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2006-03-08

Women’s Voices From Africa: A Conversation with Margaret Busby

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Today is International Women’s Day. Millions are marking the day around the world celebrating advances made by women over the past year, but also calling for greater equality and an end to war. We speak with Margaret Busby, editor of "Daughters of Africa," about women’s voices that oftentimes go unheard. [includes rush transcript]

In Chile, the country is days away from the inauguration of Michele Bachelet, the country’s first female president. In Africa, 2005 saw the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as president of Liberia — becoming the first elected female head of state on the continent. In Kuwait, women finally gained greater political rights including the right to vote and run for parliament. But the past year has also seen a series of setbacks for women. In the United States, the governor of South Dakota has just signed legislation to ban all abortions in the state, unless they’re performed to save the life of the woman. And the Supreme Court has shifted to the right with the confirmation of John Roberts and Samuel Alito both of whom oppose a woman’s right to choose. In Afghanistan, women are still suffering widespread abuse including rape, murder and forced marriage. A new report by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission found 38% of women interviewed have been forced to marry against their will. The country’s devastated health care system has also resulted in Afghanistan having one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world with one in ten women likely to die giving birth. In Iraq, the country’s complete security breakdown has forced many women to stay in their homes for their own safety. Even female journalists have been targeted in Iraq. Reporters Without Borders is calling today for the immediate release of the American Jill Carroll and Iraqi Rim Zeid. Carroll was abducted on January 7. Zeid was seized three weeks later. Iraq is also the focus of the "Women Say No To War" demonstration scheduled for today in Washington D.C. Similar protests are planned across the United States and globe. The protest organizer, Code Pink, has said they want revive the tradition of using March 8th as a day to gather women together to call for peace, justice and equal rights for all.

While International Women’s Day is a major event in many parts of the world, it remains barely known in United States even though the roots of the day date back over a century. On March 8, 1857, women from clothing and textile factories in New York staged a protest against the conditions inside garment factories. On March 8. 1908, fifteen thousand women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. In 1910, an international women’s conference in Copenhagen established the first international women’s day. Three years later, women across Europe marked the day with peace rallies on the eve of World War I. In 1975, the United Nations began sponsoring International Women’s Day

  • Margaret Busby, editor of Daughters of Africa: An international anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent. Published in 1994, it is a collection of women’s voices spanning from ancient Egypt to the present and has been called " a tribute to all black women." Born in Ghana, Margaret Busby is a writer, journalist, editor, critic and broadcaster. She became Britain’s youngest and first Black woman book publisher when she co-founded the publishing house Allison & Busby.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On this day, we are joined here in London by Margaret Busby, who brought us the pioneering volume, Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent. It was published in the United States in 1994. It’s a collection of women’s voices, spanning from ancient Egypt to the present, and has been called "a tribute to all black women." Born in Ghana, Margaret Busby is a writer, a journalist, an editor, critic and broadcaster. She became Britain’s youngest and first black woman book publisher when she co-founded the publishing house Allison & Busby. And we welcome you to Democracy Now!

MARGARET BUSBY: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: I first met you, oh, perhaps ten-eleven years ago when your book came out in the United States, Daughters of Africa.

MARGARET BUSBY: This is the English version, so you probably don’t recognize it.

MARGARET BUSBY: I don’t. But I was wondering if you could begin with a quote that you begin your book with, on this International Women’s Day.

MARGARET BUSBY: Well, the introduction begins with a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, who sadly died since the book was first published. This is a poem called "To Black Women."

Sisters,
where there is cold silence—
no hallelujahs, no hurrahs at all, no handshakes,
no neon red or blue, no smiling faces—
prevail.
Prevail across the editors of the world;
who are obsessed, self-honeying and self-crowned
in the seduced arena.

It has been a
hard trudge, with fainting, bandaging and death.
There have been startling confrontations.
There have been tramplings. Tramplings
of monarchs and of other men.

But there remain large countries in your eyes.
Shrewd sun.
The civil balance.
The listening secrets.

And you create and train your flowers still.

That’s one of my favorites. Actually, I should tell you why the book is called Daughters of Africa. It comes from a quotation by a woman called Maria Stewart, who, in fact, I think, was the first woman — American-born woman to give a lecture, this black woman, in the 19th century. This is what she said in her book, Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart: "O, ye daughters of Africa, awake! awake! arise! no longer sleep nor slumber, but distinguish yourselves. Show forth to the world that ye are endowed with noble and exalted faculties." So, that’s a clarion call to black women everywhere through the ages.

AMY GOODMAN: Margaret Busby, editor of the volume, Daughters of Africa. You know, in the United States, and I don’t know if it’s true in England, while there are a multiplicity of channels, hundreds and hundreds of channels, it seems that there is less and less diversity. Can you talk about some of the voices of these women that we are missing, names we should know about, writers that we have not read in the United States?

MARGARET BUSBY: The reason I did the book, compiled the book in the first place, was simply because it seemed to me that people thought that beyond the three or four black women writers — normally black American women writers like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou — there had been no other black women writing through the ages or throughout the world. So, I deliberately set out to include in this book, not only, as you said, writers from ancient Egypt — I used some traditional African women’s voices, oral history, oratory, if you like — I also found writers, such as from Ghana, Mabel Dove Danquah, from — did you know that there were African women in Turkey? There’s a woman called [inaudible], who I bumped into and has contributed to this. There are women from Brazil, from Cuba, from Germany, from all around the world.

And these are women of African descent who have things in common, as well as differences. And they are writing in all sorts of different genres. And I wanted to show that there is this creativity, and there are women who have all sorts of different concerns, and they’re not necessarily all domestic. Sometimes they’re dealing with wider, larger issues. And they need to be heard. And we are still in a situation where women are not always heard. And the other interesting thing, as you said, this book — we met in what, 1994 — this book was first published about 1992 in this country. And the number of women of African descent who have emerged since this book is wonderful. In fact, I’m currently working on a new edition. And there are writers who were still probably at school when I did this, people like Zadie Smith, who is now a really big star in this country and in America.

AMY GOODMAN: Author of White Teeth and actually in the news this week because of the Orange Prize.

MARGARET BUSBY: Exactly. In fact, last — on Sunday, I was part of a judging panel the Observer magazine did, picking out the 50 most powerful people in the British book world. Zadie Smith was on it, as was Andrea Levy, who’s also somebody who was not writing when this book was published. She has won — last year she won the Orange Prize, she won the Whitbread Prize, she won the Commonwealth Prize. Nobody would have thought that a black woman, such as that, who you never heard of 15 years ago would be sweeping the board in that way. So, it’s gratifying that some people are getting through.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think there’s a correlation between the color and perhaps gender of publishers, the majority of them, and who gets published?

MARGARET BUSBY: Well, that is another battle I’m constantly fighting, just for diversity in the publishing industry, because — I mean, I can still go to functions in the publishing world here, where I’m the only black person, not only black woman. So, in fact, there’s an organization that has been recently started, which is called Diversity in Publishing Network, which was started by a young black woman who works at Walker Books, who, in fact, was somebody I mentored when she was doing her publishing training, called Alison Morrison. And she is campaigning to get a more diversified publishing workforce, because it does, obviously, have a bearing on what’s published, because writers — just as writers write about what they know, editors take on writers from situations that they know.

AMY GOODMAN: Margaret Busby, we’re going to have to leave it there, but I thank you very much — and we certainly won’t leave the issue there on this International Women’s Day — for joining us in the London studio. Daughters of Africa is a book that will soon be published again. It is an anthology of African women writing. I want to thank you all for being with us. On our website, we honor today Octavia Butler, and our interview with her, you can listen to and watch.

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