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  • “Teach His People the Value of Unity”: Black Diaspora, Women, and Una Marson’s Pocomania
  • Raj Chetty (bio)

Caribbean women’s literature that does not fit male-centered regimes of blackness is often left out of genealogies of black thought. Such appears to be the case of the early-twentieth-century Jamaican poet, playwright, radio programmer, and activist Una Marson, who “altered London theatre history by bringing, for the first time, all-black casts to the stage in serious drama” and “directly confronted the double bind of colonial imitation.”1 Marson has been obscured by canonical Caribbean male writers who followed her and for whom she helped create a platform through the BBC’s Caribbean Voices, such as George Lamming, Sam Selvon, V. S. Naipaul, Victor Reid, and Derek Walcott, in the midcentury boom of anticolonial and postcolonial Anglophone Caribbean writers.2 Alison Donnell has been particularly critical of the “origin” stories of West Indian literature that begin with these writers, to the neglect of Marson, “a black Jamaican woman whose experiences and achievements provided a link to all these major movements and figures.”3 Denise deCaires Narain is even more direct: if Selvon’s 1956 novel The Lonely Londoners is “a text which is read as providing early examples of diasporic figures,” Marson’s work “provides a useful reminder that some of these migrants were women.”4

Marson’s literary works have also been obscured by the more pronouncedly black- and Afrocentric poetics and politics of Caribbean, African American, and black British women writers in the 1970s and 1980s.5 Donnell has noted that critical attention to black Caribbean women writers tends to “[concentrate] [End Page 20] on contemporary, diasporic, African Caribbean women.”6 Thus, much like the “emergence” of West Indian literature noted above, the constitution in the 1990s of a canon of Anglophone Caribbean women writers traces its origins to the 1970s, with writers like Merle Hodge, Erna Brodber, and Lorna Goodison figuring prominently at the expense of earlier writers like Marson.7 These early writers gain admission into this canon, it seems, so long as they can be conscripted into the kind of “Black Atlanticism” that has come to dominate literary studies and critical theory in the wake of Paul Gilroy’s work (and, ironically, at the expense of black diasporic feminist criticism and black feminist internationalism predating Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic). Or, earlier writers are admissible so long as they fit neatly within a postcolonial feminist framework.8 Meant to disparage neither women writers since the 1970s nor the critical approaches that coincide with their emergence into critical view in the 1990s, such an argument foregrounds the conditions under which certain texts are embraced in a postcolonial, diasporic, post-national now, and others left behind in a colonial, pre-diasporic, nationalist, pre-“third wave” feminist past.

To be sure, Marson’s oeuvre is fraught with contradictions in both its feminism and its antiracism, one possible reason for her uneasy fit within dominant Black Atlantic and feminist molds. Nonetheless, rather than tailoring Marson’s work for a Black Atlantic or postcolonial feminist fitting, perhaps both black diasporic thought and black feminist thought should be reshaped around Marson’s work. Thus, taking a cue from deCaires Narain, I argue there is something apart from “the undeniable archival importance of retrieving” Marson from literary-historical obscurity: her work speaks not only to current conceptualizations of black diaspora but forces such conceptualizations to consider the place of black women like Marson within them.9

Marson’s 1938 play Pocomania dissatisfies those readers of black diaspora literature who see Afrocentrism as the effective or most effective counter to anti-African and antiblack racism. Without a doubt, the play is antiracist, as the vibrant religious life, complex subjectivities, and politics all are located in exclusively black and brown—that is, Afro-descendent—Jamaican social worlds. While the play connects the religious revivalism of the Afro-creolized Pocomania tradition with African traditions, its focus is not in authenticating the Africanness of Jamaican culture. Instead, Pocomania contrasts Jamaican yard life, and specifically the tradition of Pocomania within it, with Jamaican middle-class life and its emphasis on proper Christian behavior, belief...


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