MAKING use of the University of Sussex’s considerable archive, As Waves of One Sea is a programme of three events that focus on African American literature and culture. Brighton-based academic and writer Diarmuid Hester tells EDWIN GILSON more.

Why does the university have such rich resources relating to African American literature?

Right from the off, Sussex students and staff had a reputation for being politically engaged; campaigning for nuclear disarmament, objecting to the Vietnam War, resisting the National Front, staging anti-apartheid protests, and so on.

That radical heritage is so important to the university and it’s one of the factors that led to there being so much fascinating material in the archives; particularly work relating to African American politics and culture. Civil Rights in the United States, the Harlem Renaissance, Black Arts – the radical outlook of those movements resonates with the founding vision of the university and the politics of the people who went there.

Many of the resources you are drawing from come from the university’s Rosey Pool library. Can you elaborate on her significance to all of this?

Rosey Pool’s archive at The Keep contains arguably the largest and most exciting collection of African American books in Britain outside of the British Library. Pool was a Jewish academic who taught Anne Frank in Amsterdam before the war broke out. She was captured and interned by the Nazis in 1943, only to make a daring escape with the help of her Dutch Resistance comrades.

Once the War was over she returned to her passion, poetry by African American writers like Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. Reading their literature led her to became engaged in the struggle for Civil Rights. Through her friendship with Hughes she encountered lots of amazing African American work, which is now held by the university. Few people in Europe at that time were reading this kind of material as avidly as she was. All of the wonderful stuff she collected was donated to the university by Isa Isenberg, her female companion, after Pool’s death in 1971.

The oral tradition of storytelling was very important to some of the writers these events are celebrating, particularly Langston Hughes. Did you want to instil some of that spirit of performance into As Waves of One Sea?

Sure. Hughes and Pool’s friend Owen Dodson were really interested in musicals and opera. In the archive there are stacks of playbills from shows Pool attended like Hughes’ Tambourines to Glory – she was a real fan of the performing arts. That body of materials, the real strength of the archive in the performing arts was one of the reasons why it’s been such a privilege to work with Harold Offeh on our show They Taught Me Laughing to Keep From Crying.

Harold’s an incredibly talented British Ghanaian artist whose practice engages with performance, humour, and play. It’s been fantastic collaborating with him and trying to absorb some of the ways that he creatively responds to archives and how his work encourages us to interpret history and culture by placing the body and voice front and centre.

They Taught Me Laughing to Keep From Crying merges the formats of a talk and experimental performance. How so?

This year’s performance builds on the success of our show for last year’s Being Human festival, The Art of Lying. We worked with Brighton-based performer Robert Cohen to stage a “theatrical lecture” based on the archives of the McCarthy era super-snitch Harvey Matusow. They say “show, don’t tell”, so we thought, well, instead of simply telling people about Matusow’s surreal life and how he heralded a post-truth world, why don’t we show them?

So on the night of the performance, there I am on stage with my colleague Doug Haynes – just two academics having another argument – and suddenly Robert Cohen rushes out of the audience and says “You guys have got it all wrong! I’m Harvey Matusow and I’m going to tell you how it really was.” It was a tremendously odd and hilarious moment that people loved but it also got across our big idea about the drama of lying – its artfulness… Anyway, we thought we’d up the ante in 2017. They Taught Me Laughing To Keep From Crying has lots more moving parts and more performers – there’s me, Doug Haynes, Jo Pawlik, Jamal Johnson, and Harold Offeh. It’s more interactive: the audience will get to give feedback and we’ll fold that into the show. There’s music and film and performance and altogether it’s wonderfully weird. We’ve been thinking about it as a surreal take on The One Show – like if it was presented by Salvador Dali instead of Matt Baker.

But the core idea, like the Matusow show, is still there; it’s informative and you’ll find out about Rosey Pool and African American culture, but some of the more creative choices we’ve made will make you stop and think about what you’re seeing.

It’s tempting to wonder how Langston Hughes, Chester Himes and other writers of the African American literary renaissance would have reacted to Trump. Does any part of As Waves Of One Sea explore today’s political climate?

I’d bet if he were alive Chester Himes might have a choice word or two for Trump. Seriously, though, we don’t presume to be able to speak for any of the authors that are featured; we’re not ventriloquising them. But the show isn’t simply a historical study either. We’re not just narrating a story about how, once upon a time, there was a nice Dutch woman who really liked African American writing.

We present the facts, sure, but we’re also trying to encourage the audience to think about the chasm of time between them and Pool and what’s changed in the interim. Whether, for instance, the affinities she saw between her oppression as a Jew under Nazi oppression and black Americans’ oppression under Jim Crow would today be seen as legit – or even welcome. Basically, yes, we respond to today’s political issues – from an angle.

As Waves Of One Sea: events

They Taught Me Laughing to Keep From Crying, November 20, 8pm

Part traditional talk, part experimental performance, this event sees Dr Joanna Pawlik, Dr Doug Haynes, Dr Diarmuid Hester, Jamal Johnson and celebrated performance artist Harold Offeh gather to present an informative evening based around the University of Sussex’s archival holdings in African American culture. There will be a discussion involving the audience afterwards.

Treasures from the Rosey Pool Library, November 21, 12.30pm

How much can you tell about a person by looking at their bookshelves? Treasures from the Rosey Pool Library explores Dutch academic and Holocaust survivor Rosey Pool’s exceptional life and her relationships with prominent black writers including Harlem renaissance poet Langston Hughes, crime writer Chester Himes, and poet and playwright Owen Dodson. Pool is a vital figure in the teaching of African American literature, a fact which will be reiterated here.

Looking for Langston, November 21, 8pm

A meditation on the life and loves of African American poet Langston Hughes by pioneering queer British auteur Isaac Julien. Informed by the photographic art of James Van der Zee and Robert Mapplethorpe, Julien’s film explores the all-male homosexual underworld of black Harlem society from the 1920s to the 1950s and beyond. Looking for Langston considers the director’s debt to black queer artists and shines a light on the contemporary Aids epidemic. After the screening, Isaac will join Langston Hughes expert Shima Jalal Kamali and the organisers in a discussion and question and answer session. 

More information on As Waves of One Sea

Dr Doug Haynes, director of Sussex Centre for American Studies, said: “Rosey Pool led an incredible life, standing up against the two greatest evils of the 20th century in the Holocaust and the oppression of African Americans. It is a mystery why she is not better remembered by history and so we hope to play our small part in making more people aware of this inspiring individual.

“She taught Anne Frank and as her archive, donated to the University of Sussex after her death, shows, she had a close relationship with eminent African American writers such as Langston Hughes and W E B Du Bois. She truly deserves to be as much a household name as those she championed.”

Diarmuid Hester added: “I’m writing a book about waste in the culture of New York City, which looks at depictions of the ruins of Harlem and it was that focus that brought me to Rosey Pool’s archive. When I got in there I realised just how much fabulous material there was and how little the archive was used. Doug Haynes, Jo Pawlik, and I all specialise in radical American culture. So we’ve got masses of expertise, along with a state-of-the-art venue in the Attenborough Centre, and a show whose spirit animal is Salvador Dali; too good an opportunity to miss.”

As Waves Of One Sea
Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, University of Sussex, November 20 and 21. Various times. For more information and tickets visit