Una Marson Born Too Soon

On International Women’s Day, Jamaica’s first playwright, Una Marson, was celebrated with the launch of two of her plays, Pocomania and London Calling. They had long languished in the archives of the National Library of Jamaica. The plays were finally published last year by Blouse and Skirt Books, in collaboration with the National Library. Founded by the formidable Tanya Batson Savage, this quirkily named press is a model of cultural enterprise.

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The Jamaican expression ‘blouse and skirt’ signifies surprise. And, perhaps, it is a shock to even Tanya herself that her small publishing house has grown so rapidly. In 2005, she established Blue Moon Publishing, now Blue Banyan Books, which she modestly describes on her website as “a small publishing ‘hut’ located in Kingston, Jamaica”.

The hut is quite spacious. It has room for specialist audiences. Blue Banyan Books publishes fiction for children. Blouse & Skirt Books publishes poetry and prose fiction for young adults and adults. Over the last decade, Tanya has published nine books, including the award-winning All Over Again by A-dZiko Simba Gegele.

RELATIVE PRIVILEGE

Una Marson’s extraordinary life is an inspiration for young women today. She accomplished so much in spite of the circumstances of her times.  Marson was born in rural Jamaica in 1905. This was a mere 40 years after the Morant Bay Rebellion. Not much had changed for poor black people by the beginning of the 20th century. Jamaica remained a fundamentally racist society, denying the black majority access to the basics for survival.

tumblr_matjv5m92T1rf692no1_400By contrast, Marson enjoyed a life of relative privilege as the daughter of a Baptist parson. She was educated at the elitist Hampton School, an institution about which she appeared to be conflicted. She was alienated from her white and brown classmates. But Marson did value the education she received at Hampton. It prepared her for the world of international politics in which she later moved with sophisticated ease.

After leaving Hampton, Marson went to Kingston. Her first job was with the Salvation Army doing social work. Then she worked with the YMCA. Soon she entered the field of journalism and in 1928, she started her own magazine, The Cosmopolitan, which appeared monthly from 1928 to 1931 when it folded.

The name expressed the outward reach of Marson’s vision. She declared in the magazine, “This is the age of woman: What man has done, women may do.” Well, it’s not everything men have done that women should do. But you know what Marson meant. Women needed to break free from confining stereotypes.

SEDUCED BY HER BOSS

In July 1930, Marson self-published a collection of poetry entitled Tropic Reveries; and, a year later, another, Heights and Depths. Then came the successful staging of her play At What a Price in 1932. It’s a sobering story. A young middle-class girl from the country comes to Kingston to work as a stenographer. She is seduced by her boss, a white foreigner, gets pregnant and her life mash up. She has to go back to the country in disgrace.

The exploitation of women and girls in Jamaica is an old story. Admittedly, tricking an overage woman is not at all the same as sexually abusing underage girls. But the issue of vulnerability is similar. Some women are quite naive and expect men to behave honourably when they have absolutely no intention of doing so.

that-suspicious-memeYoung girls have to be taught to be suspicious. They cannot be left on their own to learn the cold truth that what they optimistically expect is not necessarily what they will receive. They often get much more and much less than they bargained for. At What a Price was enthusiastically reviewed in the Jamaica Times: “It is to her credit and ours and may be the beginning of a Jamaican dramatic literature.” It was.

AN EXCEPTIONAL LIFE

Soon after making her debut as a playwright, Una Marson left Jamaica for England. There she continued writing her “Autobiography of a Black Girl”, which she had started when she was only 25. Marson knew from quite early that her life was exceptional.

In London, she would become an outspoken advocate for women’s rights. In April 1935, she represented the Jamaican Women’s Social Service Club at the 12th Annual Congress of the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship held in Turkey. Her brilliant speech to the assembly championed both race and gender equality.

Marson returned to Jamaica in 1936 and became the first female writer for the radical newspaper Public Opinion. Her opinions were decidedly feminist. It is in this period that she wrote the play Pocomania about an upright, middle-class young woman who is trapped in respectability. She is almost freed by the kumina drums.

Back in London in 1938, Marson began to do scriptwriting for BBC radio. By 1941, this led to her becoming the producer of Calling the West Indies, a programme in which soldiers sent messages home. The following year, Marson turned the programme into Caribbean Voices. Writers from all over the West Indies shared their work on air. Marson had created a virtual literary community.

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I keep wondering how much more Una Marson might have accomplished if she’d been born 50 years later. There would have been so many more opportunities for her as a black woman of distinction. Who knows?

Creating Wealth From Culture

In December 2015, The UNESCO Creative Cities Network dubbed Kingston a ‘Creative City of Music’. This distinction confirms what we already know. Kingston’s culture is world-class. In spite of all the problems of urban blight, the city does have the potential to become a livable home for all of us, and an attractive destination for tourists.

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But the history of the city is far from glamorous. Kingston was founded in July 1692 as a place of refuge for survivors of the Port Royal earthquake. They camped on the seafront in dreadful conditions. And mosquitoes ravaged them. Approximately 2,000 survivors of the earthquake died from diseases carried by mosquitoes.

It wasn’t ZIKV or chik-V. And, by the way, chik-V didn’t come to the Caribbean in the 21st century. As early as 1827, the disease was already in the region. In a case of mistaken identity, it was called dengue. That name comes from the Kiswahili language of East Africa. The word ‘dinga’ means ‘seizure, or cramp’.

But the big difference between chik-V and dengue is arthritis. Chik-V weakens the joints. And it has devastating consequences, both physical and social. For example, The Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases reports that, in 1827, “when the disease first appeared in St Thomas [US Virgin Islands], several Negroes, who, being all at once attacked with pain in the knees, had fallen down, [and] were actually apprehended by the police for drunkenness”.

SUSPICIOUS OF GOVERNMENT

Kingston gradually recovered from its disastrous start. By the middle of the 18th century, it had become the commercial centre of the island. Sitting on the seventh largest natural harbour in the world, the city was ideally located to be a global player in international trade.

1375285952-1In 1891, Kingston hosted the Great Exhibition. It was a very ambitious affair. Its aim was to show Jamaicans all the latest in foreign products and machinery; and to exhibit Jamaican products to foreign investors. The Jamaican economy was in decline and a small group of visionaries realised that something grand had to be done to drive productivity. One of them was George Stiebel, who made his money in shipping and mining.  Devon House was one of his homes.

The Exhibition wasn’t an easy sell. As Joy Lumsden reports in a 1991 article in the Jamaica Historical Society Bulletin, “From the start, it was feared that the attempts to get people to send produce to the exhibition was an indirect way of finding out how much they produced so that taxes could be increased.”

Sounds familiar. Many players in the field of the creative/cultural industries are now very suspicious of the Government’s relatively new interest in their work. Where was the Government when the music industry, for example, was struggling to establish itself in Kingston’s concrete jungle? And why the sudden interest in the earnings of the industry?

DISTINGUISHED WRITERS

UNESCO identifies seven creative fields in which selected cities are judged: Crafts and Folk Art, Design, Film, Gastronomy, Literature, Media Arts and Music. I think Kingston’s creativity extends way beyond music. We could just as easily have been recognised as a creative city of literature. And it’s not only Kingston; it’s the entire country.

Jamaica has produced a whole heap of distinguished writers. Edward Baugh, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Erna Brodber, Colin Channer, Michelle Cliff, Neville Dawes, Kwame Dawes,  H.G. DeLisser, Lorna Goodison, John Hearne, Roger Mais, Rachel Manley, Claude McKay, Kei Miller, Mervyn Morris, Tony McNeill, Mutabaruka, Velma Pollard, Claudia Rankine, Trevor Rhone, Andrew Salkey, Olive Senior, Dennis Scott, Tanya Shirley and Sylvia Wynter are just some of the writers whose work has received international recognition. Many have won major literary prizes.

Linton Kwesi Johnson, who was born in Chapelton and migrated to the UK as a child, enjoys the distinction of being the second living poet and the only black poet to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics series.

lead_960Marlon James recently won the 2015 Man Booker prize and a 2015 American Book award for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings.  With all its blood and gore, the novel is Kingston hard-core. James’ transformation of the murderous reality of the city into brilliant literature is a powerful manifestation of the creativity of Jamaicans.

CULTURAL CAPITAL

In the 1970s, the Jamaica Tourist Board rebranded the island this way: “We’re more than a beach. We’re a country.” UNESCO’s designation of Kingston as a ‘Creative City of Music’ is good news. But we’re much more than music. We’re a creative country in so many domains.

So how are we going to turn our new UNESCO branding into cultural capital? And where is our museum of Jamaica music? It’s on Water Lane, an alley in downtown Kingston. The creators of our music deserve much, much better than this.

The director/curator of the so-called museum, Herbie Miller, has been given basket to carry nuff water. He has done his best to apply tar. Every Sunday in Reggae Month, he hosts a public forum on our music at the Institute of Jamaica’s lecture hall.  This year, the focus was on Don Drummond.

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Kingston is, indeed, a capital city for music and literature. If only all our politicians could understand this and invest in our culture!

University Fi Stone Dog in the UK?

Believe it or not, influential academics are insisting that there are far too many universities in the UK. Of course, they’re not using our colourful language – university fi stone dog! But it amounts to the same thing. Universities are in such plentiful supply that the issue of wasted resources is now on the national agenda.

imagesLast year, Sir Roderick Floud, former president of Universities UK, made an alarming public statement: half of UK universities should be closed. His remarks were carried by the Telegraph on June 19: “I believe we have too many universities, that they are trying to do too many different things, and that the way we fund their research is fundamentally flawed”.

Practically all universities in the UK are financed by government. So cynics might argue that Floud’s belief is just the backward opinion of an elitist, conservative administrator wanting to curtail public spending on higher education. There may be some truth to that. But Floud does have a point. In the 1990s, British polytechnics were magically transformed into universities with the wave of a wand, it would seem.

Instead of specialising in professional vocational education, polytechnics began to duplicate the offerings of traditional universities. I suppose it’s similar to what the University of Technology has been doing in recent years: replicating practically all the professional programmes offered by the University of the West Indies. Incidentally, UTECH hasn’t even applied for accreditation of its dental programme! And the first graduates are about to be let loose on an unsuspecting world.

This is how Floud sums up the problem: “We don’t need two or more universities in each of our major cities, glowering at each other and competing to attract the attentions of businesses and local authorities.

“Why does Leeds or Sheffield or Oxford, for example, need two vice-chancellors, registrars or groups of governors?

“In London, the situation is even more bizarre, with some 40 universities within the M25 [the motorway that circles the city] and more arriving by the day. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has remained supine in the face of evidence that all this is unnecessary and inefficient.”

OVERSUPPLY, DOUBTFUL QUALITY

hydel_univOf course, our situation is different. We do need more than one university in Kingston. There’s a huge market for tertiary education. But the twin problem of oversupply and doubtful quality can’t be conveniently forgotten. Last week, I was reminded of this issue in a conversation with Dr. Henley Morgan, who was appointed Chancellor of the former Hydel University College in December.

Yes, Hydel does have a Chancellor. As Dr. Morgan explains, “not a ceremonial role as is the custom throughout the Commonwealth university system, but rather the executive role of Instructional Leader, as it is used in the American community college system”. And he made an amusing admission: “It’s funny but 7 out of 10 persons I tell of my latest calling ask if I’ve read your articles on the subject of unregistered institutions and unaccredited courses”.

Dr. Morgan has not only read the articles; he’s taken immediate action. He’s prioritised and expedited the necessary process for Hydel’s registration as a tertiary education institution and hosted the University Council of Jamaica on a site visit. Dr. Morgan brought to my attention the fact that the sign proclaiming Hydel as a university was removed even before his appointment.

Perhaps my sceptical columns persuaded the founder/president, Mrs. Hyacinth Bennett, to set more realistic goals. In any case, I’m glad commonsense has prevailed. And I wish Chancellor Morgan well as he attempts to transform Hydel College into a viable tertiary institution.

NOT SETTLING FOR WAT-LEF

Then there’s another side to the business of oversupply of British universities that we can’t afford to ignore. Many institutions have resorted to exporting their programmes. We, in the Caribbean, are a targeted market. But we have to be careful that we’re not settling for wat-lef. And we do have our own academic programmes that we can export.

UnknownEarlier this month, the 3rd CARIFORUM-EU business forum took place in MoBay. Its purpose was to review economic partnership agreements and, hopefully, increase trade with Europe in three areas of our competitive advantage: agro-processing, music and higher education. I was invited to speak at a roundtable on higher education.

Focusing on the potential of creative industries programmes to transform academic institutions, I drew attention to the accomplishments of the Reggae Studies Unit at the University of the West Indies. Over the last two decades, scores of undergraduate and graduate students have come to the Mona campus from across the world to do research on Jamaican popular music and related cultural forms.

I also highlighted the innovative undergraduate degree programme in Entertainment and Cultural Enterprise Management that was introduced by the Reggae Studies Unit in 2007. And I talked about the proposal I recently developed, in consultation with several colleagues, to establish a multi-disciplinary, cross-faculty Centre for the Creative Industries and Cultural Enterprise at UWI.

We must acknowledge the relationship between culture, creativity and economic development and use our talents to our own advantage. Or we will remain trapped in debt, constantly dependent on our former colonial masters to feed us with scraps from the table.