“I Like Me Black Face and Me Kinky Hair”


Una Marson: Selected Poems
Edited by Alison Donnell
Leeds, UK: Peepal Tree Press, 2011, 182 pp., 19.95, paperback

Reviewed by Erika J. Waters

Thirty years ago, I was teaching Women’s Literature at the University of the Virgin Islands (St. Croix) and searching for West Indian women’s texts. I had read Lloyd W. Brown’s assessment of Jamaican-born Una Marson (1905-1965) as “the earliest female poet of significance to emerge in the West Indies” (West Indian Poetry, 1978), yet neither her poetry nor her plays were available—and scant biographical information existed either.  With a National Endowment for the Humanities grant and later a Summer Bursary at Oxford, I traveled to Jamaica, London, and Washington, DC, piecing together the details of Marson’s life.  Scholars in the US, England, and the Caribbean have expanded this recovery work and solidified Marson’s reputation; Delia Jarrett-Macauley published a biography, The Life of Una Marson, 1905-1965, in 1998. Foremost among these scholars is Alison Donnell from the University of Reading (UK), the editor of this long-awaited collection of Marson’s poems.

Donnell comments in her Acknowledgments that Marson has been the “enduring absent guest” at her dinner table for twenty years—and Una’s my old friend as well, although of course we’ve never met. She seems to have inspired devoted friendships from people who actually knew her, too. When I first requested interviews, they repeatedly told me, “I’m doing this for Una,” or “I owe it to Una.” Nonetheless, she could be formidable and commanding; four decades later, the conductor of the BBC orchestra was still irritated that she had had the audacity to tell him what to do. From personal accounts, we know she had an imposing presence (despite her short stature) along with a strong sense of self; she often dressed in bright colors and sometimes in African clothing, and she let her hair grow out naturally.

We also know that clinical depression was a major, life-long problem, and although sometimes embarrassed about it, Marson never hid the truth. In fact, when I neglected to mention her depression in an early article in Jamaica Journal—perhaps out of a misguided desire to shield her reputation—one of her fellow-poets rebuked me. Una would have wanted me to tell the truth, he insisted.

Una Marson was born in a rural parish in Jamaica in 1905 and by age 23 was working in Kingston as the editor of The Cosmopolitan, the house organ of the Jamaican Stenographers Association and the first magazine to be owned and edited by a Jamaican woman.  In its pages, she published her own poems and short stories and encouraged other writers as well. She advocated her own original views, too, for example, that women should play tennis and hockey. She also protested firmly but politely against the selection of a white Jamaican woman as Miss Jamaica. Her first two collections of poetry were published at this time: Tropic Reveries (1930) and Heights and Depths (1931). Most of the poems from these volumes focus on nature or love, topics she likely considered appropriate for poetry. A few, however, vary, such as the witty parody, “To Wed or Not To Wed” (“to wed; to match; / to match, perchance mismatch”) and “the peanut boy,” with its emphasis on Jamaican people.

She also produced her first play, At What a Price (with Horace Vaz), which now must be given its rightful place as the first play written by a West Indian. Prior to this, only expatriate British had written plays, and only canonical British plays were ever produced. At What a Price is noteworthy for its unblinking portrait of discrimination within the Jamaican community and its engaging, strong woman protagonist. To a suggestion that she temper her professional ambitions, the character balks, saying, “I’m not beautiful enough to be ornamental.”

In an unusual move for a single woman, Marson left Jamaica in 1932 for London, foreshadowing the large migrations of West Indians after World War II.  She joined the League of Coloured Peoples—an early civil rights organization formed the previous year by a Jamaican doctor in London—writing and editing its newsletter. In it, she published “Nigger,” a poem in response to children’s taunts. Her fury is palpable when she asks, “What made me keep my fingers / From choking the words in their throats?” African friends, among them a king from northern Ghana, sparked her interest in Pan-Africanism, and she also joined the British Commonwealth League, which encouraged the formation of women’s groups within the Commonwealth, and several other feminist groups, including the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. In 1935 she addressed the Congress of the International Alliance of Women in Istanbul, Turkey, candidly relating her racist treatment in London.  She also worked briefly for Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, who had gone into exile in England when the Italians invaded his country in 1935, and she went to Geneva as part of a delegation to the League of Nations.

Marson abruptly returned to Jamaica because, we now know, of a breakdown, but soon became involved in the growing nationalist movement there led by trade-union organizers, a precursor to the independence movements that would soon sweep the region. Marson had her own response to the burgeoning nationalistic fervor:  literature. She urged the formation of a Jamaican publishing house to publish Jamaican literature, and in her own inimitable style, reportedly directed everyone she knew to start writing. She joined the Poetry League of Jamaica and founded the Kingston Readers and Writers Club and the Kingston Drama Club. She also founded the Jamaica Save the Children Fund, which still exists today.

Marson’s third volume of poetry, The Moth and the Star, was published in 1937; her poems reflected her experiences with racism and her increasing politicization.  In “Cinema Eyes,” a mother tells her child, who is begging for permission to go to the movies, “I will let you go / When black beauties / Are chosen for the screen.” Similarly, in “Black is Fancy,” the narrator removes a picture of a white woman and appreciates her dark skin in the mirror.  In “Kinky Hair Blues,” Marson writes, “I like me black face / and me kinky hair.” Her involvement with women’s groups is shown by sonnets in solidarity with the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship (IAWSEC) and on the death of the British peace activist Winifred Holtby, who had been a friend. “O valiant woman, author, speaker, friend,” Marson wrote, “[w]ith sympathies as wide as they were true.”

She wrote two more plays, but Pocomania (1938), about a revivalist sect from Africa that flourished in rural Jamaica, is considered her best and most truly Jamaican play. It contained African music, drumming, and a rural setting—significant departures from standard practice. The Jamaican Times rightly called it a “landmark in what we hope to refer to in the future as Jamaican theatre.”

Later that year, she was back in London working at the BBC. There, she associated with such writers as T.S. Eliot and George Orwell and was the “compère” of a wartime message program in which West Indian servicemen would send messages to be broadcast back home.  Very quickly, however, this program became Caribbean Voices, a showcase for West Indian stories and poems, which was instrumental in nurturing the first generation of Caribbean writers in England, including two future Nobel Prize laureates, V.S. Naipaul and Derek Walcott.

The University of London Press published Marson’s final collection, Towards the Stars, in 1945, with many of the poems reprinted from earlier volumes.  The new poems are generally bitter and melancholy. In “Politeness,” she writes, “We tell them / That their skin is white / But their hearts are black.” In “Frozen (Winter 1941),” she seems despondent: “The heart of humanity is frozen. / It is too cold for Poets to sing.” Not surprisingly, Marson suffered a major breakdown at this time and had to be helped back home to Jamaica.

Before long, though, she was able to continue her crusade for a Jamaican national literature.  “Our status in the way of nationhood is more to be enhanced by our literary output than by rum and bananas,” she wrote in the Sunday Gleaner in 1949, and she worked for the Pioneer Press, a Jamaican publishing house dedicated to Jamaican writing, which she had so long envisioned. In the 1950s, she toured America, including Miami, Baltimore, and Washington, DC.  In a restaurant there, she was humiliated to receive a cup of tea in a cardboard container inside a paper bag. She saw Porgy and Bess, calling it “revolting as a slice of typical Negro life in America.” Also in Washington, she married Peter Staples, a dentist, and when that marriage failed after a year, she suffered another breakdown, necessitating another hasty return to Jamaica.

Once she was well again, in 1964, she set out for Haifa, Israel, to attend an international seminar for women leaders. She was offered a temporary job there, but too depressed to continue her travels, she flew home to Jamaica, where she died in 1965. (The book’s back cover says she died in the US, an error that will be corrected in subsequent editions.)

In her introduction, Donnell skillfully places Marson’s critical reception in the context of both twentieth and twenty-first century scholarship, noting that critics have “cast her as feminist or feminine; as nationalist or internationalist; as traditionalist or experimenter”—“sampling” her work so that “significant parts of her archive have been allowed to masquerade as the whole.” Donnell rejects the “categorizing of [Marson’s] work according to oppositional poetic and political modes,” recommending instead that we “set these seemingly competing archives of her work alongside each other.”

Her point is well-taken. While Marson wrote highly conventional love and nature poetry, she also wrote in the vernacular disparaged by the colonized, elitist population.  At a time when only the British landscape—such as fields of daffodils or the view from Westminster Bridge—was deemed suitable for admiration, Marson wrote about Jamaican flowers, scenery, and market women. Her love poetry, with its ubiquitous lonely-woman persona, must be juxtaposed with poems that speak openly about sexuality and passion.

Although Marson’s poetry has been available online since 2002 as part of the Digital Library of the Caribbean (www.dloc.com), there was no easily accessible volume until now. I was heartened to learn that Peepal Tree Press, based in England, was about to publish Marson’s poems as part of their Caribbean Modern Classics Series, and I provided them with the cover photo of Marson at the BBC, which I had discovered in my own research, as well as some unpublished poems. Donnell has included others as well, along with scrupulous bibliographic information on every poem. This is truly a publishing landmark for Caribbean women’s literature; Marson’s friends and supporters can only hope that her plays and essays will presently be available to the public as well.

Erika J. Waters is professor emeritus from the University of the Virgin Islands and the founding editor of the journal The Caribbean Writer. She has edited or co-edited collections of Caribbean drama, poetry, fiction, and literary criticism, and published numerous reviews and articles. She teaches part-time at the University of Southern Maine and was a Fulbright Scholar in 2005.

Our website uses cookies to enhance your experience. By continuing to use our site, or clicking "Continue", you are agreeing to our privacy policy.

Women's Review of Books

Untitled Document

Women=Books Blog

 
Arbor Farm Press
Antiquity Oxford University Press
Women Who Fly Oxford University Press
Sara Ahmed Womens Review of Books Duke University Press
WRB Nov2016_Jan2017
WRB Jan 2017 genders
Our website uses cookies to enhance your experience. By continuing to use our site, or clicking "Continue", you are agreeing to our privacy policy.
Continue Privacy Policy