Thanks to the support of the Eccles Centre, I was able to examine books on the American and British Black Arts Movements, and support my argument that the London home of Dutch multilingual writer, translator, and anthologist of African American poetry Rosey Pool was a hub for black culture in the 1950s and early 1960s, writes Lonneke Geerlings, Eccles Centre Postgraduate Fellow 2015.
Thanks to the support of the Eccles Centre, I have been able to visit the British Library for three weeks in December 2015. The research that I have been able to do has been a vital part of my PhD research entitled “The Role of Dutch Mediators and African American Actors in the Black Theatre Scene of London in the 1950s”. My PhD thesis focuses on Rosey E. Pool (1905-1971), a Dutch multilingual writer, translator, and anthologist of African American poetry, of Jewish descent. During the Second World War she worked as a teacher (Anne Frank was amongst her pupils), was a member of a German-Jewish resistance
group, and escaped from the Westerbork Nazi transit camp. Her experiences during the war transformed her interest in Black Poetry into a political strive, and she became involved in the American and British Black Arts Movements. Pool moved to Highgate, London, in 1949, and frequently visited the United States. At the British Library, I have focused on her period in London.
I have compared Pool to Paul Breman (1931-2008), another Dutch anthologist of African American poetry, also living in London. Both Rosey Pool and Paul Breman contributed to making London a contact zone (Pratt 1991) for African Americans, especially in the field of literature and theatre. Here, I will focus on Rosey Pool. Pool was one of the few people of her family to survive the Holocaust. In London she felt at home again, she wrote in her autobiography: ‘London has gained warmth through the presence of decolonized immigrants. […] [T]he great capital has gained colour, tone, and relaxation.’ Through correspondence and her travels, Rosey Pool formed a life line between her London home and various African American celebrities, such as Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois and his wife Shirley Graham, Owen Dodson, and many others. Pool maintained contact with various organisations in London, such as the West African Arts Club (with Seth Cudjoe and Ben Enwonwu), the Negro Theatre Workshop (with Pearl Connor and Edric Connor), the Royal Court Theatre (Wole Soyinka, Oscar Lewenstein, and George Devine).
As these names suggest, this research touches many histories. In the 1950s and early 1960s London was an ‘in-between space’ (Homi Bhabha 1994:1-2) for both immigrants and temporary citizens. London often served as a training ground of political education. Writing transnational histories such as these always provides a challenge. You have to get acquainted with multiple historiographies that are often written within national contexts. Much of the sources I needed were not available in the Netherlands. Therefore I am very grateful for the Eccles Centre, BAAS, and the British Library. My time at the BL was spent examining books on the American and British Black Arts Movements, with Rosey Pool’s London home as a hub for black culture in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Rosey Pool’s contact were often not just friendships, but also formed the foundation for cultural and political mobilisation. Both Pool and Breman actively pursued both their own careers and the careers of others, while simultaneously creating political awareness. They both edited poetry anthologies, organised poetry recitals, and Pool also participated in theatre performances. As Paul Gilroy has pointed out (Gilroy in: Ugwu 1995:12), the link between black cultural practice and political aspirations has been a long tradition. Cultural practices have been highly significant in the ‘claiming of voice’ (bell hooks in: Ugwu 1995:212) for people in the Black Diaspora, and often a first step in emancipating – both in the U.S. and the U.K.
The 1947 performance of the American social protest play Deep Are the Roots is a good example. Set in the spring of 1945 in the parlour of a retired U.S. Senator, the play revolves around the deep-rooted (hence the title) racism and prejudice in the Deep South. In 1945 and 1946 the African American actor Gordon Heath (1918-1991) played the leading role in the Broadway adaption of the play, turning him into a Broadway star. Following its success, the play came to the Wyndham’s Theatre in London with the same cast. The theatre magazine The Stage noted in an article – simply called ‘Negro’ – that the presence of African Americans in the British theatres made ‘us feel more kindly towards them, it is obvious that we respect them as artists and are pleased to see them in our midst.’ Perhaps somewhat naively the writer emphasised that the ‘colour-bar’ was not an issue at all: ‘Both are artists and that is all that matters.’ Heath himself wryly remarked that when he came to Britain in 1947, ‘the “colour problem” was considered in England as someone else’s business’, reflecting the dominant, white voice. But to the black community in London performances such as Deep Are the Roots meant much more. The American ‘race problem’ was used as a by-proxy way of raising political consciousness amongst the existing of colonial students, non-white immigrants, and even to African Americans themselves, passing through London. The period before the Nottingham/ Notting Hill riots of 1958 is often perceived as an ‘age of innocence’ in British historiography. As James Procter has argued, Britain’s early post-war black communities were in no sense ‘pre-political’ (Procter 2000:15).
Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, London served as an eye-opener for African Americans who visited the city. Gordon Heath for example, grew accustomed to the liberal climate in the London theatres. When he occasionally revisited his home country, it always shocked him to be treated as a second-class citizen (Bourne 2001:103). Pool and Heath met in Heath’s dressing room in Wyndham’s Theatre in London 1947. He was amazed by her knowledge: ‘How did this roly-poly Dutch lady who had never set foot in America come by her firmly-held opinions, her acute perceptions, her formidable intuitions, her informed passions?’ They soon became friends and kept in touch. In 1958, they both appeared on Dutch TV, in a Dutch translation of the BBC TV drama For the Defence (Stanley Mann, 1956). Heath played the role of a lawyer assigned to defend a white teenager who was accused of starting a race riot. For the performance Heath learned Dutch, and Pool taught him the correct pronunciation. Through theatre performances the Dutch audience was informed about racial issues abroad, and also making them aware of racial issues at home.
Rosey Pool, herself a victim of racial persecution by the Nazis, made the fight against racism her life mission. Her international activities show the intersectional scope of this research. Pool held several jobs at the BBC: between 1954 and 1957 she was involved in the BBC’s Dutch programmes. She also presented programmes on African American poetry, simply called ‘Negro Poetry’. In October 1952 Pool wrote to her friend Langston Hughes:
‘Did I or didn’t I tell you that our cherished child the Negro Poetry Programme in the BBC Third is coming off at last? This BBC is the strangest of broadcasting organisations I ever met and the Third Programme although a wonderful thing is rather Bohemian in its administration. This means that programmes are recorded and filed and just do as good English people do: they take their place in the queue. Well, at last we have reached our turn. We shall go on the air on two consecutive nights Thursday 13th November  … and Friday 14th… Now keep your fingers crossed for all of us.’ (Anneke Buys 1986, n.p.)
In the years that followed Pool organised a variety of activities in London, all focusing on black poetry and black theatre. In September 1958 a poetry recital was held at the Royal Court Theatre, with poetry selected by Rosey Pool and Harlem Renaissance celebrity Eric Walrond. When Langston Hughes’ play Black Nativity was performed in the United Kingdom in 1962 (and again in 1965), Pool served as his ‘eyes on the ground’. She collected all the reviews of the play and sent them to Hughes.
The ‘invasion’ of African American actors on the British stage in this period was also an important reason for black British actors to organise themselves as well (Chambers 2011:112). On the one hand the references to American segregation made British actors more aware of the colour bar. In 1947 the play Anna Lucasta was performed with an all African American cast at His Majesty’s Theatre. Shortly afterwards the Negro Theatre Company was founded by Edric Connor. A somewhat similar organisation, Negro Theatre Workshop, was founded in 1961 by Pearl Connor. Rosey Pool was named as one of its patrons (‘Letters. The Negro Theatre Workshop Trust’, The Stage and Television Today, 2 December 1965, p. 11). On the other hand, African American actors were sometimes met with hostility, especially when they were more successful than their British peers. The Trinidadian playwright Errol John (1924-1988), for example, felt that his plays couldn’t succeed without having Americans in the cast of his stage productions (Stephen Bourne 2001:64).
The findings from my time at the British Library are a fundamental part of my doctoral work, and I therefore wish to thank the BAAS/Eccles Centre for their generous support.
Lonneke Geerlings is a PhD student at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.