Last week I was in London – invited to attend the private view of Get Up Stand Up Now, a seminal group exhibition at Somerset House, in which I’m delighted to report my work is also present. Yes, right there alongside many wonderful, groundbreaking artists. The exhibition, curated by Zak Ové , is twofold: an homage to his father’s oeuvre and a 50-year survey of black creativity in the UK. It was there at the opening that I had the honour to be introduced to the very gracious Margaret Busby by our mutual friend Maureen Bryant. A portrait of Margaret hangs in a conspicuous place in the exhibition – it was taken by filmmaker-photographer Horace Ové . They are friends and have been since the late 60s. Her work, like Horace’s, is the stuff of legend. They were the early Black British way pavers – the pioneers that picked up the baton from the likes of C.L.R. James, and along with Stuart Hall, John La Rose and Kamau Braitwaite, amongst others, laid the foundations of what we now call Black British Culture. Please read the interview I had the immense pleasure to have with Margaret in London last week.
Satch Hoyt: Margaret, I’d like to know a little bit about your background. I know you were born in Ghana.
Margaret Busby: I was born in Ghana; my mother was born in Ghana; my mother’s mother was born in Ghana. My father was actually born in Barbados. When he was a baby, they moved to Trinidad and so he grew up there. My father was bright and he won the Island Scholarship to come study medicine in Britain. He became a doctor in Ireland, and then, once he qualified, he became a GP in East London in the 1920s. Then, in 1929 he migrated to Ghana. My mother’s father was born in Dominica, and he came to Britain in 1899 to study law. He was a delegate to the first Pan-African Conference in 1900. Then he migrated to Ghana in 1902. So when my dad went in 1929, he gathered at the Dominica House, which was the name of my grandfather’s house in Ghana – like all the others did – and that’s where he met my mom.
SH: Were you there during the advent of independence?
MB: I was away at school at the time of independence. The West Indians that came there were quite often doctors and lawyers, and they all practiced in the rural areas, where there was no medicine – no treatment for people. So, because my father was a doctor in the bush, there were no schools where we were living. My father wanted my brother and sister and I to get a proper education, so we went to Britain to get our schooling.
SH: Where did you go to school in Britain and how was it for you going to school there in that period?
MB: I went to school in Sussex. It was an international school, but I think my sister and I were the first black people. By the time we left, I had friends from Liberia, Trinidad and other places. My mother had problems finding us a school, though. I remember she told me that she had tried to get us into some school somewhere and was told that they didn’t mind, but it’s the parents of the other children who would. It certainly was that era in which black people were a rarity. After I went back to Ghana and did my A levels, I came back and went to university in London when I was 17. Even then, it was still hard to find places to live. It was that era of “sorry, no blacks or Irish.”
SH: Where were you living at that time in London?
MB: I lived at one time in a hostel. One time I lived in a private hotel, which was the only place I could find, and so I had to choose between getting a bus to college or eating, because I couldn’t afford to do both. Another time, I had some short-term place in a flat with some actress; yet another time, I was in the YWCA. At another point, I had a boyfriend, who I later married – he was an English musician and was at college in Cambridge. His name was Lionel Grigson. In fact, he was a professor of jazz at Guildhall. So, at one point I remember going up to visit him and had to stay with him, because I had nowhere else to stay. It wasn’t an easy time to be black in Britain.
SH: And to be a woman in that era…
MB: I think it’s only in hindsight that you see things like that. When I started publishing, I was at university. There was a friend of mine who I had known since school days – she was having a party because her first book was being published, and she was also about to get married to somebody at university. I was invited as a friend of hers, and her fiancé had invited his friends. So, at this party, I was introduced to someone called Clive Allison, because I was doing things in publishing at my college and this guy was, too. He asked what I was going to do when I graduated. And I thought I might go into publishing. And so we said, well let’s start a publishing company. We actually conceived it when we were both still at university. Later, we graduated and really did start it – Allison and Busby. But he was a white guy and I was a black woman, and so, of course, everybody assumed that he was in charge.
SH: In that era, what was Allison and Busby predominately focused on in regard to your program for publishing works? Was it quite radical?
MB: It was radical. In fact, somebody said to me once that you never knew what Allison and Busby was going to do next, but you knew it would be interesting. It was doing things that nobody else was doing. We were young and we didn’t have any experience, didn’t have any money, didn’t know what the conventions were, and didn’t know how many copies to print. We also didn’t have any distribution, so, we’d stop people in the streets asking if they wanted to buy a book. That’s how we started. And we both had to get jobs doing other things to subsidize ourselves. I had a major program on the African Service at BBC, and I got another job with some publishing company. By then, I was married to Lionel, and so a friend of his was in Mykonos and bumped into this African American, Sam Greenlee. Sam had this novel he had tried to get published and nobody on either side of the Atlantic wanted it. It had been turned down by maybe 40 people. So, this friend of Lionel’s said that he knew somebody who started a publishing company, and he sent Sam to me. The manuscript was about the CIA, which didn’t want to be accused of not having any black people working for them and so employed this guy – who sat by the door – so that they could show they integrated. Meanwhile, this guy learns all the tricks and is plotting a revolution in Chicago. So we thought, this is really a good political thriller-satire and we ought to get this serialized in the national newspaper. We then sent the manuscript to the observer telling them that we’re about to publish this first novel and we’d like you to serialize it. Of course, we didn’t know the conventions or we wouldn’t have sent it to them. But they sent it back saying, “you ought to know, we don’t publish fiction, and if we did, it wouldn’t be a black power first novel like this.” But that’s not the end. Not knowing any better, we sent it back to them saying, listen: you’re wrong. And they ended up extracting it. So that was the first novel we ended up publishing in March 1969: The Spook Who Sat by the Door. We were doing things that we wanted to do, and things nobody else wanted to do. We reprinted things that had gone out of print, for example.
SH: Can you name a few of those books?
MB: My dad had been at school with C.L.R James in Trinidad, so he was a family friend. I knew he was out of print, so I started publishing with three collections of selected writings and then went on to publish The Black Jacobins, his major book, which was out of print. And Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, which C.L.R. hadn’t published before – a lot of them. We published a lot of African Americans: H. Rap Brown’s Die Nigger Die; Julius Lester’s Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama.
SH: Any black women writers published in that period?
MB: Yes, we published black women writers. We published Rosa Guy; we published a Nigerian woman called Buchi Emecheta, who went on to become very successful. It was a mixture of things that we just wanted to do and that no one else was doing. We just went for it. There was a kind of camaraderie with John La Rose’s New Beacon Books, which started in 1966. That was the first black publishing company in this country. Allison and Busby was the second black-headed publishing company in 1967. And then there was Bogle-L’Ouverture, which was cofounded by Jessica Huntley and Eric Huntley in 1969. Those were the three main black-headed publishers in that era. And there was a lot of collaboration; we shared printers, artist Errol Lloyd designed covers for all of us. Then, the international book fair of radical black and third world books came out as a collaboration with New Beacon and Bogle-L’Ouverture. So, there was a lot of crossover between what we were all trying to do. Some things were more successful than others, but we just went on from there.