Rosey Eva Pool led an unusual life that intersected with some of the most important social and political movements of the twentieth century. Born in Amsterdam in 1905, Pool was raised in the Jewish quarter of the city by secular Jewish parents who were active in the socialist movement. Her exposure to both Judaism and socialism likely contributed to the development of an international perspective as well as a passion for social justice.
From an early age, Pool seems to have had a broad interest in the arts, especially the performing arts. Her involvement with labor and socialist organizations provided her with opportunities to perform on stage as a musician, actress, story-teller, and reciter of poetry. She also did some public speaking in the same context. Pool attended college to become credentialed as a teacher, but went on to study German language and literature, developing a special interest in poetry. She later recalled that while at college, she read a poem by the Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, in which he recalled a childhood trauma he experienced when a white child called him “nigger.” The poem resonated with Pool’s own experience as a child who was often teased and so stimulated an interest in African-American poetry that would grow over time.
In 1927, Pool moved to Berlin, where she engaged in further academic studies in English, folklore, Spanish and French, and worked at various jobs, including as a language teacher and translator. According to one account, she wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on African-American poetry while in Berlin, but the dissertation has not been located. She appears to have remained involved in socialist activities and sometimes wrote articles for the Dutch press about films and plays with social justice themes. In 1932, she married Gerhard Kramer, a lawyer; however, they separated the following year. Subsequently, she lived with Lena Fischer and both appear to have been part of the lesbian subculture that emerged in Berlin during this period. As the Nazi Party grew in power, Pool and Fischer made plans to move to Amsterdam, but before they could translate these plans into action, Fischer was arrested. She was never heard from again.
Pool returned to Amsterdam alone in early 1939, where she worked as an English teacher and engaged in number of activities in support of Jewish refugees from Germany. One of her students was Anne Frank, with whose family Pool became friends. After Germany invaded the Netherlands and began rounding up and deporting Jews to camps in Germany, Rosey Pool and her family were placed in a transit camp, where Jews were being held temporarily before being sent to Germany. She would later recall how she sang or hummed the tunes of Negro spirituals as a subtle act of resistance and to comfort herself. Pool’s parents and her brother were sent to Sobibor, where they were put to death, but Pool herself escaped the transit camp and lived in hiding for the rest of the war, assisted by the Dutch underground.
During the last year of the war, Pool had visits from a Catholic priest who was active in the resistance; this contact lead her to study Catholicism and join the church in 1945. Following the war, Pool continued to engage in literary activities, publishing bilingual editions of selected poems by Emily Dickinson (in Dutch and English) and William Shakespeare (German and English), as well as a small book of her own poetry entitled Beperkt zicht (Limited View).1 She also reviewed the diary of Anne Frank, at the request of her Anne’s father, Otto, for possible publication. She translated parts of it into German and also did a full English translation, but when the book was published, the publisher had it retranslated. Pool also taught at a tutorial school for children who had gone into hiding during the war, assisting them to catch up with the studies they had missed.
During this period, Pool’s interest in African-American literature and culture continued to grow, partly because she saw the similarity between the African-American experience and the Jewish experience in Europe during the war — indeed, in her perception, there was commonality in all experiences of oppression. She saw a universal significance in what many others saw as parochial and limited life experiences and came to believe that the voices of all oppressed peoples deserved a wider audience. At the same time, it seems likely that her immersion in African-American culture helped her come to terms with the trauma of losing her family and many of her closest friends in the Holocaust. Her students recalled that she read African-American poetry to them and sometimes sang negro spirituals and discussed their meaning.
Pool also began to give public recitations of African-American poetry and public lectures on Negro spirituals and African-American literature. Before long, she was collaborating with a Dutch artist and actress, Nola Hatterman, who had developed an interest in Surinamese art. Together, Pool and Hatterman organized cultural events that featured the art and poetry of Africans and African Americans.
In the mid-1940s, Pool began corresponding with African-American writers such as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. In her first letter Hughes, Pool explained that she had been immersing herself in African-American poetry for a couple of years and that she was preparing an anthology of such poetry, writing: “I am occupying myself with all the problems of the oppressed.” She introduced herself to Hughes as follows: “I am a teacher of languages as well as a translator, some sort of poet, a reciter and a folklorist all rolled in to one person, with a social conscience, which I should have mentioned first.”2 Hughes connected her with other African-American writers, thereby facilitating her efforts to bring their work to a wider audience.
About 1950, Pool took up residence in London, where she lived with Ursel Isenberg, a friend she had made while living in Berlin. Thereafter, her literary and cultural efforts were divided between the Netherlands and the English-speaking world. In the 1950s, she translated a number of works from English to Dutch and from Dutch to English, and also wrote Dutch-language works on Gershwin and Chopin that were published in the Netherlands.3 Such writing helped her earn a living, yet her interests remained centered on African and African diaspora culture. She organized readings and produced BBC programs on “Negro” poetry. She wrote articles about African actors in Europe and about the revival of traditional African visual and performing arts in post-colonial Africa. She ended one of her articles as follows: “. . . when a foreign culture may sometimes seem strange and its problems almost beyond comprehension, ancient Ewe lore may have the last word: ‘Wisdom is like a boa-boa tree; no human arms can go around.’”4 By making such observations, Pool intended to point out that many cultural expressions, seen as primitive by colonial authorities, had universal value and were deserving a broader audience. In fact, in an article entitled “The Discovery of Negro Poetry,” she treated the poetry as a hidden gem of literature that had been overlooked largely because the “intelligent, skillful, artistic, disciplined use of the language which is characteristic of the writing of poetry did not fit into the image that white America had created of her sons and daughters of African descent.”5 Pool, it should be noted, did not hesitate to critique poetry that did not meet this standard; she was, in fact, quite selective in curating African-American literature.
By the late 1950s, Pool’s plans for an anthology of African-American poets were beginning to take shape. In 1958, she and another editor selected a group of poems to be read before an audience by a theatre group in England known as the Company of Nine. This selection was later published as Black and unknown bards: a collection of Negro poetry.6 The same year, she published a selection of African-American poetry with co-editor Paul Bremen; and drawing on her Dutch translations, she published a bilingual edition of I Saw How Black I Was: Verses from North American Negroes,7 later re-issued as Black All Day. The following year, Pool published a Dutch translation of The Leopard, a novel by the Jamaican writer Victor Stafford Reid that was set in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising.8
By the late 1950s, Pool was sufficiently well known among African and African-American artists and writers that her apartment in London became something of an international salon helping to connect people from the two continents, a phenomenon that continued until the late 1960s. Facilitating the cross-fertilization of ideas from diverse African cultures in this way may have been one of Pool’s most lasting contributions to the Black Arts Movement.
In 1960, Rosey Pool secured funding for a lecture and research tour on African-American literature, during which she visited thirty-three U.S. college campuses. This experience served as a turning point in her lifhe since it gave her an opportunity to meet a number of emerging African-American writers, such as Naomi Madgett, Dudley Randall, Margaret Danner, and Robert Hayden. The trip also seems to have established her as an authority on African-American literature. After her return to the U.K., Pool edited an anthology of African-American poetry entitled Beyond the Blues: New Poems by American Negroes, which was published in 1962. The publication of Beyond the Blues resulted in invitations to lecture in the U.S., so Pool returned to the U.S. for a brief lecture tour in 1963.
In 1965, Pool was offered a short-term professorship at A & M University in Alabama. It was here, in Alabama, that she enrolled in the Bahá’í community. In a 1963 letter, she noted that she knew a number of Bahá’ís, including Robert Hayden, and she seems to have been, by that time, quite sympathetic to the Bahá’í teachings. She would later recall that she was encouraged by Paul Sanford, an African-American historian on the faculty at A & M, and two other Bahá’í faculty members, to look more deeply into Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings. After studying those teachings, Pool decided that when she returned to the UK she should “cross the world as a real follower of the Teacher and not just a sympathizer.”9
After this, Pool continued her rather frenetic pace of cultural and social activities, adding to her itinerary Bahá’í meetings as well as public talks on the religion. She continued with her literary work as well, publishing in 1965 a collection of literature, songs, and documents that covered 300 years of African-American history. The collection was issued in a bilingual Dutch-English edition in Amsterdam.10 The following year, Pool published a Dutch translation of Claude Browne’s book, Manchild in the Promised Land, a book about growing up in Harlem.11 In 1966, she served on a pre-selection jury for literary prizes at the World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal, where she submitted for consideration a poem by Robert Hayden. As the decade drew to a close, she published her own Dutch-language account of race relations in the U.S. and the civil rights movement, which she had actively supported, under the title Laugh so as not to Cry.12
The shift in the civil rights movement away from a focus on racial integration and toward black power, had a ripple effect in the literary community, bringing some older African-American poets into disfavor with younger, more militant readers. This trend affected Robert Hayden and seems to have affected Rosey Pool as well. It became more difficult for her to find opportunities to teach African-American literature, because, she was told, she was white. Publishers, too, were reluctant to publish work on African-American poetry by white authors or editors and favored the more militant new writers over those who, in her estimation, were writers of quality.13 It appears that she also lost contact with a number of writers she had considered friends and lamented that they had “fallen silent as a result of the trends of our time.”14 In another letter, she laments “all that has happened . . . the racial tensions, all that has clouded so many of my warm friendly relations with human beings who happen to be poets . . . poets of the kind I love and understand.”15 Pool remained in touch with long-time literary contacts, but she was not able to move in the literary circles to which she had previously been so connected.
In her final years, Pool maintained a busy schedule, travelling — to Mexico, Central America, Cyprus, the U.S.S.R., and Japan — giving occasional lectures and teaching the Bahá’í Faith. She planned to go on pilgrimage to the Bahá’í holy places in 1970, but was unable to make the trip, probably because of declining health due to what was, reportedly, leukemia. She had to be hospitalized for a month or more in April-May 1970 and needed to make regular hospital visits during the next year for treatment. During her extended illness, Pool took refuge in her faith, writing to Robert Hayden: “If I have learned one thing during this last year it is that prayer is a real power-house. Some things one knows but does not experience on a personal level. I’ve done that now.”16 Sometime between July and September 1971, Rosey Pool had a stroke. She passed away on September 29.
Rosey Pool’s role in the promotion and spread of the Black Arts Movement continues to be studied. The convictions that there are parallels in the experiences of oppressed peoples and that neglected cultures might have wisdom of benefit to the wider world, beliefs that served as the wellspring for all her work, are much more widely held today than they were in her own lifetime. In so many ways, Pool was ahead of her time. Remarkably, even in the early decades of the last century, she had an intuitive grasp of what today is referred to as “intersectionality” — the idea that social oppression is born and grows in the nexus of a host of injustices. And it is because of the depth of her insight into the nature of oppression that her life story intersects with so many key events in the twentieth century: the rise of socialism, the tragedy of the Holocaust, the decolonization of Africa, the triumph of the civil rights movement, and the emergence of the Bahá’í Faith.
1 - Ten Poems (Amsterdam: Vijf Ponden Pers, 1944); Three Sonnets. (Ultrecht: G.M. van Wees, 1944); Beperkt zicht. (Amsterdam, E. Querido, 1945).
2 - Rosey Pool to Langston Hughes, October 21, 1945, Langston Hughes Papers, Beineke Library, Yale University.
3 - One foot off the ground (Amsterdam : Internationaal Bureau voor Auteurssrecht N.V.), (trans. from Dutch to English). The Water (Amsterdam : S.E.B.A) (play by Eduard Hoornik, translated from English into Dutch). Dierbare vriendin :de roman van Peter Tsjaikowsky en Nadesjda von Meck (Amsterdam : N.V.E.M. Querido’s Uitgeverij, 1953) (Translated from English to Dutch). Een handvol Poolse aarde; het leven van Frédéric Chopin, 1810-1849 (Tilburg, Nederland’s Boekhuis, 1958). Een nieuw lied voor Amerika:het leven van George Gershwin,1898-1937 (Tilburg : Nederland’s Boekhuis, 1951).
4 - “African Renaissance: Revival of African traditional art in post-colonial Africa,” Phylon vol. 14, no. 1 pp. 5-8.
5 - Freedomways: A Quarterly Review of the Negro Freedom Movement vol. 3, no. 4 (Fall 1963) pp. 511-517.
6 - Aldington, Kent [England]: Hand & Flower Press, 1958.
7 - Ik zag hoe zwart ik was :verzen van Noord-Amerikaanse negers (Den Haag : Bakker/Daamen, 1958).
8 - Het luipaard (Amsterdam : Wereld-Bibliotheek, 1959).
9 - The quote is from Rosey Pool to Jessie Collins, September 13, 1965 (Rosey Pool Papers). The other information in this paragraph comes from Rosey Pool to Jessie Collins October 20, 1963; Rosey Pool to Paul Sanford, March 5, 1970.
10 - Ik ben de nieuwe neger: gedichten, rijmen, liedjes en dokumenten uit 300 jaar verzet van de Amerikaanse neger (Den Haag Bakker, 1965).
11 - Mijin Harlem (Rotterdam, Lemniscaat, 1966).
12 - Lachen om niet te huilen (Rotterdam, Lemniscaat, 1968).
13 - Rosey Pool to Robert Hayden, April 22, 1969.
14 - Rosey Pool to Naomi Long Madgett February 28, 1970.
15 - Rosey Pool to Paul Sanford March 5, 1970.
16 - Rosey Pool to Robert Hayden, July 7, 1971.
NB: The main sources for this article are:
Anneke Schouten-Buys “The Marvelous Gift for Friendship,” (n.p. 1986) and
Lonneke Geerlings, “Survivor, Agitator. Rosey E Poll and the Transatlantic Century,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Vrije Universiteit, 2019.
Except where footnotes are used, the information came from these two sources.