The Life of Una Marson 1905-1965

Delia Jarrett-Macauley
Manchester University Press, 1998

Una Marson, a Jamaican, was the first Black woman programme maker at the BBC. She worked for the BBC from 1939 to 1946 and helped many service men and women and Caribbean people during the war. She had come to England in 1932 intending to stay for a few weeks. Like many migrant people she stayed for many years. At first while living in Peckham, south London, she worked as secretary to the League of Coloured Peoples, the first Black-led political organisation in England. But before long she became well known in London as a feminist activist who talked about Black women's experiences such as discrimination in the nursing profession. She joined the Women's International League for Peace and other organisations. England made Una Marson more aware of race equality issues around the world - from West Africa to the US - and as secretary to Haile Selassie she traveled to the League of Nations with him in 1936 to plead for Abyssinia.

Among her BBC colleagues were George Orwell and TS Eliot; among her African-American writer friends she counted Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson. As the first major woman poet of the Caribbean and a playwright, she has gained a reputation as a literary pioneer. Her life was varied and exciting: on the invitation of Golda Meir, she worked in Haifa, Israel, during the early 1960s. Almost thirty years before she had set up the Jamaican Save the Children Fund, pleaded the cause of Rastafarian children and assisted Norman Manley in the anti-colonial struggle. She loved her country although for many years she was away from home.

The Life of Una Marson 1905-1965 tells us how a 20th century black woman from a small Jamaican village could become the first major Caribbean woman poet, a playwright, feminist activist and broadcaster. Stuart Hall has called the book 'a significant contribution to the work of historical memory'.

Let her be remembered and honoured.

Delia Jarrett-Macauley

Some reviews of 'The Life of Una Marson 1905-1965'

'A compelling biography of the Jamaican-born activist'.
Margaret Busby, Sunday Times

'A significant contribution to the work of historical memory'.
Stuart Hall

'Thoroughly researched and well documented, this is a major event in the field of Caribbean cultural studies'.
Dr. Stewart Brown, University of Birmingham

'A balanced and genuinely inspiring appraisal&.'
Kevin Le Gendre, Independent on Sunday

'An excellent biography of a previously little known woman&.it is time Una Marson got some credit.'
Caroline Benn, North West Labour History

Blue Plaque Award 2005

Una Marson the first female black programme maker for the BBC has been awarded a blue plaque by Southwark Council. More details can be found on

Articles from

Sistah Soul-jah: The Caribbean poet who captured the rhythms of resistance

Love of her Afro-Caribbean heritage helped Una Marson affirm her right as a woman and a writer to be both Black and British

Una Marson
Una Marson (right), TS Eliot (left), George Orwell and colleague (rear)

Somewhere between her birth in middle class rural Jamaica, her pioneering social work in Kingston's slum yards, and her expatriate life in London at war, the lovelorn country girl Una Marson (1905-65) became a fighting partisan of Black poetics and politics.

After decades of obscurity, the first major West Indian woman poet is the subject of a book by Delia Jarrett-Macauley, The Life of Una Marson. In this enlightening work, Marson emerges as a prime narrator of major themes affecting Black women writers of Caribbean origin.

Two large issues provoked her work and excites attention. She captured the calypsonian air of topical stories, sounds and music; and she exposed colonial fears and prejudices.

Today, no less than in Marson's time, her interwoven themes of cultural identity and female sexuality, of self-doubt and disadvantage, require intimate inspection.

To many admirers her Black poetics and politics offer a firm basis for a writer's commitment to a fair and equal world. Marson delved deep into the multi-layered heritage of Blacks in colonial Jamaica. Her poetic tributes to her ancestral African roots soar into an anthem of universal humanity.

  • In Songs of Africa (1930) she applauds the music of Afro-Creole people of the Americas that fosters race pride and the determination to be free. Fragments of colour, people, places and warmth form an intricate pattern.
  • Again, in There will come a time (1931) she cries out for racial equality as the foundation of her dream of the oneness of the world's diverse peoples.
  • Her poem To Mothers (1931) is a praise-song to women of all races seeking to build a world of equality. Years later, this theme is celebrated in The Moth and the Star (1937), her third collection of poems.

Uniquely, Marson illustrates how women used poetry to express their sufferings and avoid terrible retribution, like the Black preacher during slavery. Her first collection of love poems Tropic Reveries (1930), set in Jamaican colonial culture, explores women's political and subversive yearning for freedom from cultural domination.

In London, this yearning conflicted sharply with the modish white-affected Anglo-Black fashions. Marson's poem Kinky Hair Blues, explores the damaged self-image of Black women in a society where white is the definition of beauty and Afro-Caribbean lips, hips and hair are devalued.

Her use of local tones and voices never really satisfied Black bourgeois tastes and attitudes. Liberal whites were uncomfortable with her affirmation that black is beautiful. You are struck by the writer's searingly courageous stance.

The mass of Marson's literary output shows that her political views were no sudden eruption. They were always at hand strengthening her Black poetics.

In the 1930s while writing love poems she had set up the Jamaican Save the Children Fund, pleaded the cause of Rastafarian children and assisted the firebrand politician Norman Manley in the anti-colonial struggle.

In war time London, as Churchill launched his appeal to Britain's colonials to join his fight on the seas, the landing grounds and battlefields, Marson joined the BBC. She was appointed to the West Indian broadcasting service of the Empire division. West Indies Calling was her maiden programme in her five years of association with BBC, 1940 to 1945.

Early on she enjoyed reading her poetry and consorting with the writers TS Eliot and Eric Blair (George Orwell) of the India service. Then came her golden opportunity. She founded her own programme, Caribbean Voices, in March 1943, and became the BBCs first Black woman producer.

Her programme format was simple, recalls Glyne Griffith in an internet article on the development of Caribbean literature. Voices was broadcast on Sundays from London studios to eager listeners in the anglophone Caribbean. Marson and invited literary figures would discuss the submitted works of aspiring poets and fiction writers in Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados and Guyana.

But, she became increasingly sceptical and disenchanted with the "internal battles and troubled moments" with BBC managers. They thought only of promoting British authors to Caribbean listeners, she remarked upon her departure from service in 1945.

(That the BBCs overseas services were influenced by government policy to requisition colonial labour and resources while stifling nationalist activism was another issue that, loyal subject as she was, she could never reconcile.)

The boldness of this move in wartime London, especially for a dependant Black woman, was remarkable. Again her political instincts were tested as she expanded her social work skills and political interests. She put her energies into helping disadvantaged Black people in south London. Taking a crucial step in her political upbringing, she worked with Dr George Moody in the League of Coloured People, the first Black-led race equality and anti-colonialist organisation in England.

In the company of activist CLR James and the welfare officer and cricketer Learie Constantine, Marson honed her skills in political poetry. Her narrative wartime poem Convoy, which appeared in the League's journal, salutes "my own blood brothers/ Brown like me·"

She could hardly contain her anger at racial discrimination in her scathing poem Towards the Stars (1945). The hated colour-bar was as evident in metropolitan London as in colonial Kingston. In the poem Politeness she wrote:

"They tell us
That our skin is black
But our hearts are white

We tell them
That their skin is white
But their hearts are black"

Throughout her life, interrupted by bouts of despondency, Marson promoted the rights of women. She railed against the maltreatment of women workers, students and nurses, and joined the radical Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

Convinced that achieving Black solidarity around the world was the prelude to Black Freedom, Marson welcomed Jamaican Marcus Garvey's pan-Africanist message of "African liberation, at home and abroad". As a writer, she kept in touch with the icons of the "Harlem Renaissance", African Americans writers Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson. As a political activist, she travelled with Emperor Haile Selassie to the League of Nations in 1936 to protest Italy's invasion and violation of Ethiopia's sovereignty.

Looking back, it is extraordinary that it was a radio programme, Caribbean Voices, under Marson's initial stewardship, which so crucially introduced Caribbean poetry to white metropolitan audiences. She sensed that radio, the supreme voice-to-ear mass medium, admirably suited New World Afro-Caribbeans and their lively speech patterns.

There is another fact derived from Marson's efforts that is self-evident now. Awareness of colonial history and racism in the pre-independence British West Indies is essential to appreciating the cultural context of Caribbean literature.

  • "Understanding this talented woman is now more urgently required than ever before," says Prof Stuart Hall, the West Indian-born social scientist. And there are several reasons for this.
  • Her life "bridges the gap between the 'coloured' middle class world of pre-independence Jamaica, the literary life of wartime London and the emerging 'politics of colour' of the inter-war years", he says.
  • She represents a courageous struggle by Black men and women "to live an independent and racially conscious life in the years before the 'mass' Caribbean migration [to Britain] of the 60s," says Professor Hall.

Doubtlessly, if Una Marson had published her own story of her life in Britain during the 1930s and 1940s we would know more about her thoughts and interests. Among the striking conclusions that we can draw, however, is that her autobiography would have predated and contrasted perfectly with the seminal, but male-perceived, works of the Trinidadian Samuel Selvon's The Lonely Londoners (1956) and the Barbadian George Lamming's The Emigrants (1954)

The personal reflections of this articulate and politically active Black woman in inter-war England need to be unearthed, says Marson's biographer Delia Jarrett-Macauley. Sadly, when asked, today's heirs of Marson's service to the West Indies (of whom Trinidadian-born Sir Trevor McDonald, the elder statesman of Black broadcasters is a prominent beneficiary), know little about her.

In all probability, the record of the first Black woman BBC radio producer has been erased and recycled, and lost forever. As a result, Afro-Britons are unable to reclaim, yet again, another part of their heritage in Britain.

Nevertheless, from what we know, if the poetics and politics of Una Marson were summarised in a message to today's Black women writers, the words might read:

No more moaning and groaning
No more self-hatred masquerading as integration.
No more rejecting your own Ethiop's child for somebody else's Barbie doll.
You are part of a strong African-Caribbean influenced literary tradition.
Affirm your right as an individual, a woman and a writer to be both Black and British.

Further reading
Delia Jarrett-Macauley, The Life of Una Marson (1905 - 1965). Manchester University Press 1998

And, for works on postcolonial writing and theory, in particular Caribbean literature and women's writing, on feminist theory and its intersection with postcolonial theory, and on Black British writing and contemporary culture, see:

Companion to Contemporary Black British Culture (Routledge, 2001)

The Veil: Postcolonialism and the Politics of Dress, Special Issue of Interventions, 1.4 (1999)

Caribbean Women Writers: Fiction in English, ed. Maryse Conde (Macmillan, 1999)

'Sentimental Subversions: the poetics and politics of devotion in the poetry of Una Marson', in Kicking Daffodils: essays on Twentieth-Century Women's Poetry, ed. Vicki Bertram (Edinburgh University Press,1997) "

The Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature (Routledge, 1996)

Deconstructing Nationalisms: Henry Swanzy, Caribbean Voices and the Development of West Indian Literature. Glyne Griffith. Small Axe, Number 10

Article: Sistah Soul-jah: The Caribbean poet who captured the rhythms of resistance
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- first published 22/11/03
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