Daughters of Africa
March 7, 2019 – It’s cold and gray outside, but inside the Paul Webley Wing of London University’s School of Oriental Studies (SOAS) it’s all sparkle and warmth. For a moment, I stand by the entrance watching the crowd abuzz with laughter, music, and chatter as photographers and a film crew circle the room. Here are mothers, daughters, granddaughters and aunties rocking pantsuits, evening gowns, kente, tie-dye, ankara, turbans, tresses, locks, hijab, and afros of all curl textures, lengths, and colours. We have gathered in our scores on this eve of International Women’s Day, some traveling from as far as America and Nigeria for the launch of the much-anticipated book New Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent. As the room fills, excitement builds.
In one corner I see the legendary activist Angela Davis speaking with Cassava Republic’s pioneering publisher, Bibi Bakare-Yusuf. In another, I see Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman and Bernardine Evaristo – not yet a Booker Prize winner, but already a household name to us. I recognize podcaster Sarah Ozo-Irabor, Ugandan novelist Goretti Kyomuhendo, and Yvonne Bailey-Smith, mother to another contributor, novelist Zadie Smith. While not all 200 contributors are here, those who are reflect the anthology’s rich diversity.
Twenty-seven years earlier, in 1992, a similar gathering took place – not as large as tonight’s, but equally momentous for the launch of Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent from the Ancient Egyptian to the Present. Like its sequel, the original anthology is a big, fat, thunking book bursting at the spine with stories from across centuries, nations, and literary genres. It features landmark pieces and author-firsts, ranging from eighteenth-century Lucy Terry to twentieth-century Flora Nwapa who, in the late 1960s, was the first African woman novelist to achieve international acclaim.
Though I lived in London then, I did not attend the 1992 launch, but as a daughter of Africa I have treasured that first anthology and taken it with me across continents from Europe to Africa and America. It sits on my shelves right behind my computer, always visible – a taliswoman. When I was invited to contribute a piece to its sequel, I was both ecstatic and terrified. It felt like the most important collection I would ever be asked to contribute to. I worried about not being good enough. But here I am in New Daughters of Africa alongside famous writers, lesser known writers, some once forgotten.
The time has come for the evening’s speeches. We gather in a large circle, several rows deep, craning our necks to see. First a welcome from SOAS’ Vice Chancellor, Baroness Valerie Amos followed by Candida Lacey, publisher of the anthology and commissioning editor of the first anthology. Lacey praises the vision and hard work of the editor. She is followed by Fareda Banda, Chair of SOAS’ Center for African Studies, who thanks contributors for waiving their fees, which has enabled the creation of a new SOAS scholarship. And now the editor herself will speak – the woman known as the ‘doyenne of Black British publishing’ and a ‘literary supernova’, and after whom the scholarship is named – Margaret Busby.
There’s a new round of applause with claps, whoops and ululation, then silence as we strain to catch her words. Quickly, someone turns up the mic, and I hear her paying tribute to Andrea Levy, a beloved contributor best known for her novel Small Island, who died of cancer just weeks earlier. Today would have been Andrea’s sixty-second birthday, and Margaret dedicates the evening to her memory. Margaret speaks for just a few minutes before stepping back. In the noisy excitement that follows, contributors gathering for photographs, Margaret almost disappears. But soon she stands front and center as we fan around her, some of the taller audience members kneeling by her feet.
‘Call me Margaret’
It’s early afternoon when I arrive at the house in Clerkenwell. Luke, Margaret’s partner, answers the door with a warm smile, but we do not shake hands. This is March 2020, the early days of Covid-19, and we are being careful. I wash my hands and return to the front room with its sunlit wooden floors and many bookshelves. Margaret is dressed in a blue-and-white floral top worn over a black polo neck and black trousers, and wears three gold bangles given to her by her mother. Fond of necklaces with large pendants, today she is wearing a favorite heart-shaped adinkra symbol – sankofa, signifying the importance of learning from the past. Margaret is a proud ‘five-foot-two-and-a-half,’ slight in frame, and of that tribe of women whose age is hard to determine. ‘As old as my tongue, a little older than my teeth,’ she quips. I know she’s in her seventies, but physically, with her shy, girly smile, she could pass for decades younger.
Luke, from whose home Margaret is working today, fetches us water, and before he leaves asks how much time we’ll need. Margaret guesses that our ‘little chat’ won’t take long given that she’s not that interesting. Luke and I laugh, playing along – yes, that’s right Margaret, you’re not interesting at all! I pull up a seat opposite Margaret, who sits in a leather settee next to a pile of papers and books. She twists slightly to face me. ‘I’m comfortable,’ she reassures me, peering coyly from beneath the brim of her loose afro. ‘As comfortable as I ever am focusing on myself. That’s what makes me uncomfortable!’ When Margaret speaks, she sometimes shuts her eyes or looks down for a few moments, but this apparent shyness doesn’t get in the way of her talking. Margaret revels in recollection, and keeps her laptop handy for sharing quotes, photographs and letters. Occasionally, when she misses something I’ve said, I speak a little louder. The more we speak, the more I marvel at how much she remembers – everything from dates, to street addresses to people’s names. It reminds me of our first meeting.
We first met in March 2015, in Lagos, Nigeria, for the award ceremony of the Etisalat Pan-African Prize for Literature. At the time, Margaret was a patron of the prize and I was the jury chair. I noticed that in large groups Margaret was quiet, and tended to avoid the spotlight, but when we met as a small group for dinner she became chatty. I was struck then as I am now, by her recall and by her frequent interweaving of fascinating historical asides and her close attention to detail. As a patron of the Etisalat Prize, Margaret was one of the VIPs, but no task was beneath her. She was always quick to respond to email and paid close attention to marketing materials and publicity around the prize, often volunteering to copy-edit press releases.
Margaret is meticulous and scholarly when referencing history but also playful in her storytelling – she laughs a lot, breaks into song and mimics accents. Words are her passion. ‘Guess which three words I first learned to spell,’ she asks. ‘You can’t guess!’ she teases. ‘Necessary, fascinating and picturesque!’ Words, she explains, that have almost become a metaphor for life. ‘Life must be necessary, fascinating and picturesque,’ she smiles. The more I learn about Margaret’s life and her family, the more these words seem apt.
Margaret is writing a piece on her parents’ life for a forthcoming book on healthcare professionals from the Windrush and pre-Windrush era. She shares parts of it with me including a letter from her father’s best friend upon his death. In it her father is described as having ‘a natural dignity which went with a certain shyness’, and an ‘exceeding kindness of nature’, both of which strike me as good descriptions for Margaret too. Four days earlier, Margaret and I shared a stage at the London School of Economics (LSE) where we spoke about New Daughters of Africa. On stage, Margaret surprised me by remembering that it was my birthday and announcing it, and in the question and answer session that followed our talks, Margaret frequently deferred to me. She was the star, but she made me feel like an equal.
How does it feel, I ask, in the wake of the publication of New Daughters of Africa, to finally be receiving more attention for your work? ‘Well, I’m not sure that I’m getting that much attention,’ she replies. ‘I think the anthology is deservedly getting attention,’ she adds, ‘and that’s the reason I did it – because over the decades I’ve just seen so little attention given to writers, writers who deserve attention.’ She tells me that she lives by a Greek saying that one should plant trees under which one will never sit. I feel a twinge of sadness, thinking that she deserves much more attention, but Margaret doesn’t dwell on this. Still, I wonder, does some part of her feel disappointed?
As we talk and laugh, there are a few things that Margaret shares with me only on condition that I use discretion in how much I reveal. There is the story, for example, of a certain amore who ‘neglected’ to tell her that he was married and had a child. When I press Margaret on any other romantic liaisons before or after her marriage to the late jazz musician, Lionel Grigson, all she says, with just a hint of a smile, is that her ‘type’ has always been someone whose name begins with the letter ‘L’.
We have been talking for over an hour when Luke returns and asks if we’d like something to eat or drink. Margaret says she’s fine. ‘You sure you don’t want me to warm you up a roti?’ he tries again. I smile, happy to see her being fussed over by a partner who seems kind and attentive. Margaret and I speak for another hour before I bring the conversation to a close. I could have continued for hours, but I know how busy she is. Before I leave, Margaret looks me in the eye and says she hopes our conversation has been worthwhile. I am stunned, not by her modesty which I’m now used to, but by the fact that these words are almost identical to those used by her friend, the late Toni Morrison, when I spoke with her in her home three years earlier. Not for the first time do I think, birds of a feather.
Margaret’s maternal grandmother came from the Gold Coast (now Ghana), raised ten children, including four sets of twins, and lived to the grand old age of ninety-nine. Her husband, Margaret’s maternal grandfather – George James Christian – who came from the island of Dominica, travelled to England in 1899 to study law at Gray’s Inn. It would have been rare in those days to find a Black man studying at Gray’s Inn, and also rare for a West Indian man to emigrate to the Gold Coast, as he did in 1902. George was a pan-Africanist, and one of just thirty-seven delegates at the first Pan African Conference in 1900. It is to these extraordinary parents that Margaret’s mother, Sarah Helena Christian, was born in Sekondi, the Gold Coast, in 1906.
Like her father, Sarah travelled to England where she studied nursing in the 1920s. She was headhunted for a so-called ‘European appointment’ (usually reserved for white people) back in the Gold Coast, where she returned as nursing sister to the prestigious Prince of Wales School, now known as Achimota School. At the time, students of the school included Kwame Nkrumah, who would become Ghana’s first president, and Edward Akufo-Addo, another of Ghana’s founding fathers. With her well-paying European appointment, which included first-class passage to and from England, Sarah helped many of her extended family, including a stepsister’s four children, to study in Britain. One of these would be the mother of Moira Stuart, Britain’s first Black female broadcaster and Margaret’s cousin.
Margaret’s father, George Alfred Busby, was born in Barbados in 1899 and grew up in Trinidad, where he won a coveted Island Scholarship to study medicine in Britain – a scholarship that would be delayed for two years until the end of World War I. George began his studies at Edinburgh University, then transferred to Dublin where he was better able to save on his scholarship money and support his siblings back home. He worked as a GP for a few years in the poor, working-class area of Walthamstow, in London, before emigrating in 1929 to the Gold Coast. There he established a clinic in a poor rural community where he remained for fifty years.
Margaret, the youngest of three children, was born in the Gold Coast in 1944, and spent her early years in the rural town of Suhum, where her father worked as a doctor and her mother as a nurse. Some of her earliest childhood memories include helping her father in his dispensary and reading his medical books. She describes her father as taciturn and not overly demonstrative, whereas her mother, a stylish woman who married in her mid-thirties, which was considered late for the times, came from a line of strong and independent woman, and was quick to express her emotions. The Busby parents led a simple life, saving for their children’s education. Margaret remembers her mother having one good dress that she washed each night in order to wear again the next day. Her mother also emptied her husband’s pockets each night to prevent him from giving away all his coins to the poor, as he was prone to do.
Margaret was only five years old when she left in 1950 with her siblings – sister Eileen and brother George – to study in England. It was not easy for Margaret’s parents to find a school that would accept Black children at that time. One headmistress said, ‘Well, we’d love to have them, but it’s the parents of the other girls . . .’ While George went to a boys school, Margaret and her sister went first to a school in the Lake District and then to Charters Towers School, an international girls’ boarding-school in the sleepy seaside town of Bexhill-on-Sea. Many of Margaret’s memories of her parents at this time come from their letters. Her mother wrote frequently, inquiring about school, ordering birthday cakes for her children, asking for dress measurements, all the while attempting to shield her children from the financial strain and sacrifice of keeping them at boarding schools.
The Busby children could not afford to return to Ghana during the holidays, so most school vacations were spent visiting an aunt in Paris or in a holiday home. The holiday home in Sussex was run by Verily Anderson, who wrote a book about the place called Beware of Children, which was turned into the film No Kidding, featuring two ‘African girls’ named Margaret and Eileen.
Margaret was bright and always the youngest in her class. She sat O levels at fourteen, two sets of A levels at sixteen, and then a year at a Cambridge college called Lady Margaret House so as not to be too young before attending university. At seventeen, Margaret attended Bedford College, one of the founding institutions of Royal Holloway, University of London, to read English. She graduated at twenty.
Over the years, Margaret has written about her family history in a number of articles, including a piece for BBC Radio 3 that describes a return to Ghana in 1999. There, in an honor bestowed by the community, she was enstooled in the Fante tradition, following in the footsteps of her maternal grandmother. ‘This is where I was born,’ she writes. ‘It is impossible not to feel history weighing heavily on my shoulders. This is where my mother’s people come from, where my father’s people left from a perilous one-way journey four hundred years ago.’ In that 1999 return, like her foremothers, Margaret was given a new name and bestowed an honour. She was made Nana Akua Ackon of No. 1 Asafo Company (Bentsir) of Oguaa Traditional Area (Cape Coast) – a warrior chief.
A Most British Publisher
In 1992, when the first Daughters of Africa anthology was published, I was working in the London headquarters of Penguin Books. At the time, Penguin was one of the world’s largest and most reputable publishing houses, and yet of the hundreds of books it published each year I found very few – in catalogues or on the shelves – by Black authors, or even featuring Black people. I met only one other Black employee beyond those who cleaned or guarded the premises, and while Penguin employed many women, senior management was dominated by upper-middle-class men. If this was the state of British publishing in the 1990s, then what would it have taken for a young Black woman to start her own publishing house back in the 1960s?
As Margaret tells it, on 14 May 1965, while in her final year at university, she attended a friend’s party in London. There she met Clive Allison, whom, she discovered, shared her love of literature and poetry. Clive had been President of Oxford University’s Poetry Society while Margaret was editor of her Bedford College magazine. By the end of the evening they had decided to set up a publishing company. They borrowed money from friends and found jobs to support themselves while working on books in the evenings and weekends. Margaret found a day job at Cresset Press, but not without difficulty in the largely white, male, and upper-middle-class publishing industry. Margaret remembers one receptionist skeptically announcing, ‘There’s a Black girl here who says she’s got an interview.’
Margaret and Clive named their company Allison & Busby, and decided that their first books would be cheap, affordable paperback poetry books. Clive did the marketing and Margaret the editing. Margaret had become Britain’s first Black woman publisher, and, at the age of twenty, was also one of its youngest. Initially Allison & Busby had no distribution outlets, so Margaret and Clive sold their first three poetry books out of the back of a van on the Kings Road. But even in these early days of cobbling things together, their work was noticed and praised. The Times Educational Supplement called them, ‘a brave new imprint’ while Books & Bookmen praised ‘three excellent titles . . . they hold their own in any company.’
While initial press for Allison & Busby was positive, it also reflected the gender and racial biases of the time. The Evening Standard of 15 September 1969 features Margaret in a long-sleeve, thigh-high dress, sitting on the boot of a car, legs crossed. She is referred to simply as ‘married to jazzman Lionel Grigson’, and as having worked for Cresset Press. There’s no photo of Clive, but he’s the one whose words are quoted. A Sunday Mirror article from around the same time features a headshot of Margaret with the caption ‘girl from Ghana starts a publishing firm’, and within the article Margaret is described as ‘a fascinating girl. Not only because she looks so good. The way she slots into English society intrigues me.’
Margaret and Clive took the plunge to become full-time publishers in 1969 on discovering a first novel called The Spook Who Sat by the Door – rejected by every other publisher the author had tried. Written by African-American Sam Greenlee, it is the story of a Black man, Dan Freeman, hired by the CIA to allay accusations of racial discrimination, who then uses his training to organize inner-city ‘freedom fighters’. Published by Allison & Busby with little more than what Margaret calls ‘youthful enthusiasm,’ the novel went on to sell over one million copies internationally. Excerpts were used in a national paper, translation rights were sold to Germany, Italy, France, Holland, Sweden, Japan and Finland, and in 1973 the book was made into a film directed by Ivan Dixon, with a soundtrack by jazz great, Herbie Hancock. The novel has since become something of a classic. In July 2020, I came across it highlighted by the New York Times: ‘more than 50 years after it was published, the book feels thrillingly incendiary, as if it, like its hero, were only pretending to play by the rules while actually providing a blueprint for revolution’.
Allison & Busby prided themselves on being unconventional and punching above their weight. They published writers of all ethnicities and backgrounds, including Anthony Burgess and J. G. Ballard, a novel by the international footballer Derek Dougan, as well as an 85-year-old first-time novelist, Katharine Moore, and nonfiction works by historian philosopher C. L. R. James, which Margaret brought out of obscurity. They also published poetry, sociopolitical books, and modern fictional works that had gone out of print. Margaret often says that the biggest compliment someone paid to Allison & Busby was that ‘you never knew what they were going to publish next, but you knew it was going to be interesting’.
Allison & Busby books and their authors also won many prizes. Nigerian-born novelist Buchi Emecheta won the 1978 New Statesman Jock Campbell Award; authors Michael Moorcock and Roy A. K. Heath won the Guardian Fiction Prize in two successive years, 1977 and 1978; Maurice Nyagumbo, cabinet minister from newly independent Zimbabwe won the 1980 Martin Luther King Memorial Prize for his autobiography; and Clive Sinclair’s short stories won the 1981 Somerset Maugham Award. Margaret seems to have been adored by her authors, with several dedicating their work to her, and others (George Lamming and C. L. R. James included) writing moving letters of thanks, copies of which I find in the personal digital archives that Margaret shares with me.
While working as publisher, Margaret took on many additional projects. She hosted a program for the BBC Africa Service called ‘Break for Women’, in which she interviewed African women coming through London. She wrote for newspapers and journals. Her first published piece, ‘Skin Deep’, written for the New Statesman in 1967, was on how it felt to be Black in England. It ran on the same page as a review for a book by Enoch Powell who, two years later, would give his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech inflaming anti-immigrant sentiment. In the early 1980s, Margaret was a founding member of Penumbra Productions, a group of London creatives representative of the three main Black communities living in Britain – African, Asian and Caribbean. They produced six films for Channel 4 based on lectures by C. L. R. James. Margaret was also a founding member of Greater Access to Publishing (GAP), which campaigned for greater diversity in the publishing industry.
When I ask Margaret about any publishing role models she might have had when starting out, she mentions the South African writer and editor Noni Jabavu who had published several autobiographical books in the early 1960s. Jabavu was a regular reviewer and contributor to the British press, and the first Black person and woman to be an editor of a literary magazine – The New Strand. Over time, there would be others writer-editors, such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, to serve as inspiration, but they came later.
Margaret and Clive ran Allison & Busby for twenty years, publishing hundreds of books and inspiring many other small independent publishers. But publishing is not an easy business, and after financial struggles Margaret and Clive decided that it was time to move on. In 1987 the company was acquired by W. H. Allen Ltd. Margaret went on to become a freelance editor, reviewer and critic. She also served as a judge for many literary prizes, most recently chairing Britain’s most prestigious literary prize, the Booker, which made history this September with a shortlist that included four authors of colour and four debut novelists.
Having learnt so much about Allison & Busby, I am curious to see what has happened since. On Allison & Busby’s current website, I am surprised to find no mention of the company’s history or its eponymous founders. And while there is mention of some of the authors from Allison & Busby’s backlist – Katharine Moore, Jack Trevor Story, Budd Schulberg and Colin MacInnes (the latter listed under ‘A&B Classics’) – none of its pioneering Black authors are mentioned.
Her World, Our World
In 2004, fifty writers of Caribbean, Asian and African descent gathered for a photograph at the British Library. The photograph, inspired by the famous photograph of American jazz musicians taken in New York in 1958 for ‘A Great Day in Harlem’ was called ‘A Great Day in London’. In the 2004 photograph, Margaret stands almost hidden in the upper left-hand corner of the photograph, behind literary critic Maya Jaggi and in front of novelist Lawrence Scott and poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. Almost everyone in the picture is either a friend, colleague, or an author that Margaret has published or mentored over the years – all pioneering Black and Asian writers involved in publishing or the arts. Margaret’s connections within the Black arts scene extends around the world.
Among the articles and photographs that Margaret shares with me in March is a letter she received from the Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, dated 15 December 1975, on the letterhead of Transition Magazine, sent from Accra, Ghana. Soyinka is writing in response to a letter in which Margaret takes him to task for including few women in his anthology, Poems of Black Africa. He promises to do better. ‘I know that in the next edition I will especially search for poetry by women.’ This, I discover, became the impetus for Margaret to compile her anthology, Daughters of Africa. And in that anthology Toni Morrison features prominently – one year before she became the first Black woman to win a Nobel Prize.
When I had a chance to meet and interview Morrison in 2017, I wrote to Margaret asking what Morrison was like. Margaret responded by sending me a video of an interview she did with Morrison in February 1988. In it a young-looking, soft-spoken Margaret speaks with poise and insight about the literary context and importance of Morrison’s work. The interview had been hurriedly made after another TV interview between the two of them was dropped over concerns about poor audience size. One month later, Morrison won a Pulitzer Prize. Margaret jokes about being in great demand between 1992 and 1993, when Morrison and then Walcott won the Nobel prize, because ‘none of the mainstream literary critics seemed to have read either of them at that point’. So they were forced to keep reaching out to her.
The more I learn about Margaret the more I realize that her life has indeed been ‘necessary, fascinating and picturesque’. Margaret seems to have been in touch with every prominent figure in Black literature, art and music from across the world – a veritable pan-African who’s who of the twentieth and early twenty-first century. My curiosity grows, and we begin what becomes an ongoing and sometimes daily email exchange. Margaret eventually sends me a virtual album labelled: A&B/MB (assorted book jackets, cuttings, letters, photos). It takes me hours to work through the hundreds of images included. As I pour over them I keep thinking that her archives need to be properly stored and protected in a national archive, especially so when she tells me the reason she has scanned so many images is due to a leak in her roof!
In one undated black-and-white photograph Margaret stands with her cousin Moira Stuart, speaking with American novelist and essayist James Baldwin. At a small cocktail party, Baldwin is holding a drink, talking, while Margaret and Moira gaze at him with looks of enthrallment. Baldwin appears in several of Margaret’s pictures, including photographs taken in the early 1980s at the Black Book Fair in London. In these latter pictures are more friends of Margaret’s: Guyanese artist Aubrey Williams; John La Rose, founder of New Beacon Books; Jamaican dub poet, Linton Kwesi Johnson; and American pianist Randy Weston.
In another photograph, this one in colour, Margaret is sitting next to Nina Simone – both are smoking at a small table crowded with wine bottles and glasses. They are at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club on a night when Nina is performing. Margaret had met Nina one year earlier, in 1984, at Trinidad’s Piarco Airport following Carnival. Margaret had been taken to the airport by her friend and novelist Earl Lovelace, and as the plane to London was delayed, the three of them passed several hours together – Nina trying to persuade Earl to help her with her autobiography. Back in London, Margaret stayed in touch with Nina who, according to Margaret, was, at times, ‘scarily mad’.
Many other musicians appear in Margaret’s album. At the 1969 book launch party of The Spook Who Sat by the Door, jazz musician Roland Kirk has his arm threaded through Margaret’s. In another, the great Manu Dibango sits at a piano backstage at the Barbican. Paul Simon, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba are in other photos taken in the home of cultural activist Pearl Connor and her husband Joe Mogotsi of South Africa’s singing group the Manhattan Brothers. In one photograph, Hugh Masekela has an arm around Margaret, and they lean in to each other, smiling. Margaret tells of a thriller that Masekela had written which she was helping him with. There’s a whole collage of photographs taken over the years of Margaret and her sister Eileen with songwriter and musician Stevie Wonder dating back to the 1970s. In one, Stevie sits on the floor of Margaret’s home next to a record player and a pile of CDs and cassettes. In another, Stevie is in Ghana with Margaret’s brother George. More recently, pictures from 2005 show Margaret and Stevie at Abbey Road Studio after a recording, and at London’s O2 Center in 2008.
There are many other pictures taken backstage at the Barbican with everyone from jazz vocalists Diane Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater – Margaret and Dee Dee wearing matching leopard tops – to legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins. In New York Margaret is photographed with TK Blue at Sweet Basil and in CapeTown with South African jazz legend Abdullah Ibrahim after introducing his eighteen-piece band. Despite Margaret’s shyness and reserve, I realize by looking through all of her archives just how fundamental a part of Black culture Margaret has been and continues to be – not just in the UK, but around the world.
And then there are photographs of Margaret receiving various honors. In one she is receiving her OBE from Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace. In another she has just been initiated into the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and is dressed all in white like her fellow sorors. This is the sorority of Rosa Parks, Bernice King, Maya Angelou and Kamala Harris, to name but a few. Margaret describes the sorority’s 1998 convention in Chicago, when she and her sorority sisters attended a Gladys Knight concert and sang ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’, whooping along to the chorus.
Two days before we met in March, Margaret had been in Walthamstow unveiling a blue plaque in honour of her father: Dr George Alfred Busby (1899–1980) – Caribbean Pan-Africanist Walthamstow Physician and Surgeon. Later that same day, Margaret attended the memorial of her friend and publishing giant Sonny Mehta. And in the days before, Margaret volunteers a glimpse into her week:
‘Sunday I went to WOW at the Southbank at the Royal Festival. I was on a panel about Toni Morrison and then from there I went to a memorial for Mustapha Matura. Trinidadian playwright who died.
Saturday was at LSE with you.
Friday was the London Review bookshop conversation between Lorna Goodison and Linton Kwesi Johnson and then we had supper after.
Thursday was a Booker meeting between noon and two. Then a taxi to the Ivy Victoria to have lunch with Lorna Goodison and Linton Kwesi Johnson and various friends because Lorna had just come back from Buckingham Palace where she got the Queen’s Royal Medal for poetry and it was taxi back to the BFI for a screening of a Toni Morrison documentary which was wonderful and emotional . . .’
Margaret is constantly in demand and always busy, and yet somehow she never appears to run out of energy. She turns up to support old friends, she participates in events grand and small, and brings others along whenever there is occasion to do so. Most recently Margaret has been doing interviews, photoshoots and filming – many relating to her role as Chair for the Booker Prize. In her emails she includes the names of her photographers and filmmakers with links to their Wikipedia entries, some of which I suspect she might have written herself. Margaret has written hundreds of Wikipedia entries in her ongoing efforts to fill in the gaps and flag unsung heroes. She urges me to do the same.
Margaret has taken to the new age of Zoom virtual events including a guest appearance on the pan-African virtual literary festival, Afrolit Sans Frontières. In other emails she tells me about a ‘brilliant jazz education initiative’ called ‘Tomorrow’s Warriors’ for which she is a trustee. She mentions writers who have recently sent her their manuscripts – there’s a novel from Yvonne Bailey-Smith – ‘watch this space’ – and a memoir from Barbara Masekela. Meanwhile Margaret is busy completing a new piece on her family history. Sadly, around this time I also learn of the death of Margaret’s beloved sister Eileen Busby Keita. Margaret sends me her moving tribute, as well as an album of family photos.
Having read many of Margaret’s writings, I suggest that she put together a book of her collected essays. ‘A book of my pieces?’ Margaret responds. ‘I nominate you as editor!’ which is just the sort of thing Margaret does. Smiling, I find myself reaching for New Daughters of Africa and Margaret’s introduction:
‘My ambition was and is to shine a light on as many as possible of the deserving, whether or not they are acknowledged or lauded by the gatekeepers, who traditionally single out a privileged few, seemingly never too many to rock the boat. But the boat is going nowhere if it is content to drift in stagnating water.’