Una Maud Marson (1905-1965) - The National Library of Jamaica

Una Maud Marson (1905-1965)

Though her work has been relatively under recognized, Una Maud Marson can be considered as one of the most versatile and creative female intellectuals in Jamaica’s literary heritage. A much- travelled woman, but spending most of her years in Jamaica, England and the United States, she was born on the 6th day of February, 1905 in Santa Cruz, St. Elizabeth to a Baptist pastor, Reverend Solomon Isaac Marson and his wife Ada Wilhelmina Mullings- Marson. She was the youngest daughter of her parents and attended Hampton High School, a traditional boarding school for girls in Malvern, St. Elizabeth.

Career 

Miss Marson led an intriguingly varied career. In addition to being a writer, she was involved in activities and occupations of social work, feminism, broadcasting and drama production. She sought to address controversial issues especially those regarding racism, nationalism, social and economic welfare, and gender discrimination against women.

Prior to her first absence from Jamaica in 1933, Miss Marson had made great strides in the literary sphere of Jamaica. Her initial career engagement included serving as a secretary and a member of the editorial staff of the Daily Gleaner in the early 1920s. Thereafter, she established The Cosmopolitan, a monthly magazine (1929 – 1931) utilised as a platform for gender issues that affected women. She was the first woman in Jamaica to achieve this feat of publishing.

At this juncture, Miss Marson’s literary output was high even though her career was at a young stage. She wrote and had published several articles and two volumes of poems Heights and Depths, 1931 and Tropic Reveries, 1930, and also wrote and staged a play, At What Price, which was the first to be written and staged in Jamaica by a female. Such works articulated her thoughts on various subjects; primarily nature, love and the empowerment of women. In Heights and Depths for instance, poems such as ‘Ecstasy’, ‘A Dream’ and ‘Ethereal’ predominantly speak to love. In Tropic Reveries poems such as ‘Running Water’, ‘Summer Days’ and ‘Beside the Sea’, concerns nature. Experiences regarding the struggles and survival of women in a male dominated society are identifiable in At What Price.

In 1933, Miss Marson left Jamaica for England; a move that was inspired by her love for literature which she described as a, “. . . passionate longing for the land of Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth” (Marson, The America I discovered- Washington and Miami). Her stay involved mainly activist work regarding the fight against racism and gender discrimination. She became secretary to the League of Colored Peoples in London (a civil rights organization that was established to fight racial inequality faced by Blacks), temporary collaborator with the League of Nations based in Geneva, Switzerland, and a delegate to the 12th Congress of the International Alliance of Women (feminist organization) that took place in Istanbul, Turkey. She also became a part of the staff of the Ethiopian Legation in 1936 in which capacity she accompanied H. M. Selassie to the League of Nations to address the colonisation of Ethiopia by Italy.

Not long thereafter, displeased with the League’s passive efforts in diminishing racism, Miss Marson returned to Jamaica in 1936. Here, she continued to write poetry and plays; publishing yet another book of poems, The Moth and the Stars, and having two plays, London Calling and Pocomania, staged at the Ward Theatre. In these artistic creations popular themes of her writing for example, the disapproval of racism, essence of Jamaican culture and the marginalisation of women could be identified. In The Moth and the Star for instance, ‘Black Burden;, ‘Black is Fancy’ and ‘Little Brown Girl’ are just a few of the poems which are indicative of the subject of racism.

Together with writing those two plays and volume of poetry as well as staging the former, she aided in the foundation of the Pioneer Press, regularly contributed to the ‘Public Opinion’, and was an active member of the Poetry League of Jamaica. She also founded the Readers and Writers and the Kingston Dramatic Clubs (aimed at developing and promoting the work of young Black writers and artists) and established the Jamaica Save the Children Fund.

The Jamaica Save the Children Fund was a fundamental organ through which Marson undertook social work. In spite of being out of Jamaica for extended periods, she remained involved in the fulfillment of the Fund’s objective, the welfare of deprived children. While on one of her stays in England, she wrote to the organization committee: “Other work has delayed my stay here longer than I anticipated and I have not as yet sent in my resignation as organising secretary as while I am here some possibility for getting a good sum might turn up. . . ” (Marson, Letter to Jamaica Save the Children Fund Committee). As a result of her efforts and dedication to the Fund, notable benefits were derived. These included:

  • The donation of large quantities of children and adult clothing
  • The distribution of these items to people who needed them the most
  • The connection between the Fund and other foreign organisations of its kind which aided in the cause.

On her return to England in 1938, Miss Marson began working at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and was the first black female broadcaster to work there. She started as a script writer in the television studio but later in the War years, became the producer of ‘Calling the West Indies’; a radio program that enjoyed widespread popularity among her country men. This popularity was underscored by Miss Marson’s work as not only did she communicate to West Indians news about what was happening overseas, but also fostered and facilitated literary development in the West Indies. In 1945, she published another volume of her poems, Towards the Stars.

After the War’s end, Miss Marson again returned to Jamaica in 1949. On this occasion, she joined the Gleaner Company as organising secretary and served as general editor of the Pioneer Press.

The United States was Miss Marson’s final residence out of Jamaica. She lived in Washington for almost a decade and continued to write; there she developed a new interest, that is, writing for children. In an effort to improve her writing of children’s as well as theatrical literature, she attended the George Washington University Workshop which specialized in a course of writing for children, and the Catholic University Drama School.

Miss Marson visited Jamaica twice during 1960, and returned for residence in 1961. She went back to serving as executive secretary at the Jamaica Save the Children Fund. She continued travelling to other countries to work on different projects, but her health was intermittently threatened by illness and this undermined her work output.

In 1965, she received a grant from the British Research Council to conduct a study on the social development of Jamaica. The findings were to be incorporated into a semi autobiography she had started working on. However, in March of the same year, while on assignment in Haifa, Israel, she became ill and decided to return to Jamaica.

On returning, Una Marson was admitted in the St. Josephs Hospital, Kingston and died there on the 5th May, 1965. She was buried on the 10th of May at the Half-Way-Tree Parish Cemetery.

Honours & Awards

Even though Miss Marson was not a decorated writer, her contributions to literary, cultural and social developments have been acknowledged by many in Jamaica and overseas. These include:

  • The Musgrave Silver Medal (1930) from the Institute of Jamaica for her literary work.
  • The 2005 Blue Plaque Award for being the first Black female broadcaster at the BBC as well as being a feminist activist.

Publications

While there are a number of unpublished works by Miss Marson, her principal publications include:

  • Tropic Reveries
  • Heights and Depths
  • The Moth and the Stars
  • Towards the Stars
  • Cosmopolitan

Dramatic Works

  • At What Price
  • London Calling
  • Pocomania

 References

Aarons, R.L.C. “Una Marson – A True Trail-blazer.” Daily Gleaner 23 December 1974.

Jarrett-Macauley, Delia. The Life of Una Marson 1905-1965, Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers, 1998.

Marson, Una. Heights and Depths. Gleaner Company Limited: Kingston, Jamaica, 1931.

Marson, Una. “The America I Have Discovered – Miami and Washington.” MS1944C, National Library of Jamaica.

Marson, Una. Letter to the Committee of Jamaica Save the Children’s Fund. MS1944C, National Library of Jamaica.

Marson, Una. The Moth and the Star, 1937.

“Save the Children’s Fund Mourns Una Marson”. Daily Gleaner 26 May, 1965:23

“Una Marson Here.” Daily Gleaner 14 December 1960: 26

Smilowitz, Erika. Una Marson: A Woman Before Her Time. Jamaica Journal 16, No. 1, (1983): 62- 68.