Una Marson: Forgotten Herstory

Phoebe Knowles

Now more than ever there have been calls to diversify our schools and university History curriculums.

Throughout my academic life, from schoolgirl to university student, I had never noticed the absence of black history or women’s history. Sure, the Civil Rights Movement in America formed part of my education when I was seventeen. Here, individuals such as Rosa Parks were simply mentioned in passing. It was not until relatively recently that I was hit by a thunderbolt of realisation that I did not know much about black British history, especially not Black British women. If someone had said to me a few years ago, ‘name a Black British feminist off the top of your head’, I am ashamed to admit that my mind would be a void. In 1928, Una Marson spoke the words, ‘what man has done many women may do’. Thus began her journey towards being one of Jamaica’s most significant feminist writers. At just 21-years-old, Marson became the country’s first magazine publisher. This propelled her medley of accomplishments, such as poetry, broadcasting and anti-colonialist, anti-racist and feminist activism. It was after her move to 1930s London, where Marson encountered racism and discrimination, that the tone of her poetry shifted, and her activism was ignited. Initially, her literary works, such as Tropic Reveries and What a Price, were centred on identity and challenging patriarchal norms. The strain of acclimatising to London life is made abundantly clear in Marson’s poem ‘N*****’ (1933), which became her most vehement condemnation of racism in British society. In the poem, she portrays her harrowing rage resulting from being called the racial slur by young white women and the origins of the term through enslavement.
Una Marson: Forgotten Herstory
Una Marson

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Marson became a member of LCP

During this time, Marson had been staying in Peckham at the house of Jamaican-born Dr Harold Moody, who established the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP) in 1931. In 1933, after unsuccessful attempts to find employment, Marson became a formal member, where she sought to simultaneously challenge international racism and women’s inequality. However, what is highly significant about Marson’s activism was that she emphasised the importance of women in their worldwide campaign for freedom and equality. This encouragement was evermore pertinent in a male-dominated sphere, which included individuals such as Haile Selaisse, Amilcar Cabral and Malcolm X. For the first time, white feminists were called upon to acknowledge the discrimination that black women had faced. In 1935, Marson attended the Congress of International Women in Istanbul. Being the only black woman present, she again galvanised the audience to support African women in their fight for equality. Not only did Marson want to promote solidarity amongst people of African descent, she also championed a sisterhood between women from around the world. One of Marson’s most noteworthy accomplishments was her broadcasting career during the Blitz. She became involved in the BBC radio programme Calling the West Indies, which launched in 1939. Marson then transformed this into Caribbean Voices, which aired from 1944 to 1958. This provided a medium through which Caribbean writing could be unveiled to a wider audience and individuals from various cultures could connect. Una Marson not only pursued an end racial conflict, but also to unify all races and genders. Sadly, she had previously suffered from mental ill health, which had returned. She thereby travelled back to Jamaica in 1946. Marson’s activism continued in the Caribbean, America, and Israel for the next twenty years, until her death in 1965. Throughout history, Black British women have been brushed under the carpet, and even when they are mentioned, they are hastily glossed over. Una Marson is just one example of many black women who have been eclipsed under the Eurocentric lens of British history. It is time that a light is shone on the work of black British women, not for the sake of diversity, but to remember those who have changed the course of history and inspire others to do the same.
Ancestry UK
Una Marson: Forgotten Herstory

Phoebe Knowles

Phoebe wrote for Edition 2, Forgotten Women of History.
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