My Black Icon: Paul Robeson & Una Marson

Black Icons, FAD Projects, Heritage
Our latest heritage project has meant more to Clara then just finding out about the past. Here she talks about the lessons we can all learn from two of her favourite black icons – Paul Robeson and Una Marson.

Clara, you have chosen two icons to inspire your print designs. Can you start by telling us about them?

My first is Paul Robeson, an African-American who came to the UK in the early 20th century from the states. He was a diverse guy – actor, singer, lawyer and activist and he did a lot in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. He’s known on the British scene because of his involvement in the community and politics. He wasn’t just a guy who lived off his fame. He really wanted to get involved with society and how people were treated, especially those from minority backgrounds.

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Una Marson on the left

Una Marson was the first black woman and presenter to be employed by the BBC. Also she was a poet, a journalist and a feminist. Some of her poems were very controversial for the time.  She was a woman proud to be black, and had her own natural look and authenticity. Most of her poems describe her being a black woman and why it’s so important for men and women to embrace their true blackness.

What drew you to these two icons in particular?

With Una, who was originally from Jamaican, I just had a feeling she was a strong black woman. Caribbean culture is well-known for having these strong women in our families. When I think of my own family they will all say that the women have done more than the men.  I’m not disregarding my uncles and great-grandfather, but there is always a tale about how a woman has done something significant. Maybe that’s because the women have more to prove; they have to show society they are not just a man’s muse. I can definitely relate to Una being part Jamaican myself.

With Paul Robeson, I admire the fact he left America because of the injustice he experienced as a black man, and that he made a new start in a different country that was still prone to racism, albeit not as heavily as the United States. He really had that determination and drive to pursue his dreams. And he did really well in the UK as a result.

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Clara printing textiles designs inspired by her icons Una Marson and Paul Robeson

Why do you think these black icons from the 1920s and 30s are still relevant to young people like you today?

I think because they are the makings of why we have successful black British actors today. I remember listening to a documentary with actor Naomie Harris and she spoke briefly about people in the 1920s & 30s, and how we need to pay homage to these people because if it wasn’t for them, the gates wouldn’t have been opened for black actors now. Because they fought for what was right and for a greater cause, not just for themselves, but for generations to come. It’s very important to acknowledge these past icons.

What have you learnt from being a heritage volunteer?

I’ve learnt about many amazing black people in London during the jazz era, and not just the famous ones. I had heard of Una Marson, but didn’t know too much about her. I knew nothing about Paul Robeson, so it was really nice to see him on the screen at the British Film Institute. I was like ‘wow’, this is something completely new to me. The archive visits really opened my eyes to who these people were and how they became icons.

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As a volunteer on this project why do think it’s so important for young people to learn about their history and to have access to archives?

The main reason I think is because history has a tendency to repeat itself, and I feel like if you are going through struggles or feel like you are being discriminated against, this has happened already in the past. You can learn from how people like Paul Robeson dealt with it and how they got through in order to reach their heights. I think we need to appreciate, as young people, that icons like Paul Robeson campaigned to pave the way for black people, and other minorities, to have access to basic human rights in this country.

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Clara exploring and discussing the archives with other young volunteers at The British Library

Do you think the reason you don’t know much about these black icons is because it’s just not taught in schools?

Exactly that, but also my own ignorance. It doesn’t matter what race you are from, I think because it’s not taught in schools we don’t go out and learn for ourselves. If you really want to find out your history there are ways and means, like the archives we have visited on this project. I’ve been talking to my younger brother who is nine about Paul Robeson and how amazing he was. He didn’t realise this guy existed. It’s nice that this project will bring these black icon stories into schools when it goes on tour next year.

If you could think of one thing discovering the stories of Paul Robeson and Una Marson has taught you what would it?

To strive for the better cause, and don’t think just about yourself. Think of the bigger picture and how the things you do affect other people. As much as you maybe want to be awarded for things in your life, if you really want to make an impact you need to have patience. You might not see change for 15 or 20 years. These people were working decades ago but their legacy and what they achieved still lives on.

Steve McQueen director of 12 Years A Slave set to bring life of Paul Robeson to the big screen. Read more on The Independent’s website.
For more information on FAD’s Black Icons project funded by the Heritage Lottery follow this blog or @fadcharity on twitter.

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