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The BBC's forgotten black female star

IT’S FAIR TO SAY that the name of Una Marson isn’t a household one in this country.

And that’s a surprise given her achievements.

Marson, a pioneering Jamaican feminist, journalist, poet and broadcaster became the first black female producer at the BBC in 1942, overseeing a programme that went on to have a huge influence on a generation of Caribbean writers.

She was also a key figure in 20th century black internationalist politics.

Una Maud Victoria Marson was born in May 1905 in St Elizabeth, Jamaica, the youngest of six children.

From an early age she was introduced to poetry by her sisters Edith and Ethel.

As a child before going to school she was a keen reader of literature, which at the time was mostly English classical literature.

After leaving the prestigious Hampton High boarding school in 1922 Marson moved to Kingston in search of an opportunity to make her mark.

The opportunity came when she began working as assistant editor on the socio-political journal the Jamaica Critic in 1926.

However, the role left her stifled as her work was restricted to ‘feminine subjects’ preventing her from writing about the social issues she was so passionate about.


PIONEER: Una Marson

She left the Jamaica Critic to set up her own magazine, The Cosmopolitan, making her the country’s first female editor-publisher.

The Cosmopolitan was created to ‘do all we can to encourage talented young people to express themselves freely’ and to develop ‘literary and other artistic talents in our island’. Marson was especially concerned with developing the literary talent and highlighting the concerns of women, proclaiming in the pages of her first edition, ‘This is the age of woman: What man has done women may do’.

OUTLET

The publication, which ran from 1928 to 1931, featured poetry, short stories and articles.

It was also an outlet to highlight social concerns in Jamaica she was concerned about such as race and class prejudices and gender issues.

In her editorials, Marson consistently argued for the expansion of education and employment opportunities for women, the development of women’s self-help groups, and the granting of women’s suffrage.

Although The Cosmopolitan struggled to find an audience, it offered opportunities to emerging Jamaican writers.

Alongside her journalistic work, Marson was a successful poet.

She published a number of poetry collections exploring themes such as the relationships between men and women in a male-dominated society.

Her early work reflected her colonial upbringing and education. Tropic Reveries (1930) and Heights and Depth (1931), adapted traditional European literary structure.

Her travels abroad during the 1930s widened her knowledge about issues of race and this was reflected in her later works.

The Moth and the Star (1937), her third volume of poems, highlighted the experiences of black women who had to contend with white beauty standards.

Marson was also passionate about creating opportunities for Caribbean writers and was behind a number of initiatives to achieve this such as the Kingston Drama Club, and the Poetry League.

She also started a publishing press. Following the closure of The Cosmopolitan Marson decided that she wanted to broaden her horizons and publishing ambitions, and travelled to London in 1932. It was the first of two long stays in Britain, the first from 1932 to 1938 and again from 1938-45.

STRUGGLED

Arriving in 1932 she stayed in Peckham, south east London, at the house of Jamaican-born Dr Harold Moody, who had founded the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP) a year earlier.

Marson initially struggled to adjust to life in London, her experience marred by the realities of a cold, class-divided, and frequently racist society that was Britain in the 1930s and 40s.

This struggle to adapt was reflected in a poem she wrote called N****r, which was published in the LCP newspaper The Keys. It has been described as Marson’s most damning critique of British racism.

In it she traces her painful reaction to being called the ‘N-word’ by tracing its roots to slavery when it was used as a term to dehumanise black people, justifying their enslavement, and used to create a sense of inferiority in the eyes of white people.

It was during her second period in London that she made her mark at the BBC.

She joined the corporation as a programme assistant in 1939 and went on to work on the Calling the West Indies programme.

Marson later developed the ground-breaking literary show Caribbean Voices, a programme that would have a crucial impact on the development of new writers from the English-speaking Caribbean.

Barbadian poet and academic Edward Kamau Brathwaite, widely considered to be one of the region’s most influential figures, said in his 1984 book History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry that Caribbean Voices was the “single most important literary catalyst for Caribbean creative and critical writing in English”.

Just how important a figure she was is illustrated in a 1942 photograph as she prepares for a broadcast. Sitting next to her is the famous British poet T. S. Eliot while literary giant George Orwell peers over Marson’s shoulder.


BROADCASTER: Una Marson developed the ground-breaking literary show Caribbean Voices

Also present in the picture is Meary James Tambimuttu who for many years played an important role in London’s literary circle through Poetry London, the publication he founded.

However, while at the BBC Marson faced prejudice from colleagues who were often uncomfortable with working with a black woman.

She had previously suffered from depression, but in 1945, after having lived without family or close friends and working long hours, the depression returned.

Marson returned to Jamaica in April 1946.

Her illness kept her out the public eye for nearly two years, but she would continue her activism and journalism for the next two decades.

She campaigned for the Rastafarian community and successfully set up a home for them in Jamaica. The activist and broadcaster also created the Save the Children Fund, an organisation that helped to pay for the basic education of poorer children.

According to published sources and acquaintances, Marson’s extensive travels and campaigning played a role in her ill health and she continued to struggle with depression.

HONOURED

While speaking at a conference in Jerusalem in 1965 on The Role of Women in the Struggle for Peace and Development, Marson was taken ill and was flown back to Jamaica. After 10 days in hospital, she suffered a heart attack and died on May 6, 1965.

In 2009 Marson was honoured with a blue plaque at her former home in south London.

The plaque was put up in Brunswick Square, in Camberwell, where she lived for a time.

Her first address in London, was in Queen’s Road, in Peckham, where she lived while working as secretary to the League of Coloured Peoples.

As we enter International Women’s Month it is fitting to celebrate Una Marson for her work as a poet, journalist and pioneering broadcaster who gave a platform to fellow writers from the Caribbean.

For more information on the life of this remarkable woman please visit www.africansinyorkshireproject.com

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