They assumed I was just there to make tea – Ghanaian on becoming Britain’s 1st Black woman publisher

Mildred Europa Taylor December 16, 2021
Margaret Busby. Photo: The Guardian

Margaret Busby is a major cultural figure in Britain and around the world. After becoming Britain’s youngest and first Black woman publisher when she co-founded Allison & Busby publishing house in the 1960s, she went on to run the publishing company for 20 years. From humble beginnings, she has since worked as a scriptwriter, lyricist, reviewer, radio and TV presenter, and activist, changing the face of literature.

Born in Ghana in 1944 at the time the country was still called the Gold Coast, Busby’s father, George Busby, who was a good friend of George Padmore, won a scholarship to study medicine, first in Trinidad then Edinburgh and Dublin, according to The Guardian. He practiced in London before serving in Ghana.

Busby never forgets her time in Ghana reading books that talked about Britain while experiencing the protests which resulted in the fight for independence. When she was six, her parents sent her to school in England and saved enough money to pay for her education and that of her brother and her sister.

She told The Guardian that at school, she was “very conscious of being different” and “got used to being thought of as one of the little African girls.” And with no money to come home for the holidays, Busby was sent to a farm in Sussex run by a writer called Verily Anderson. That was where she had her first editorial experience as she helped Anderson type her books. Busby went on to study English at Bedford College, London University where she served as the editor of the school’s literary magazine and published poems in the New African.

Later at a party, Busby met a young Oxford undergraduate called Clive Allison. The two talked for some time and later decided to set up a publishing company together when they finished their degrees. The two took day jobs at other publishers before setting up Allison & Busby in the 1960s, where, according to The Guardian, they published everyone “from James Ellroy to Michèle Roberts, Michael Horowitz, Buchi Emecheta, Hunter S Thompson, the sonnets of Michelangelo and the fantastically successful The Worst Witch series, by Jill Murphy.”

“We were not constrained by any conventions – we just had to make them work,” Busby recalled in her interview with The Guardian in 2020. “We published songs to sing in the bath! Printed on waterproof paper. And we published a lot of black books. Not because it was a black company, but because it was something that interested me.”

Indeed, while Editorial Director for 20 years at Allison & Busby, she oversaw an international list of respected authors, both new and established. But being a Black woman, there were difficulties. Many of her workers at Allison & Busby assumed she was just there “to make the tea”.

“The window cleaner used to say: ‘Can you get your boss to pay me?’ I’d say: ‘Yeah, he’s next door,’” she recalled. Busby said some even thought she was sleeping with Allison even though she was then married to someone else.

“I was being treated as some sort of freak – ‘the girl from Ghana goes into publishing’ – as if they were saying: ‘Black girl can read.’ That was the society we were part of and what I was used to, so I just got on with what I was doing.”

After 20 years at Allison & Busby, the partnership ended. Allison & Busby was bought out by WH Allen. Allison was kept on, but Busby wasn’t and she had to leave. She subsequently became editorial director of Earthscan, publishing books about nature and climate, for three years, and has been freelance ever since. In the 1980s, she helped found a group called Greater Access to Publishing and has since been working on her anthologies and dramatisations while mentoring writers and editors.

She has also been writing for such national outlets as The Guardian, Independent, Sunday Times, Observer and the New Statesman. What’s more, she has contributed to and edited books such as Carnival: A Photographic and Testimonial History of the Notting Hill Carnival and No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action.

Busby is also famous for compiling the pioneering Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent (1992) and its 2019 follow-up New Daughters of Africa.

Daughters of Africa, which contains examples of writing by women of African descent from ancient Egypt to now, debunks the notion that there are only a few Black women writers. It has also inspired other Black women writers who were struggling to write to get on with it.

Many of the pieces written in New Daughters of Africa, which is a follow-up to Daughters of Africa, were written just for Busby, and were all done without payment, she said. Last year, The Guardian reported that the money generated by the book will pay for a £20,000 ($26,000) MA bursary – the Margaret Busby New Daughters of Africa award – at Soas University of London, for a female African student.

Busby, who still fights for diversity within the publishing industry, said when she once realized that 91% of Wikipedia editors were male, she started writing anonymous entries for women who have been overlooked. Today, through her outstanding work in the literary scene, the Ghanaian-born woman has not only edited many books but served as a judge for many literary awards such as the Caine Prize for African Writing and the Commonwealth Book Prize.

Busby has also been “in conversation” with well-known writers like Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Toni Morrison, and Nawal El Saadawi, according to SOAS. The editor, writer and broadcaster has further served on the boards of cultural organizations, including the Drum Arts Centre, Penumbra Productions, Africa Centre, English PEN, the Royal Literary Fund, the African & Caribbean Music Circuit, the Hackney Empire, the Organisation of Women Writers of Africa, and Wasafiri magazine, SOAS adds.

Busby has also worked for radio and TV with networks such as the BBC, and honors she has received include “an Honorary Fellowship from Queen Mary, University of London, the Bocas Henry Swanzy Award for Distinguished Service to Caribbean Letters, and the Benson Medal from the Royal Society of Literature, for lifelong achievement.” In July this year, she received The London Book Fair Lifetime Achievement Award, which recognizes an individual “who has made a truly significant mark in the sphere of global publishing.”

Writers to date are grateful for the works of Busby. “[She] helped change the landscape of both UK publishing and arts coverage and so many black British artists owe her a debt. I know I do,” English novelist Zadie Smith wrote in 2019.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: December 16, 2021


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