Rosey E. Pool and Nina Simone in Nigeria with AMSAC (1961)

In June 1957, the American Society of African Culture (AMSAC) was founded by five African American intellectuals.[1] During its heyday in the early 1960s, AMSAC had around four hundred members. One of the main goals of the organisation was to expose African Americans to their African heritage. This aim was pursued through organising exhibitions, lectures, music performances, and conferences in the United States (primarily New York) and Africa (occasionally).

‘Leading personalities attending celebration in Lagos’, probably a newspaper clipping. Randy Weston is pictured on the bottom row, second from the right. Source: Rosey Pool Collection, University of Sussex, The Keep Special Collections, SxMs19/14/1/6 Scrapbook 1961-63, n.p.
‘Leading personalities attending celebration in Lagos’, probably a newspaper clipping. Source: Rosey Pool Collection, University of Sussex, The Keep Special Collections, SxMs19/14/1/6 Scrapbook 1961-63, n.p.

The Lagos Festival of December 1961 was one of the major events of AMSAC, and was the first event on African soil. The Festival, which included the opening of a Cultural Center, symbolically coincided with the one-year celebration of Nigeria’s independence. It included music and dance performances, panel sessions, and lectures. Highlights of the festival were two public concerts in the King George V Stadium in Lagos. Joint African and African-American shows were performed in this outdoor amphitheatre that included performances by Nina Simone, Brock Peters, local Atilogu dancers, folk singer Odetta, Natalie Hinderas, and Lionel Hampton.

The political opportunities[2] for this Festival were created by an interplay of the Cold War, the American Civil Rights Movement, the decolonisation of the sub-Saharan Africa, which all coincided in the late 1950s and 1960s. The Lagos trip of 1961 was in the middle of the decolonisation of the African continent, which served as a source of inspiration for the American Civil Rights Movement.

The opening of an AMSAC office, 18-19 December 1961, Lagos, Nigeria. Rosey E. Pool stands on the left.  Source: Rosey Pool Collection, University of Sussex, The Keep Special Collections, SxMs19/14/1/6 Scrapbook 1961-63, n.p.
The opening of an AMSAC office, 18-19 December 1961, Lagos, Nigeria. Rosey E. Pool stands on the left. Source: Rosey Pool Collection, University of Sussex, The Keep Special Collections, SxMs19/14/1/6 Scrapbook 1961-63, n.p.

Rosey E. Pool (1905-1971)

One morning in Lagos, press photos of the day before were displayed in the hotel lobby. Rosey E. Pool describes how Nina Simone, by 1968 a major recording artist, stormed into Pool’s hotel room and urged to come see the photos. ‘You look one hell of a lot of funny!’ Pool saw her over-exposed white face on the photos. She said – with her British accent – while laughing: ‘I look like a spook.’ This aroused laughter across the group, since ‘spook’ was a curse word for African Americans. ‘With us’, Pool protested, ‘spooks are originally white.’[3]

‘2 a.m. Arrival Airport Lagos’. Source: Sussex, SxMs19/14/1/6 Scrapbook AMSAC 1961-1963, n.p.
‘2 a.m. Arrival Airport Lagos’. Source:  Rosey Pool Collection, University of Sussex, The Keep Special Collections, SxMs19/14/1/6 Scrapbook AMSAC 1961-1963, n.p.
'Nina Simone with Babatunde Olantunji arriving at the Lagos Airport from New York, December 14, 1961, for the AMSAC Arts Festival on December 18th and 19th, 1961.' Source: Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
‘Nina Simone with Babatunde Olantunji arriving at the Lagos Airport from New York, December 14, 1961, for the AMSAC Arts Festival on December 18th and 19th, 1961.’ Source: Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Nina Simone (1933-2003)

To Nina Simone, who just became famous with ‘I Loves You Porgy’, the Festival had another meaning. In her 1991 autobiography, Simone wrote:

‘All around us were black faces, and I felt for the first time the spiritual relaxation any Afro-American feels on reaching Africa. I didn’t feel like I’d come home when I arrived in Lagos, but I knew I’d arrived somewhere important and that Africa mattered to me […]. [I]t wasn’t Nigeria I arrived in – it was AFRICA.’[4]

Figure 4 shows Simone arriving in Lagos. To us it seems that Africa is somewhat romanticised in this quote. However, historian Ruth Feldstein remarks that Simone’s perspective ‘rejected then-dominant conceptions of Africa as backward or undeveloped’ in the early 1960s.[5] Simone’s comment shows that she was proud of her African heritage. The trip to Lagos served as a turning point in the career.

'Singer Nina Simone and host shake hands while other luncheon guests look on. U.S. university-trained Dr. Azikiwe was Nigeria's foremost leader during his country's fight for independence, is first African to hold post of Nigerian governor-general.' Source: 'African-American Cultural Exchange. Nigerian and U.S. Negro artists blend talents at AMSAC Festival in LAGOS', Ebony, March 1962, p. 87-94:92. URL: https://books.google.nl/books?id=RNcDAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA87&dq=amsac%20lagos&hl=nl&pg=PA88#v=onepage&q=weston&f=false
‘Singer Nina Simone and host shake hands while other luncheon guests look on. U.S. university-trained Dr. Azikiwe was Nigeria’s foremost leader during his country’s fight for independence, is first African to hold post of Nigerian governor-general.’ Source: ‘African-American Cultural Exchange. Nigerian and U.S. Negro artists blend talents at AMSAC Festival in LAGOS’, Ebony, March 1962, p. 87-94:92. URL: https://books.google.nl/books?id=RNcDAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA87&dq=amsac%20lagos&hl=nl&pg=PA88#v=onepage&q=weston&f=false

In the following years she became more politically active and involved in the Civil Rights Movement.[6] The year 1961 was a catalyst in her political views, Simone wrote in her autobiography: ‘I started to think about myself as a black person in a country run by white people and a woman in a world run by men.’[7] In a video interview, probably from the late 1960s, she urges African Americans to become more interested in their roots:

‘we have a culture that is surpassed by no other civilization but we don’t know anything about it. (…) [M]y job is to somehow make [African Americans] curious enough or persuade them by hook or crook to get more aware of themselves and where they came from and what they are (…). This is what compels me to compel them. And I will do it by whatever means necessary.’[8]

Group (left to right) Godwin Mbadiwe Ewelaku, Dr. Horace Mann Bond, Rosey Pool, Langston Hughes, outside Randdek Hall, Lagos, Nigeria (18 December 1961). Source: Langston Hughes papers, call number JWJ MSS 26. URL: http://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/3528056
Group (left to right) Godwin Mbadiwe Ewelaku, Dr. Horace Mann Bond, Rosey Pool, Langston Hughes, outside Randdek Hall, Lagos, Nigeria (18 December 1961). Source: Langston Hughes papers, call number JWJ MSS 26. URL: http://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/3528056

There were some notable close individual connections as well. President Nnamdi Azikiwe (1904-1996) had studied at Lincoln University (Pennsylvania) together with Langston Hughes in the 1930s. Azikiwe has been described as ‘a bridge between African thought and American ideas.’[11] Azikiwe’s role has been very important in this event, but little can be found on the role Nigerians played in the festival. (NIGERIASAC, the Nigerian version of AMSAC, was kept out of the organisation for unclear reasons.)

The picture of the AMSAC delegates with President Azikiwe in 1961 (figure 7) was also a political statement. It did not only show a familiarity with Nigeria (and Africa at large), but it can also be read as an anti-Soviet statement. Azikiwe’s government was responsible overtly anti-communist, and hindered the opening of a Soviet Union embassy in Lagos until 1962.[12]

The AMSAC delegation with President Nnamdi Azikiwe (in the middle, dressed in white with a black hat), Nigeria 1961. Rosey E. Pool is partially visible, second from the right, top row. Langston Hughes stands in the front, fourth from the left. Nina Simone is partially visible on the left side of Azikiwe, in the middle of the picture. Source: Weston, African Rhythms, p. 148. Courtesy of Moorland-Spingarn Library, Howard University.
The AMSAC delegation with President Nnamdi Azikiwe (in the middle, dressed in white with a black hat), Nigeria 1961. Rosey E. Pool is partially visible, second from the right, top row. Langston Hughes stands in the front, fourth from the left. Nina Simone is partially visible on the left side of Azikiwe, in the middle of the picture. Source: Randy Weston, African Rhythms. The Autobiography of Randy Weston (Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2010), p. 148. Courtesy of Moorland-Spingarn Library, Howard University.

After 1967, AMSAC’s membership sharply declined after it was named as one of the organisations that was funded by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).[9] AMAC ceased to exist in 1969. However, to many of its members the organisation had a huge significance. Especially to the visitors of the 1961 Lagos Festival, AMSAC provided opportunities to go ‘back to the motherland’.[10] 


[1] The founders were political scientist and civil rights activist John A. Davis, historian and social scientist Horace Mann Bond (1904-1972), professor of French and future American ambassador Will Mercer Cook (1903-1987), philosopher William T. Fontaine (1909-1968) and James Ivy, editor of the NAACP’s Crisis.

[2] S. Tarrow, Power in Movement. Social Movements, Collective Action and Politics (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 18.

[3] Rosey E. Pool, Lachen om niet te huilen (Rotterdam, Lemniscaat, 1968), p. 51.

[4] N. Simone, I Put a Spell On You (1991), p. 80-81.

[5] R. Feldstein, “I Don’t Trust You Anymore”: Nina Simone, Culture, and Black Activism in the 1960s’, The Journal of American History March 2005, p. 1349-1379:1371.

[6] What Happened, Miss Simone? (101 minutes, documentary directed by Liz Garbus, 2015)

[7] Feldstein, ‘I Don’t Trust You Anymore’, p. 1375.

[8] What Happened, Miss Simone? (101 minutes, documentary directed by Liz Garbus, 2015)

[9] Alistair Cooke, ‘More Organisations Find They Are On CIA’s Fund List, The Guardian, 18 February 1967, p. 9; Neil Sheehan, ‘5 New Groups Tied To C.I.A. Conduits’, The New York Times, 17 February 1967, p. 1,16 and Richard Harwood, ‘8 More Groups Linked to CIA’s Fund Activities’, The Washington Post, Times Herald, 21 February 1967, p. A6; Hugh Wilford , The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008); Wilford in: Dongen, Transnational Anti-Communism and the Cold War: Agents, Activities, and Networks, p. 30.

[10] Randy Weston, African rhythms. The autobiography of Randy Weston (Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2010), p. 104.

[11] Obiwu, ‘The Pan-African Brotherhood of Langston Hughes and Nnamdi Azikiwe’, p. 144.

[12] H.I. Tijani, ‘Britain and the Foundation of Anti-Communist Policies in Nigeria, 1945-1960’, African and Asian studies, vol. 8, no. 1/2, p. 47-66:64.

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