Black British women pioneers: Margaret Busby OBE

Who are they?

Margaret Busby is Britain’s youngest and first black woman book publisher. She is a writer, editor and broadcaster born Margaret Yvonne Busby in Ghana, 1944. After her father studied medicine at Edinburgh and University College Dublin, he resettled in Ghana’s Gold Coast in 1929 before Busby was born. Later on, Busby left her school in Sussex aged 15, and went to study English at Bedford College where she published her poetry, edited her college literary magazine and graduated with a Bachelor’s honours degree aged 20. She previously married British jazz musician and educator, Lionel Grigson. Busby is cousins with Moira Stuart through her maternal family line.

What did she do?

Busby co-founded the London-based publishing house, Allison & Busby (A&B) in the late 1960s with Clive Allison, after meeting him at university. She was also a founding member of Greater Access to Publishing (GAP) in the 1980s, an organisation which campaigned for increased black representation in British publishing. Prior to this, post-graduation, Busby shortly worked at Cresset Press whilst setting up her own business, A&B. Allison & Busby‘s first books were published in 1967, which made her the youngest publisher as well as first African-Caribbean woman publisher in Britain. Having published many prominent authors, Busby acted as Editorial Director for A&B for 20 years. She later became Editorial Director for Earthscan, an english-language publisher on climate change, before freelancing as an editor, writer and critic.

She compiled and edited the anthology, ‘Daughters of Africa’ (1992) and its sequel, ‘New Daughters of Africa’ (2019). These anthologies were made up of contributions from over 200 women on a range of genres. Following the latter volume, the ‘Margaret Busby New Daughters of Africa Award’, to help an African woman student, was announced in partnership with SOAS, University of London. As a journalist, Busby has written for The Guardian, The Observer, The Sunday Times, The Independent, and the New Statesman amongst other press and specialist journals. She has contributed to many books including ‘Colours of a New Day: Writing for South Africa’ and ‘Slay in Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible’.

In broadcasting, Busby has worked for radio and television since the 1960s, when she presented ‘London Line’, the magazine programme for the Central Office of Information, and ‘Break for women’ on the BBC African Service. Between her television appearances on the likes of ‘Woman’s Hour’ and ‘Democracy Now!’ (USA), Busby also presented ‘Talking Africa’ on Spectrum Radio, a multi-ethnic radio network in London. She was also a prominent contributor in the 2019 Somerset House exhibition, ‘Get Up, Stand Up Now: Generations of Black Creative Pioneers’. Her repertoire does not stop there as Busby has written for the stage, including Greenwich Theatre in 2007, written dramatisations for BBC Radio, and been a song lyricist.

Busby is a recipient of the Benson medal from the Royal Society of Literature; so, has the letters ‘Hon. FRSL’ after her name. In October 2014, she scripted a grand tribute to Maya Angelou, ‘Maya Angelou: A Celebration’, for Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival which was chaired by journalist Jon Snow and Moira Stuart. Busby received an Honorary Doctorate from SOAS, University of London in 2019, and an Honorary degree from Royal Holloway, University of London in 2020. Busby was also voted one of the ‘100 Great Black Britons’ in 2020.

Image: Margaret Busby via Andy Mabbett on wikimedia commons

Why is she important?

Busby has not only paved the way for black British publishers, and journalists alike, but also continuously campaigned for diversity within the publishing industry. As a patron of ‘Independent Black Publishers’ (IBP), Busby set out that their aim is to “provide a forum for progressive black publishers to share initiatives, maximise mutual strengths and identify common difficulties, with a view to having a more effective impact on the book trade and the wider publishing industry”.

To really answer why the uplifting Margaret Busby is important, I’ll leave this poignant quote:

“[I]t is easy enough to be the first, we can each try something and be the first woman or the first African woman to do X, Y or Z. But, if it’s something worthwhile you don’t want to be the only. …I hope that I can, in any way, inspire someone to do what I have done but learn from my mistakes and do better than I have done.” – Ellen Mitchell and Sophie Kulik, “Q&A: Margaret Busby on ‘New Daughters of Africa’”Africa In Words, 29 June 2019.

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