U is for Una Marson (1905-1965)

Although in 1984 Lloyd W. Brown claimed Una Marson as “the earliest female poet of significance to emerge in the West Indies,” the remarkable contribution that Marson made to Jamaican and black British cultures, particularly in the 1930s, has taken far too long to be recognized. The publication of Delia Jarrett-Macauley’s The Life of Una Marson, 1905-1965, in 1998 made possible a fuller appreciation of Marson’s networks and affiliations, as well as the details of her strained personal life. The Selected Poems of Una Marson, published by Peepal Tree in 2011 made, available a wide range of Marson’s poetic output and helped to situate her poetry within her wider cultural achievements, and the re-publication of her plays London Calling and Pocomania in 2016 made Marson’s important dramatic works accessible too.

Una Maud Victoria Marson was born on February 6, 1905 in the parish of St. Elizabeth, rural Jamaica. The youngest of eight raised in the middle-class home of the Baptist Reverend Solomon Marson, Una won a boarding scholarship to the conservative Hampton High School in 1915. When she left school in 1922, her decision to work with the Salvation Army and the Y.M.C.A in Kingston indicated her commitment to social justice. Her interest in theatre was evident from her teenage years, and in 1923 ,she produced a play for the YMCA based on Herbert de Lisser’s 1915 novel Susan Proudleigh, notable for its strong working-class female protagonist. Marson’s writing and editing career began to take shape soon after when, in 1926, she became assistant editor at the Jamaica Critic, a monthly with socio-political interests. In 1928, she left to become a founding member of the Jamaica Stenographers Association, for which she also founded and edited The Cosmopolitan: A Monthly Magazine for the Business Youth of Jamaica and the Official Organ of the Stenographers Association. The first Jamaican publication to have a woman editor-publisher, Marson’s editorial statement made an unflinching declaration of its gendered mission: “This is the age of woman: what man has done, women may do.”

Her writing continued in a creative vein, and Marson self-published her first two volumes of poetry, Tropic Reveries in 1930 and Heights and Depths in 1931; both printed by The Gleaner Co. Ltd. The tropes and forms of canonical English Literature make strong imprints within the love and nature poetry that densely populate these collections, yet these early works also mark the beginning of her lifelong project to find a literary voice fitting for her time and place. Two parodies of Shakespeare and Kipling in Tropic Reveries decry the gender inequality of marriage, and “Another Mould” and “There Will Come A Time” in Heights and Depths give voice to the need to overcome the injustices of racial discrimination. In June 1932 Marson’s first play, At What a Price, was staged at the Ward Theatre in Kingston to public acclaim. This drama drew on many of the concerns explored within the pages of The Cosmopolitan, such as the lure of urban modernity and the need for women to develop economic independence and self-awareness.

In July of 1932, Marson left for London, lodging at the home of a fellow Jamaican, Dr Harold Moody. Soon involved with The League of Coloured Peoples, an organization that Moody had founded in 1931 to address racial division and prejudice, she edited the League’s journal, The Keys, and was readily networked into emerging black British, pan-African and anti-colonial circles. Her commitment to women’s empowerment remained strong and she became a member of the London branch of the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship. 

In 1933, At What a Price was performed by a cast from the League at the YMCA hostel on Great Russell Street. In January 1934, this work enjoyed a three-night run at the Scala Theatre, and was favorably reported in newspapers as the first play staged by ‘coloured colonials’ in London’s West End. It was also in 1934 that Marson was assigned as the LCP’s representative to Sir Nana Ofori Atta Omanhene, a king from northern Ghana, on his visit to England. She shared a platform with him at the LCP conference of that year on the subject of ‘The Negro in the World Today’, alongside Jomo Kenyatta. Her friendship with Ofori Atta and deepening understanding of colonial Africa’s history and politics informed her second play, London Calling, which she began writing in Britain but premiered in Kingston in 1937.

In 1935, Marson was the first Jamaican invited to speak at the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship Conference in Istanbul and the first black woman invited to attend the League of Nations at Geneva. Here, meeting the Abyssinian delegation and provoked and outraged by Mussolini’s invasion, Marson offered her help and worked as part of the secretarial team supporting HIM Haile Selassie during his visit to Geneva. By September, Marson was severely depressed and returned to Jamaica. Being home at such a turbulent and politically-charged moment restored her public voice and commitment to politics. Marson took every opportunity to write herself into the narratives of change as a woman of African descent. She founded Jamaica’s Readers and Writers Club, as well as the Jamaican Drama League and wrote a regular, often stridently opinionated, column in Public Opinion, the weekly paper of the People’s National Party, and reported for Jamaican Standard. Marson worked alongside Edna Manley and Gloria Escoffery. Another formidable Jamaican woman, Amy Bailey, shared a role with Marson in the Readers and Writers Club and the Save the Children organisation, and she was also active in the Women’s Liberal Club, the Jamaica Federation of Women and the Birth Control League.

In September of 1937, Marson published her third volume of poetry, The Moth and the Star. The works in this collection are far more directly engaged with giving subjectivity and voice to Jamaican people and with representing the intersecting prejudices facing the black female subject. In January 1938, Marson’s third play, Pocomania, was staged at the Ward Theatre in Kingston. Widely regarded as her most important dramatic work, this play explores Stella Manner’s search for cultural belonging and dramatizes her attraction to the African spiritual practice of Pocomania as a bored middle-class Jamaica woman and the daughter of an upright Baptist minister.

In 1938, Marson returned to London to report on, and to, the Moyne Commission and to fundraise for Jamsave. She took freelance work with the BBC and in 1941 was appointed full-time assistant for the radio programme Calling the West Indies that had developed into the now famous Caribbean Voices literary showcase. A volume of mainly collected poems, Towards the Stars, was published just before her return to Jamaica. The most significant addition is a small body of poems that represent the experience of living through war-torn London. Back in Jamaica, Marson worked for some years for the nationalist Pioneer Press, the book-publishing arm of the Gleaner. Importantly, this role gave Marson the opportunity to publish works by other Jamaican women writers, including Vera Bell, Ethel Rovere and Laurice Bird. 

Although Marson spent time in the US and Israel before her death in Jamaica in 1965, only a few late poems and an incomplete, unpublished and now lost autobiography suggest her continued writing career.  Marson’s contribution is now honoured in London and the UK by a People’s Vote blue plaque.

More about the author

Una Marson’s Wikipedia biography on her life and career.

Marson presenting the 1943 Ministry of Information film Hello! West Indies.

A blog entry by Jemimah Norman titled, “Who was… Una Marson? Notes on the BBC’s first black woman broadcaster.”

A profile on Una Maud Marson published by the National Library of Jamaica lists her works and publications.

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