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Obituary: Norris ‘Buzz’ Johnson 1951 - 2014

PIONEER: Norris ‘Buzz’ Johnson

NORRIS ‘BUZZ’ Johnson, who died on February 11, aged 62, was one of a small band of pioneering, radical black publishers promoting an agenda of community development, social and political consciousness during the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s.

Fiercely independent and fearless, his Karia Press, which he ran virtually single-handed, was an autonomous voice challenging neo-colonialism, injustice and all forms of discrimination, as well as promoting self-awareness, culture and the arts.

With very little money, the publisher managed to box above its weight, publishing more than 50 books during a period when so-called “Third World” publishing enjoyed its heyday of speaking truth to “First World” power; demanding international human rights, an end to Apartheid, social justice.

Karia managed to more than hold its own alongside John la Rose’s New Beacon Books, Eric and Jessica Huntley’s Bogle L’Ouverture, Allison and Busby, and Karnak House, the other pioneering black publishers. With the passing of la Rose in 2006, and Jessica Huntley last year, Buzz’s demise signifies the end of an era.

Margaret Busby commented: “The ideas were abundant and, perhaps not surprisingly, often outstripped his own capabilities. But Buzz kept on keeping on, a reticent smile masking an indomitable spirit.”

He liked to describe himself sarcastically as “the little boy”, a reference to the fact that he was somewhat younger than his peers, and claimed that he hadn’t been altogether taken seriously by some when he had first declared an interest in publishing.

The educationalist and writer, Chris Searle, a Karia author and friend since the 1970s, first met Buzz at the offices of Liberation in London.

He commented: “The thing about Buzz was that within a short period he published material that was very important, epochal, really, covering diverse subjects: politics, poetry, autobiography, and reports like The Broadwater Farm Inquiry, about the Broadwater Farm riots in the 1980s, which was chaired by Lord Gifford.

“What is extraordinary is that he did it under his own steam with no money, but managed to publish so many important books – I don’t know how he did it. He helped to make some important careers because he published work that other publishers would not touch because the stuff was considered too radical.”

Johnson published Searle’s Grenada Morning, about the Grenada Revolution, and A Blindfold Removed, about Ethiopian literacy. Among his other authors were Elean Thomas (he wrote her obituary for the Guardian in 2004), Merle Collins, Brother Resistance, language specialist Hubert Devonish, linguist Morgan Dalphinis, Richard Hart (another close friend and political heavyweight, who helped form the constitution for Jamaica’s independence in 1962), and Bernard Coard.

It was Buzz who “re-discovered” the remarkable but forgotten civil rights activist Claudia Jones, penning and publishing her compelling story in the book I Think Of My Mother. But, although publishing was a significant pursuit, it was but one defining feature of his impressively pragmatic life and work.

Almost obsessively driven and resourceful, he and his collaborators also set up community institutions, such as the Claudia Jones Organisation, supplementary schools (after-school and Saturday to help boost educational attainment long before educational authorities considered them de rigueur), and community advice and drop-in centres to tackle issues like workers’ and welfare rights, school exclusion, deaths in custody, youth training, and pensioner isolation. His cultural activities also included playing with a steel band, and he was an original member of the band Ebony.

Buzz was born in Buccoo, a village in Tobago, and while all Trinidadians will boast of being “Trini to de bone”, he made no bones about the fact that he was proudly, uncompromisingly Tobagonian, and wasted no opportunity to promote the smaller sister island.

His father worked in the oil industry in Trindad, and at a young age Buzz, along with his mother and sisters Vero and Cynthia, moved to Trinidad, where they went to school.

After graduating school, he went to technical college to study engineering, and won a scholarship to continue his studies in the UK.

He came to England in the 1970s and continued to pursue degrees in mechanical engineering and pure maths. He became a certified engineer. However, he had an idea that he wanted to pursue a military career, but dismissed that in favour of publishing having decided that there was a need for Black writers and activists to have an outlet for their work. Following further studies in publishing, printing and design/typography, he set up Karia Press – having evidently decided that the pen was mightier than the sword.

He took great pride in designing the books he published, and, although he rarely had money to pay advances or royalties to his writers, he worked tirelessly to organise launch events where the books were promoted. One weakness was almost certainly a lack of delegation and the funding and team dynamics any business needs to thrive and survive.

A hands-on community worker, Buzz jokingly called this “social work”, which he did for no reward, except to see people’s circumstances improve. People, of all backgrounds, races, and creeds were the centre of his world, and he had a knack for motivation, as well as, conversely, a self-destructive capacity in some respects. Long-term friend Anselm Samuel describes him as a magnet. “He had that kind of effect on people. Once I met him, I couldn’t get rid of him; he couldn’t get rid of me.”

One strand of his outreach activities arose from his insistence that community pioneers and activities were deserving of recognition and credit “while they were alive to receive and acknowledge the appreciation”, and in that spirit he organised numerous celebratory events to honour those who had helped to shape the Black community over the years.

This same honour was accorded Buzz at a surprise event marking his 60th birthday a few years ago. It drew over 150 of his closest friends and associates. Had the event been publicised, the organisers would most likely have had to book the Royal Albert Hall.

Buzz had just recently returned from visiting his beloved Tobago and the mother he lauded as a mentor, inspiration and role model, when he died suddenly from an arterial haemorrhage.

He is survived by his mother, Adwina, sister, Cynthia, and children Amandla, Themba and Jamila.

Norris ‘Buzz’ Johnson, publisher, community activist and educator, born November 2, 1951; died February, 11, 2014.

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