Una Marson’s literary, dramatic and polemical writing, together with her pioneering contributions to broadcasting, her anti-colonialist, anti-racist and feminist activism, mark her as a truly international figure in 20th-century history.
The Jamaican-born Marson was the daughter of a Baptist parson and grew up in a rural, middle-class environment. She received a colonial English public-school education at Hampton High School, passing the Oxford and Cambridge Board’s Lower Certificate in 1921. The West Indies had no university, and Marson relocated to Kingston to undertake social work training, moving soon after into journalism. By 1926, at the age of 21, she was assistant editor of the monthly Jamaica Critic, and became Jamaica’s first woman-editor-publisher. Marson established The Cosmopolitan Monthly Magazine (1928–31), which focused upon issues concerning women’s economic and cultural status, while also publishing Jamaican poets at a time when this was rare, even in national newspapers.
Activism and first published works
Throughout the 1930s, Marson’s activism presciently emphasised the connection between art and nationalist struggle. Her involvement in pre-World War Two Jamaican life includes writing for The Daily Gleaner and The Jamaica Standard. She founded the Readers and Writers Club and Kingston Dramatic Club (1937) and established the Jamaican Save the Children Fund (1938). Her first published collection of lyrical poetry, sonnets and other miscellaneous poems, Tropic Reveries (1930) was self-financed. This was followed by her best-known collection, Heights and Depths (1931). Marson’s plays were staged both in Kingston and later, London. At What a Price (Ward Theatre, Kingston 1932, and the Scala Theatre, London 1934) and London Calling (Ward Theatre, 1937) both explore sexual politics in a patriarchal society and satirise colonial policy.
Life in London and broadcasting with the BBC
Marson was one of a number of anti-colonial activists and intellectuals who moved to London during this period. During her first period of living in London (1932–36), where she initially lodged in Peckham, Marson joined the League of Coloured Peoples, editing and contributing poems to their journal The Keys. She was a delegate to the twelfth Congress of the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Legal Citizenship, a temporary collaborator to the League of Nations, and staff member of the Ethiopian Legation.
After a breakdown, she returned to Jamaica for two years and became re-immersed in nationalist, decolonising politics, in which she continued to stress the role of Black women in the fight for freedom and socio-political change. During this period, her third poetry collection, The Moth and the Stars (1937) was published. This collection was galvanised by her experiences of living in London: both the racism she encountered and her engagement with Pan-Africanism. Her play Pocomania (Ward Theatre, 1938) was also produced. Pocomania represents a breakthrough in Jamaican theatre, through exploring the relationship between African-origin religious ritual forms, and cosmopolitan, creolised middle-class identities.
Returning to London in 1938, Marson became an influential broadcaster, journalist and poet during the Blitz, working as a full-time assistant on the BBC radio programme Calling the West Indies first aired in 1939. She evolved it into the legendary Caribbean Voices that lasted from 1944 until 1958. In 1945, Marson experienced further ill health and returned to Jamaica, the year her final volume of poems Towards the Stars was published.
The depression and anxiety that lay behind Marson’s energetic, charismatic and vibrant public image provide a poignant sub-text to her surviving literary works. Tragically, no trace of the autobiography she completed in 1937 survives. While her legacy all but disappeared in the decades after her death in 1965, late-20th century retrievals of her achievements now consolidate Marson as a major figure in the complex shared histories of the Caribbean and Britain.