend or receive an invitation to speak before that time. At the conference she delivered a speech entitled “East and West in Cooperation” and used her platform to advocate for women in the colonized African nations.

Her advocacy turned to concrete political action when she offered her assistance to Dr. Charles Martin, Ethiopia’s first western-trained physician following Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Shortly thereafter, she went on to serve as personal secretary to Emperor Haile Selassie, accompanying him to the League of Nations in 1936. She was likely one of a few Black women present in Geneva, if not the only one, and likely the first to attend on professional business.

But this strenuous workload, as impressive as it were, was not without its consequences. Una suffered a major nervous breakdown in 1936 and temporarily relocated back to her home country of Jamaica that year as a result. In a matter months, she resumed her strenuous yet groundbreaking political work however, this time from her island home.

Back in Jamaica, the vestiges of Una’s travels began cropping up in her cultural activism, literary output, ideological orientation, and political causes. Having spent years working alongside the world’s leading Black minds, travelling across Africa and Europe, and participating in the world’s antiracist and anticolonial struggles her political awareness was heightened.

When Una returned to Jamaica in 1936, the island was embroiled in political unrest as were the other Caribbean nations under British rule. The Great Depression and the escalating wars saw critical resources diverted away from the Caribbean islands, tensing the racial, socioeconomic, and colonial dilemmas miring the nations. Labor strikes, riots, and mass protests were commonplace, and calls for decolonization and self-rule were the organizing principles of the day. Political organizations like the Peoples’ National Party and the Jamaica Workers and Tradesmen’s Union were founded during this decade.

During this period, Una also published her most politically charged and celebrated works. A poetry collection The Moth and the Star (1937) and a new stage play Poccomania (1938). Both works rejected the Romantic and Victorian themes and styles that were showcased in her early literary career. These new works championed working-class Jamaican culture, issued rejections of colonialism, critiqued Christianity and promoted a Black feminist and Pan-African worldview.

Around this time, Una began expressing cultural nationalism and pride in culture deemed authentically Black, Caribbean, and Jamaican in origins — as opposed to His Majesty’s language, culture, and art. She founded the Writers Club, the Kingston Drama Club, and the Poetry League where Afro and Jamaican creatives could harness their talents and train their political imaginations. She also began advocating for educational reforms to the colonial education system that left her devoid of cultural pride and relevant knowledge about the world upon academic completion. Her Save the Children Fund raised money for the education of impoverished Jamaican children.

After having left Britain originally for mental health purposes, Una Marson would move abroad once again, climbing to higher heights and achieving greater accomplishments than before.

I n 1938, Una relocated to London one last time, remaining there for seven years this time around. In 1941, her media career reached unprecedented levels of prestige when she became the first Black woman employed by the BBC. Una had already demonstrated her gifts as an editor and publisher in the past. With the BBC, she served as the assistant program director for the BBC’s Calling the West Indies, a radio program where Caribbean soldiers would have their letters back home broadcasted to friends and loved ones over Caribbean airwaves.

By 1942, Una became the full fledged producer of the show, the first Black woman to do so, and she quickly outfitted the program in new literary and political garments. The name of the radio program was changed from Calling the West Indies to Caribbean Voices, and the program rapidly became a hub and critical platform for a generation of high-profile Caribbean writers including V.S. Paul, Derek Walcott, Samuel Selvon and more. Serving in this capacity also saw the Jamaican writer and activist make the acquaintance of literary powerhouses like George Orwell and T.S. Eliot.

But this onslaught of work once again proved extremely isolating and taxing for Marson. In 1945, she suffered a spell of depression and another breakdown and permanently relocated back to Jamaica.

Marson’s final years were spent mostly on her island home, interrupted by a brief marriage to an African American dentist, Peter Staples, and a relocation to the United States — neither of which lasted very long.

Her final poetry collection was published in 1945, entitled Towards the Stars. And in 1949, she became a curator for Pioneer Press, the book-publishing arm of the Jamaican publication The Gleaner.

Not many details are known about Marson’s life after 1945, but it is said that her last years were spent campaigning for the Rastafari movement sweeping Jamaica’s ghettos post-World War 2.

The Rastafari movement in Jamaica had originated in the urban slums and developed a counterculture and ideology that promoted Afrocentric spirituality and philosophies as well as political self-determination.

The colonial government of Jamaica considered the movement a threat to national security and the status-quo, and sought to violently suppress it. Most respectable Blacks of the country also frowned upon the movement, but Jamaica’s youth however, like the upcoming Bob Marley, gravitated towards it.

Marson’s campaigns on behalf of the Rastafari community, given her status as a national hero, international political figure, literary giant, and leading intellectual, demonstrated her enduring commitments to working-class Jamaican culture and Pan-African perspectives.

When Marson finally died at 60 years old in 1965, she was put to rest in an unmarked grave without the kind of commemorative ceremony commanded by her illustrious career. Her campaigns on behalf of the persecuted Rastafari community during her latter years however might have been the reason.

Like Zora Neale Hurston, the groundbreaking American-born Black feminist, Una Marson’s burial suggests that she might have died in anonymity and squalor, despite her talents and illustrious career.

She was a trailblazing political, literary, and media juggernaut whose work spanned over three continents and defied all measures of success considered attainable for Caribbean-born and Black women of the early to mid 20th century. She was a pioneering Black feminist icon and theorist. Some dedicated scholars, this one included, are working to see that she is remembered among the luminaries of Black and Black feminist history.