Caribbean Biography Series
- Published: June 2019
Born in 1905 in rural Jamaica, Una Marson takes up poet and novelist Claude McKay’s literary torch to give value to African Jamaican aesthetics and to serve as a spokesperson for the labouring class of African Jamaicans. Marson’s work embodied anti-colonialism, anti-racism, feminism, class politics and pan-Africanism. Indeed, her efforts in championing Jamaican literature, as well as her avid support for Caribbean writers in Britain and the region, made her a key proponent of the development of a national and West Indian literary canon.
Marson’s writings have influenced a number of Caribbean creative writers who, like herself, have used literature as an anchor to advocate cultural and political transformation in their native and host countries. Jamaican poet and academic Afua Cooper, for instance, has pointed to Marson’s work as a major influence in shaping her literary and advocacy work in her adopted home of Canada. Marson’s commitment to women’s liberation, racial justice, class levelling, and desire to depart from British poetic models shaped a generation of writers who promoted cultural and political sovereignty. Marson belongs to a long line of black internationalists, intellectuals and activists, such as C.L.R. James, whose works have been significant in the struggles for cultural assertion and self-determination of people of African descent as well as those in Africa.
Marson’s travels opened up opportunities and introduced her to many black political and cultural figures, such as Emperor Haile Selassie and Paul Robeson. The network she formed in Europe and her own personal experience with racial prejudice would help to inform her work. Marson championed African Jamaican folk materials and symbols in her work to highlight the day-to-day realities of the dispossessed majority in her homeland and in the wider African diaspora. Her literary contacts with African American writers also nourished her creativity, especially in the development of a new and distinct literary style that broke with conventional English literature.
Marson’s valorization of her African Jamaican heritage and her Caribbeanization of jazz in her creative work added to her growth as a poet and playwright. She challenged and refashioned the literary convention at a time when the British cultural influence was dominant in shaping anglophone Caribbean identities.
As one of the first leading black feminists, Marson used her position to speak out against sexism and to intersect issues of race and class to articulate the struggles of women of the African diaspora. Her ideas around gender and race aimed to foster understanding and represent the diversity that made up key components of the heterogeneous nature of people of African descent. These differences are reflected in many poems in which she portrays the lives of African diaspora women through various lenses. The lonely and exoticized African Caribbean colonial migrant is depicted in her poem “Little Brown Girl”, and the labour exploitation of black working-class Jamaican women is expressed in “The Stone Breakers”.
Coupled with her contribution and commitment to Caribbean and British literature and culture, Marson was a central player in the transnational and intercultural conversation that Paul Gilroy has identified as “The Black Atlantic”. Marson moved between Jamaica and England during the formative years of her development as a poet. Her collection of poems The Moth and the Star (1937) conveys the diasporic sensibilities that spoke of the tension between the West Indies and the “mother country” and underscores the collective formation of a distinctive black diaspora literary voice. Her speaker, Quashie, for instance, in the poem “Quashie Comes to London”, comically reflects on his alienation in London as a Caribbean immigrant trying to culturally negotiate the terrain of his outsider status. The complex relationship between the speaker and the empire offered a fresh template for engaging in dialogue around African identities through the perspective of the Black Atlantic. The experience of in-betweenness by the homesick immigrant would also become a common thread in Caribbean diasporic fiction.
Una Marson’s work spans four published collections of poetry and three plays between 1930 and 1945, and, following her involvement in the Voice series at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), she established her own radio show, Caribbean Voices. Ironically, Marson’s presence in Caribbean literature is often overlooked despite her tremendous achievement in internationalizing a Caribbean literary canon through this show. Her cultural advocacy around black nationalism is also overshadowed by African Caribbean and African American male writers such as Aimé Césaire, Claude McKay and Langston Hughes.
As with her celebrated male counterparts, pan-Africanism became a leading marker in Marson’s political activism. Her pan-Africanist vision focused on educational reform on her island, a reform that aimed to see Jamaican children being taught about their African past rather than the traditional Eurocentric curriculum. Marson’s creative work also reflected her pan-African political vision. Poems such as “Black Is Fancy” and “Kinky Hair Blues”, in her ground-breaking collection of poetry The Moth and the Star, gave special attention to countering European beauty aesthetics as the standard and encouraging African racial pride for black women.
While Marson has remained on the margins of the Caribbean literary canon, Lloyd W. Brown has applauded her as the “first female poet of significance to emerge in West Indies literature”.1 Also, the emergence of black feminist literary criticism in the 1980s brought Marson’s work to the fore for a new generation. More recently, Marson’s plays Pocomania and London Calling have been published by Blouse and Skirt Books.
Like Claude McKay, Marson’s literary and political workwas inspired by her birthplace, Jamaica, and later extended to a broader community of diasporic Africans whose desire was to claim a distinct national voice and identity. In contrast to McKay, Marson stayed in Jamaica to bear witness to the actualization of a “cultural renaissance” that would finally acknowledge and value African Jamaican culture. The 1950s and 1960s ushered in a new artistic and literary dawn for anglophone Caribbean people, as evident in the number of artists, musicians and creative writers working in and outside of the Caribbean. Writers such as Jamaican Andrew Salkey, Barbadian George Lamming and Trinidadian Samuel Selvon began to make their mark internationally as prominent Caribbean writers and cultural activists. By this time, “Una Marson had completed her life’s journey of writing and social activism, and she could sit firmly at the same table with notable Black male internationalists. Working within the agenda of Black internationalist politics, Marson’s lifelong work was devoted to Black self-determination, nationalism in her country, and attempts to broaden the ties between diverse African populations around the world.”2 Marson’s work was instructive and ahead of its time. She boldly challenged racial inequality, affirmed standards of black beauty and black identity, and explored the complexities of gender, religious discrimination and class/economic exploitation. She did not frame her work around a single cause but, instead, she was mindful of the multiple intersections of oppression. In the end, through her advocacy and pioneering work, Marson achieved a voice for the oppressed.
Virtual Book Launch
Virtual Book Launch of Una Marson
This is an audio sample of Una Marson chapter 1.