Black and Unknown Bards: The Rosey Pool Library in the Legacy Collection


Today we’re going to take a look at one of the other, non-document, areas of the Legacy Collection: Rosey Pool’s library. The Rosey Pool books are, if I’m honest, pretty much my favourite collection in the whole of Sussex Library. They are a real hidden gem amongst our collections and they contain so much history!

Rosey Pool (1905 – 1971) was a Dutch cultural anthropologist and teacher, who was passionate about African-American literature and poetry. She was born in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, moving to Berlin to study cultural anthropology with a focus on African-American writing.

Rosey returned to Amsterdam in 1938 following the rise of the Nazi party; however in May 1940 Germany invaded the Netherlands. In May 1943, Rosey and her family were interned in Westerbork transit camp; her parents and  brother died. In September 1943, Rosey managed to escape during a mission in which several inmates were sent to collect books for a library; she spent the rest of the war in hiding.

After the war, Rosey returned to Amsterdam and was one of the first people to see Anne Frank’s diary, as Anne’s father Otto was an old friend. Rosey worked on an English translation of the diary, but it was rejected by publishers.

Rosey moved to London in 1953 and lived with her partner Isa Isenberg. She published several anthologies of African-American poetry which showcased the work of lesser-known writers – notably ‘Black and Unknown Bards’ in 1958 and ‘Beyond the Blues: New Poems by American Negroes’ in 1962. She was in frequent contact with leading poets of the Harlem Renaissance era, including Langston Hughes and Owen Dodson.

Rosey’s archives, which were donated to the University of Sussex in 1971 – 1972 by Isa Isenberg, are held by Special Collections at The Keep. The archives contain a wealth of correspondence and material that documents African-American culture during the mid-20th century. My favourite items in the collection are Rosey’s colourful scrapbooks, particularly those that she created to mark her visits to America – they’re full of photographs and news cuttings and are wonderful to explore, particularly because you get the sense of how widely respected Rosey was in many cultural circles.

Whilst Rosey’s archives are at The Keep, her extensive collection of books is here and is now part of the Legacy Collection! There are over 700 books, spanning a wide variety of topics from anthropology to history, from music to children’s literature, and from poetry to cookery. The books are all related to African-American culture and are a real testimony to how passionate Rosey was about her career. There is a strong focus on literature throughout the collection; many books are signed to Rosey from the author, which shows how well regarded she was.

There is also ample evidence of Rosey’s friendship with Langston Hughes; there are 23 books by Hughes in the collection, many first editions and many signed to her. One of my favourite discoveries when listing the books was an anthology called ‘Freedom School Poetry’: you can see where Langston has written Rosey’s name on the front cover, as his handwriting is so distinctive!

There are 24 publications from the Broadside Press in the collection. The Broadside Press was founded in Detroit, Michigan in 1965 by Dudley Randall; it focused on publishing poetry by black writers, including an anthology in memory of Malcolm X, poems by Margaret Walker and work by Gwendolyn Brooks amongst many others. The Broadside Press aimed to make the poetry emerging from the black Civil Rights movement publicly accessible through producing affordable pamphlets, and it became part of the wider Black Arts Movement. The Broadside Press is still in existence today, having merged with the Lotus Press last year.

Rosey Pool’s library is a wonderfully visual treasure trove – if you’re interested in African American culture in the 20th century, this collection is utterly invaluable. Here are a few of my favourites:

  • Harriet and the Promised Land, a children’s book illustrated by the famous artist Jacob Lawrence
  • The Darker Brother [and other pulp-fiction titles] for their covers alone
  • Rich Heritage by Evelyn LaRue Pittman
  • Miss Williams’ Cookery Book
  • Many of the first editions sent to Rosey by Langston Hughes

The Rosey Pool library helps to shed a little more light on a woman whose brilliant talents and passion for African-American writing have been largely overlooked by history so far. Rosey lived through some of the most important events of the 20th Century, from the Harlem Renaissance, through the Holocaust to the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. The books held by us in the Legacy Collection are a fascinating snapshot of black culture during the last century; long may they continue to be loved by Sussex as much as Rosey did!

I have written more about Rosey Pool’s life as part of International Women’s Day and her relationship with Langston Hughes to celebrate Black History Month. Lonneke Geerlings, who is writing her PhD on Rosey Pool, has a great blog about Rosey here.

As ever, if you’re interested in viewing any of Rosey Pool’s books or would like more information, do get in touch. Rosey’s archives are held with Special Collections at The Keep; anyone is welcome to visit and view the material.

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