Una Marson is the most impactful Caribbean feminist. Lisa Tomlinson, a lecturer of Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of the West Indies, wrote a three-chapter biography on the life and work of Una Marson. ‘Una Marson’ is one of five written in the Caribbean Biography Series which is a collection of pieces about exceptional figures from the Caribbean who have carried our culture in their own fields and contributed to Caribbean culture. Una Marson was a Jamaican icon who through her love and passion for literature and writing was able to elevate the Jamaican culture worldwide. She became the first black woman employed by the British Broadcasting Corporation. Outside of writing and promoting her own work, Marson through her programme ‘Calling the West Indies’, later renamed ‘Caribbean Voices’ was able to showcase Caribbean culture as well as promote the works of fellow Caribbean writers. Lisa Tomlinson memorializes Marson, as she set an important stepping stone for the Caribbean in terms of the literary arts. This book report will seek to explore six of the many themes portrayed in this biography; identity, classism, racism, ethnocentrism, colonialization, and gender inequality.
Identity is a major theme that is expressed in this piece by Tomlinson. One of the most important instances of identity is where Tomlinson highlights to us that Marson was her father’s “daughter-son” and the polar opposite of her mother both in appearance, in terms of her darker skin colour, as well as in principles where she was describes as more down to earth and differed from her mother and other sisters in her dress and sexual curiosity. After her father’s death, Marson moved to Kingston and got a job as a secretary. Tomlinson points out to us as readers that Marson’s boss was anti-feminist and Marson was not able to use her status to be an advocate for feminism which gave her the push towards publishing her magazine called the Cosmopolitan. She used this as a platform to give rise to her ability to lobby her views as a feminist. Upon her arrival to Britain, Marson was faced with many struggles but she had many experiences that shaped her identity. Tomlinson recounts the statement of Sylvia Lowe who described Marson’s style as African which spawned from her love for Africa. Lowe also stated that Marson’s style was a manifestation of her political stance shift to pan-Africanism. Another event that shaped Marson’s identity was when she had the opportunity to meet Prince Ofori Atta who hailed from Ghana. This meeting further pushed Marson’s awareness of African politics as well as the continent’s history and she also came to the realization that Africa was of equal importance as Europe and the only way to preserve Africa’s history and culture was for Africans and people of African descent to be diligent and be beacons for Africa.
All these instances shaped the literary figure that we know today. Playing the role of her father’s daughter-son shaped her to be independent, resilient, challenging and diligent. Her struggles as a dark-skinned Jamaican helped her to embrace her African identity which she carried with her throughout life. Her love for Africa’s history and culture pushed her to become a guiding light for others of African descent to be proud of their origins and identity. This particular theme is important to the book because it also helps readers to be able to relate with Marson in terms of struggles as a dark-skinned individual and struggles of females or feminists.
Another theme encountered in Una Marson is classism. Morris in her book ‘Introduction to Race and Ethnicity’, describes a class as a division used separate categories of people in human societies. Individuals sharing the same socioeconomic standing are therefore members of the same class (Morris, 15). Morris also points out that classism and race or ethnicity concurs and becomes the focal point in determining if a society is arranged based on class or race/ethnicity. It was also stipulated that classism began in the time of slavery where there was separation based on birthplace, whether you are a free person or still enslaved as well as your occupation (Morris, 16). In Una Marson, through Tomlinson’s description of Marson’s upbringing as well as the occupation of both her parents one can safely infer that she was a member of the middle class. This hypothesis can further be cemented as fact where Tomlinson stated that the Hampton School where Marson attended was for the upper-middle-class.
Based on Morris’ description of a class coupled with the fact that Marson was able to attend a school for those who were of the upper-middle-class, one could therefore assume that classism was a living, breathing aspect of Jamaican society. Through the status of her father and his position on the board of trustees at the Hampton School Marson was able to be awarded a scholarship (Tomlinson, 5-6). Marson and the rest of her family faced a decline in class after the untimely passing of her father (Tomlinson, 7). Tomlinson expressed that the family lost their social status as well as their financial stability was affected. The instability forced their family to disassemble and scatter and Marson was forced to grow up rather quickly and attain a job in order to care for herself and assist her mother (Tomlinson, 7-8). It was previously stated that class and race were the focal points of whether societal stratifications would be due to class or race. Based on Tomlinson’s description of Marson’s childhood, education and family, and that we know that Jamaica has a large population of light to darker skinned persons, Jamaican society was stratified based on colour. This overlap leads to the next themes up for discussion, racism and ethnocentrism.
Morris refers to racism as “the belief that phenotypical or alleged genotypical characteristics are inherently indicative of certain behaviours and abilities, and it leads to invidious distinctions based on a hierarchical order”. “Ethnocentrism is the belief in the superiority of one’s own culture” which can be harmless if the belief is just that no other culture is on par with yours (Morris, 12). Therefore, it can be said that racism interconnects with ethnocentrism and we can even go as far to say that racism is birthed by ethnocentrism. Marson throughout her time spent in Jamaica faced racial prejudice, an aspect of racism. Marson’s sisters were doted on by teachers and the school’s administrative staff but she and her other darker skinned schoolmates were often ostracized by the Hampton’s School principal at the time, who never failed to remind them that they were receiving free education (Tomlinson, 5-6).
This could not prepare Marson for the level of racial prejudice she would face as she embarked on her first trip to Britain. Tomlinson describes Marson’s first trip as “bittersweet” as this visit fortified her literary career but the level of unwelcome that she received from the Mother country was a harsh wake up call. Marson felt the brute force of the harmful version of ethnocentrism. It was reflected in her inability to find a suitable job. She recounted one incident where she was told when applying for the post of stenographer that she could not get the job because she would be working in the same offices as white women (Tomlinson, 18). Due to Britain’s sense of ethnocentrism, it was engrained into Jamaicans and Caribbean people at large that the lighter the skin tone, the more worth you had as a person or the better you were. This is reflected in Marson’s school life as well as the portions of her adult life spent in Britain. Ethnocentrism and racism overlap with the next theme to be discussed, colonialization.
Colonialization plays a massive role in the Caribbean society even to this day. Our education system, political system and our vocabulary still reflects that of our colonizers. Marson was educated at an institution whose curriculum was similar to that of Britain’s (Tomlinson, 6). Even though slavery was abolished, the issue of skin pigmentation still negatively affected those of darker complexions (Tomlinson, 6). The roots of colonization dug so deep that even after Africans were freed there was still the existence of the thought that black was not as good as those of lighter complexions. Nettleford stated that we are still plagued by eurocentrism as everything to do with European culture and society is placed above that of our predecessors, the indigenous peoples and the enslaved, whose cultures are placed in a lesser place.
In deciding where to travel to, Marson decided against traveling to the United States of America because of the struggles that black women were facing and so she opted for Britain (Tomlinson, 15). Tomlinson included an excerpt from Life that stated that Marson was enthusiastic about her visit to Britain because the picture that was painted portrayed Britain as a homely place where everyone was welcome (15). Because of colonialization, there was spread of the belief that Britain was the idealistic place to work and live as their culture and society was deemed the best of all others. As such Marson believed that Britain was a place where no one struggled and it was a safe haven for all skin pigments. Based on Nettleford’s statement, it can be said that the elevation of the Eurocentric ways of life and the degradation of the cultures of our predecessors, and the picture painted by colonizers many Caribbean people were deceived and thought that the Mother countries are where they should be and would be openly accepted.
Gender Inequality was a huge stumbling block in the progression of Marson’s career, and even today is still a repulsive force in females’ careers. As previously discussed, Eurocentrism was the reference when anything was to be decided in Caribbean society. As such, the roles of a woman and a man were adopted from the European society. Johnson and Moore, in their book Neither Led Nor Driven, described the Victorian woman as “physically weaker, intellectually inferior and, therefore, ordained by nature to a subordinate and dependent position” (138). The “ideal woman” was illustrated to be one who was submissive to social institutions as well as her male counterpart (Johnson & Moore, 138). “She was depicted as passive, meek, powerless and expected to follow customs that prescribed her place in society” (Johnson & Moore, 138). In their description, Moore and Johnson went even further to say that the middle-class Victorian woman was expected to create a nurturing environment for her children and husband who would cook, wash and clean even if her husband could afford a helper because it was her duty as stipulated by society (138-139). Una Marson faced gender inequality at every possible turn.
As a child, she observed her mother being the “ideal woman” who was docile and dedicated to her role as a mother and housewife and even as a seamstress, her work was done from home (Tomlinson, 2). Marson first encountered gender inequality was at her first job as a secretary which was one of the few professional jobs that women were finally able to get as of the 1920s (Tomlinson, 8). Tomlinson stated that Marson’s boss was anti-feminist and Marson’s push for feminism was stifled in that environment. Based on information from both these texts it can be deduced that gender inequality was prevalent in Jamaica. The Victorian woman was confined to her roles within her home as Marson’s mother was portrayed to be. Also, Tomlinson pointed out that few professional jobs were just beginning to open up to females. It was no secret that this caused many females to settle for jobs where their full potentials could not be noticed as Marson. It can also be said that there were still some who believed wholeheartedly that the only place for women was at home caring and nurturing the children as well as ensuring that the home was clean and her husband’s needs were satisfied.
Caribbean Civilization is an aspect of study that is important to the people of the region and diasporas because it helps to provide a full view of Caribbean identity. Una Marson is important to understanding Caribbean Civilization because this book gives an insight to post-slavery Jamaica and the Caribbean. Many are knowledgeable about the struggles of our African and indigenous predecessors but fail to explore and broaden their knowledge of Colonial Jamaica and Caribbean. This literature in the life of Una Marson gives an insight of Jamaica as a carbon copy of Britain, idolizing their societal norms, adopting their societal rules and emulating their educational as well as political systems. Una Marson is also important because it gives insight into the journey of Caribbean literature. Marson, in my opinion, took the charge and used her programme Caribbean Voices to help her fellow writers to become known for their work.
With the proof of all this book report, Una Marson is truly the most impactful Caribbean feminist. From her childhood she has been different from the rest. She had defied the rules set by society that stipulated that she was to be the dutiful housewife and submissive to her husband. Instead Marson chose her own path to become an advocate for females. She not only was a voice for females but she was the embodiment of African culture and was a light set up on a hill for all those to see that she was not ashamed of her predecessors. She also helped to elevate her fellow writers so that they too could have a meaningful and successful career.