Miss Una Marson Speaks
by Jenny Mitchell
Call me glutton as I gorged on every English
word – a book-mad child in Santa Cruz, Jamaica –
my first and only love the far-off Mother Country,
high-toned language on my tongue to sound as good as her.
At ten, when father died – a man who breathed for books –
money fell into his grave. We moved from
our small market town where every name was known –
to Kingston – wild. At night, bedlam disturbed dreams.
My hopes of higher learning were all drowned
by waves of unpaid bills, typing in a pool – no Shakespeare
in dry memos – till I learned how to swim, became an editor,
my paper aimed at women battered by life’s flow.
Poems always helped to lift their heads, calmed
unsettled waters, till money swam away from me. By then,
my poems won a prize. A play had strength enough
to sail me to the Mother Country, glad to see white cliffs.
Coming close, I found that they were grey, Black
bastard! hurled at me by English men – no high-toned
words formed on their tongues. In time, I met like minds,
became an activist as race could not divide us up.
I had to sail back home to rest, recuperate, working
for a charity until the Mother called me back. Before the war,
I became the first Black woman working at the BBC,
Calling the West Indies where our Black soldiers spoke.
Soon Caribbean Voices were heard above the Blitz,
a programme I produced with pride, though still called filthy
names, whispered at my back by passing whites,
hating skin the same as theirs although a different shade.
In time, my writing curled up in a ball and drowned.
I went back home, became obscure, heart giving way at sixty,
falling in a grave. Rising as you hear me now. Rising,
on this day at least, because you know my name.
This poem was commissioned by Southwark Libraries for the launch of the Una Marson Library, the first named after a woman and a person of colour in the UK.
A brief biography of Una Marson is here, and an article by Lenny Henry about her is here. Below is a short film made during the Second World War by the Ministry of Information, in which a group of West Indians, led by Una Marson and Learie Constantine, assemble at the BBC in London and describe how people of the Caribbean are helping in the war effort.