October 2009

Dee Jarrett-Macauley


"When Does It Stop?": Writing a Black Woman's Life

I cannot say when the biographer’s work is done. In 1998 Manchester University Press published The Life of Una Marson: 1905-1965. The biography prompted a number of Caribbean scholars to re-evaluate Una’s literary works, and in both the Caribbean and the US teachers created prizes in her honour. Six years after the book appeared, BBC Radio 3 commissioned me to present a "Twenty Minutes" programme on Una, focusing on her time as a BBC broadcaster during the second World War. Her story touched the hearts of special interest groups. The BBC Black staff group invited me to speak about her, and later, Kate Murphy, a Woman’s Hour producer, asked me to contribute to an event on the BBC female pioneers. Una Marson refused to be put to bed. As a growing number of historians, especially those alert to the politics of race and diversity in Britain, became aware of how the Life dovetailed with their own research topics, pressure grew for Una to be acknowledged within the mainstream. This March, the London borough of Southwark where she lived from 1932 to 1935 honoured her with a commemorative blue plaque. I unveiled it.

The commemoration could have been a fitting end to recovering and celebrating the story, but the paperback publication of The Life… seems like an apposite moment to share some material that came to light after 1998, namely, a sizeable fragment of Una’s unpublished Autobiography of a Brown Girl. Written in London during the 1930s, it tells us something about her love life, something I had longed to know more about years before.

I was interested in this smart young man and especially in his manner of speech. He did not possess quite the Oxford accent, but something near it. He had an enquiring mind also and was probably interested in me because to him I was strange and exotic. Our friendship stood the strain of the colour repercussions on his people and the misgivings on his own part as to the wisdom of allowing his affections to grow for a "black girl," for just nine months. He was a very nice boy and his frankness and loyalty won my admiration. He was one of those thousands of English boys ruthlessly possessed by their parents who see them running off and marrying foreign women, or horror of horrors, a black woman, and disgracing the family. Our friendship was an experience I would not have missed and I learned a great deal that was an eye opener to me about the young men of this "brave new world." We went to dances and the theatre together and had great arguments about everything under the sun.

Una must have written this after 1934 when she moved alone to rented apartment in Brunswick Square. I picture Una and her lover sitting on a bench in the Square, watching the sunlight flickering through the springtime foliage; or idly looking in shop windows amid the Camberwell crowds. She had been lonely for a long time. She socialised with the African and West Indian men of the League of Coloured Peoples, but none of them, it seems, were interested in her emotionally. But then a smart young English man attracted her and she became part of a mixed relationship, for a while.

Una would have been twenty-nine or thirty. The young man was, in all probability, about the same age. It seems, however, that he didn’t propose marriage even though their relationship lasted almost a year. Mixed marriages were rare in 1930s England. Harold Moody, Una’s landlord and friend, was married to an English nurse; they had several children. The Sierra Leonean doctor, Robert Wellesley Cole also married an English woman, Anna Isabel Brodie, in 1932. Love crossed racial lines, then as now, but Una and her boyfriend must have made an unusual couple. They were very few middle class black women in England then, and the sight of a black woman walking alongside a white man would have struck many as an absolute horror.

Meanwhile the young black male students paired up with white women; and to Una’s intense annoyance, the men "basked in the warmth of sunshine." There is little sense of real happiness, or even calmness in Una’s account of the relationship. It opened her eyes. It taught her a lesson. It filled her appointment diary with cultural activities. But it failed to transform her life. He might have been "The Stranger":

You like talking to people like me
Friend with the wistful smile
To foreign girls who are brown of skin
And have black kinky hair
And strange black eyes.

The steady relationship was a one-off and Una’s other experiences with English were little better. They were "very anxious that I should see them, but equally anxious that people should not see them with me." The relationships were shady, private encounters, never reaching the stage of meeting friends and family, and certainly not of living in each other’s pockets, or cohabiting. Cool, bitter, separate. They confirmed her earlier experience in Jamaica that many black people knew "their white ancestry only by name but had no records and could never trace them." 

In a sense Una had run away from her Caribbean roots and faced the harsh realities of trying to fit in in pre-war Britain. Una was proper. She’d grown up in the Parson’s manse in Santa Cruz, Jamaica, where they’d read English literature, sang English songs and believed deep in their hearts in the English way of life. Coming to the "Mother Country" should have been less traumatic, but as many novels and poets have described, migration can cause deeply unsettling shifts in self-awareness and self-confidence. It unnerved Una. Finding suitable housing and employment, coping with the weather or transport system are the external manifestations of migrant’s readjustment. Relationships, be they intimate or professional, with the demands of speaking truth, making conversation and being at peace in one’s language of dreams reign supreme as the tests of successful integration and settlement.

Una had never discussed sex with her married sisters and so the fashionable talk of London drawing rooms shocked and terrified her. At the same time she coped well the external differences and was thrilled by London’s nightlife. The nightclubs, cocktail parties and dinners delighted her. As a poet and a playwright, and social activist with leanings towards feminism, she met like-minded people. But she never gained a sense of belonging. She remained an outsider, a peripheral person whose colour and cultural background both intrigued and put off others. On the streets, she was called "Nigger."

She saw herself as a fine and respectable woman. She expected others to see her like that too. She was shocked because they didn’t. One day when she was walking by St. Martin’s in the Field a well-dressed man approached her and asked her to have sex with him in a nearby park. Alarmed and upset, she rushed away and got her bus home.

Escaping to safety was a useful mechanism for dealing with a cold, unwelcoming world, but it wasn’t enough. Una learnt to speak out in public and to write poems and plays addressing her experiences in inter-war Britain. The "blues," written Jamaican style, her play London Calling, a comedy of manners, and her articles on feminism, women’s rights and cultural affairs trace the trauma of migration and the engagement with difference. 

Every time I return to her papers or speak about Una’s life, I am impressed by her consistent effort to make sense of the vagaries of the human family. I believe she made the effort so that we can now move on, and on.

The Life of Una Marson: 1905-1965 will be published in paperback on October 1st in the UK, December 8 in the US.