Una Marson reading a copy of the West Indian Radio Newspaper
(image: WikiCommons)

by Lucie Miller

In 1943, Una Marson sat in front of a microphone in Bush House, London and began making history. 

Una Maud Marson was born in a small village near Santa Cruz in Jamaica on the 6th of February 1905. She began her writing career early as she became the editor for the Jamaica Critic, a highly influential newspaper published across the country. 

In 1932, Marson made a decision which would dictate her life for the next 13 years. She made the long journey from her home to London, England in order to experience life on the island and widen her literary audience. From the moment she arrived, Marson was influential as an activist; she was a member of the International Alliance of Women for Equal Suffrage and Citizenship and the British Commonwealth League. Most notably she was the assistant secretary for the League of Coloured Peoples; she organised their events and membership activities. By 1937, she was the editor of the League’s journal and its’ spokesperson. 

While in England, Marson continued to publish on feminist issues and began increasingly vocal on issues regarding race, particularly those faced by black migrants living in Britain. 

Una Marson was approached by the BBC in 1939 with the offer of freelance work for the magazine programme ‘Picture Page’; her job was to arrange interviews with visitors from the Empire and draft scripts for the programme. 

In 1939, the dynamic of the world was shattered with the start of World War One. Women were projected into positions where they were able to express their creativity and talents to an extent they hadn’t before. Marson was determined to capitalise on this, and once she was promoted to full-time programme assistant and host of a broadcast titled ‘Calling the West Indies, she has all the tools to do this. 

Her work on ‘Calling the West Indies’, later known as ‘Caribbean Voices’, was ground-breaking as was her work on the programme. Marson was the first black, female producer at the BBC and was working alongside other literary academics like George Orwell and T.S. Eliot. ‘Caribbean Voices’ was the foundation for many writers from the West Indies gaining recognition. During it’s time on air, the series broadcast over 400 stories and poems from well over 350 contributors, 71 of whom were women. 

Throughout her life, Marson aspired ‘to showcase authentic storytelling that empowered marginalised authors, representing their respective communities’; this she succeeded in due to the immediate success of her radio show. Many credit ‘Caribbean Voices’ as the catalyst for the promotion of Jamaican literary criticism and Caribbean Anglophone writing. It was a safe space in which marginalised communities were able to show their creativity regardless of racist and misogynistic obstacles. 

Marson’s work with Orwell bloomed into a strong, literary-based relationship as he asked her to contribute to the six-part poetry magazine ‘Voices’; this was to be broadcast on the Indian section of the BBC’s Eastern Service. Marson was to take part in the fourth programme dedicated to American poetry, which also featured William Empson. She read her poem ‘The Banjo Boy’:

BLACK boy, 
How you play that banjo!
Gee-it goes right to my toes,
I could dance all night 
And through the day again. 
How your face beams, 
Do you love it? I'll say you do.

Where did you get that rhythm?
That swing and that motion, That bubbling laughter 
With which you punctuate 
Your songs? I have it too,
I can feel it going through me, 
But I can't express" like you do. 

You know it's good to be alive, 
Don't you, as long as the sun shines 
And the banjo is in your hands? Maybe you are hungry, 
Maybe your' shirt is going
Maybe you are not worth a gill, 
But what do you care?

There's your banjo, the boys come
And sing and hum and dance 
Round you-they share in your joy, 
They respond to your songs
Those banjo songs that call me.

‘Caribbean Voices’ ran for fifteen years until 1958 and promoted some of the most inspirational literary icons from the West Indies and the Caribbean into the public eye. In 1945, Marson made the choice to return to Jamaica, a country she had loved since she was a child and a home which she always wanted to return to. On the 6th March 1965, Una Marson died of a heart attack in her hometown of Kingston, Jamaica. 

Una Marson is a woman who should be an inspiration to many more people but is too often brushed under the radar. As the first woman of colour to be hired by the BBC, her work was revolutionary and she represented one of the few constants in a time of political upheaval. 

Marson inspires me personally as gave a voice to the people of the commonwealth particularly the West Indies. Her work with the BBC highlighted how they were just as capable as the British in terms of literature and shouldn’t be ignored. Up to her death, she campaigned heavily for women’s suffrage and racial equality, proving that she was not only a brilliant writer but a dedicated activist.