The Equiano Centre


January 2013

Forgotten Black Voices at the BBC

Anya Pearson

Una Marson's Blue Plaque. Image courtesy of Southwark Council

After Usain Bolt ran his record-breaking sprint in the 100m men's race, his lap of victory around the Olympic Stadium was relayed into two billion homes by the BBC. The Jamaican flag draped over Bolt's shoulders had all the more significance for his fellow Jamaicans who were celebrating fifty years of independence from British rule. Overshadowed by the London Olympics, two other media events were more quietly observed last summer. The BBC World Service celebrated eighty years of broadcasting and also gave its final news bulletin from Bush House, its home since 1941.

These milestones seem to have little in common. What could the BBC World Service have to do with Jamaican nationalism? But Bolt's confident assertion of Jamaican national identity over the BBC's airwaves resonated deeply with the long, complex history they share together.

Although it is seldom mentioned in histories of the BBC Empire Service, as it was then known, the first African Caribbean radio broadcasters played a pivotal role in shaping British radio during the 1930s to 1950s. In London, broadcasters such as Una Marson, June Grimble, Ernest Eytle and Edric and Pearl O'Connor used radio waves to negotiate a fledgling national identity for the plurality of Caribbean islands under British rule.

I became particularly fascinated with the life and work of Jamaican writer, broadcaster and feminist Una Marson, who was the first Black woman to work for the BBC. In ground-breaking programmes such as Calling the West Indies and Caribbean Voices, Marson celebrated the growing Black presence in the heart of the Empire. When she got the chance, she would also try to cultivate West Indian resistance to colonial rule.

Marson was born in a rural town near Kingston in 1905. A successful journalist, she arrived in London by boat on 19 December 1932, the same year that the distant chimes of Big Ben were heard for the first time on wireless sets around the world with the establishment of the Empire Service. Raised on a diet of  Wordsworth and a 'British' colonial education, Marson found that life in 1930s and 1940s London was not quite what she expected. The mythology of an egalitarian Empire was readily exposed by the harsh realities of racism and the severe difficulty in finding employment. Feeling alienated and displaced, she published the poem 'Nigger' in The Keys shortly after arriving in the capital: "They called me 'Nigger,' /Those little white urchins,/ They laughed and shouted/ As I passed along the street".

BBC Producer Cecil Madden happened to meet Marson when she accompanied a friend on a radio programme in 1939. By the outbreak of the Second World War, she was invited to broadcast morale-boosting talks to the West Indies. In April 1941, Calling the West Indies was born, with Marson as both the writer and presenter in an otherwise all-White male production team. The show was a vibrant mixture of interviews, West Indian soldiers' messages home, serious political reports and poetry, all spliced together with a healthy dose of live West Indian music.

Sadly, no audio recordings from the programmes survive today. The BBC Written Archives Centre in Reading holds a vast, if incomplete collection of transcripts, as well as letters, memos and ephemera. That summer, while crowds of people poured into the Olympic Village I took the train to the town of Caversham to visit the archive.

There were at least a dozen boxes that had been marked for my attention. A musty, almost perfumed smell emanated from the files and I wondered how long it had been since they had last been opened. I carefully leafed through the stacks of documents, mostly typewritten on painfully thin sheets of tracing-paper. Smudged red stamps declared that each sheet had passed the wartime censor.

I turned to the programme transcripts first. Each programme began with Una cheerfully declaring: "Hello, West Indies!" I tried to imagine her voice radiating from London across the Atlantic Ocean. The radio beams would travel via a rediffusion station in British Guiana to a crackling wireless set on a verandah in Kingston. What had her voice sounded like? Jamaican newspaper the Daily Gleaner reported snootily that her accent was "that of the cultured Englishwomen" without a trace of "the speech of the semi-educated or more careless people of Jamaica".

However, Marson was no snob. She cleverly used the platform the BBC had given her to nurture West Indian accents, ethnicities and cultural identities in all their varied forms. In one episode, she played host at a typical West Indian "barbeque" showcasing Black, English, Chinese and Indian culture. In another, she picked islands out of a hat at random while live on air. Achieving enough local flavour, she later said, was a feat she accomplished "through tears and sweat".

Marson was a committed Black nationalist and Pan-Africanist, arguing in The Keys that "the Negro world must come together" to fight imperialism. She'd even been secretary to Haile Selassie when he was exiled from Ethiopia in 1936. Now, going through her transcripts I noticed that she embraced any opportunity to stress the common ground between all people of the African diaspora, rare though those opportunities were at the time. Marson also clearly promoted inter-island unity in the face of colonial rule which had kept the islands apart. I could see where her cursive handwriting had repeatedly crossed out the word 'Jamaican' in one transcript and replaced it with 'West Indian'. 

In London, she'd found solace in the Black intellectual network growing in the capital in the 1930s. She rubbed shoulders with CLR James, Amy Ashwood Garvey and George Padmore. By the time she joined the BBC, she was endowed with the fame and influence necessary to invite West Indian soldiers, Learie Constantine, Dr Harold Moody and others to create a Black space right there in her broadcasting studio. When this right came under attack by a White member of the Jamaican plantocracy, Marson defended it vehemently.

In 1941, Lady Davson, an officious member of the West Indian Committee complained that Marson overwhelmingly gave preference to Black guests on her programmes. Looking into the incident, I found a memo dated in March of that year which I presume Marson would never have seen. In the memo, production assistant Joan Gilbert bitterly complains of Marson's 'rude' behaviour towards a White man on the show, adding: "Una maintains that 'whites' are not West Indians, and really wants all coloured people where she can get away with it. The West Indies committee on the other hand, strongly submit that the programme should be fifty-fifty white/coloured where possible".

In response, Marson protested that the West Indian population was 97% coloured or Black, and that the WIC was severely colour prejudiced. Indeed, they refused to employ any non-White staff. She concluded by sardonically asking her producer to "get them to realise that with the help of God the backward peoples are now gradually able to take a hand in looking after themselves".

Although she could be a difficult person to work with, Marson had earned her seniors' respect at the BBC. In this battle over the airwaves she emerged victorious. In March 1942 J B Clark, controller of the Overseas Services and a member of the WIC, effectively allowed Marson to continue favouring Black guests and even acknowledged the racial bias of the WIC.

And so Calling the West Indies was free to evolve into the celebrated Black literary programme Caribbean Voices, which it did in March 1945. Here Marson promoted folk poetry and literature that represented Black subjective experiences. It was far from a coherent expression of a nationalist ideology. But at a time of severe economic hardship and social unrest in the West Indies, Marson used BBC radio waves to transmit the beginnings of a national story to the people back home.

Marson's small but significant victory might not have been relayed into two billion homes around the world, but in the course of her remarkable career she certainly leapt over some hurdles worthy of a gold medal. And as the sun sets over the BBC Empire Service, I wonder what other early Black broadcasters have their voices buried in the depths of the BBC Written Archives Centre, waiting to be heard again.


Anya Pearson is a research assistant for Dr Caroline Bressey at the Department of Geography, UCL. She wrote her MA History dissertation on the life and work of Una Marson. She has worked at The Runnymede Trust and the V&A.