Léopold Sédar Senghor Essay - Critical Essays

Senghor, Léopold Sédar (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Introduction

Léopold Sédar Senghor 1906-

(Also has written under pseudonyms Silmang Diamano and Patrice Maguilene Kaymor) Senegalese poet, essayist, nonfiction writer, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Senghor's career through 1996. See also Leopold Sedar Senghor Poetry Criticism.

One of the preeminent African intellectuals of the twentieth century, Senegalese poet and statesman Léopold Sédar Senghor is hailed as a powerful voice of postwar black cultural pride and self-determination. A leading proponent of negritude, a literary movement based on the repudiation of Western imperialism and the reclamation of Pan-African heritage, Senghor was instrumental in the cultivation of postcolonial aesthetics and black racial consciousness. His acclaimed verse in Chants d'ombre (1945), Hosties noires (1948), Ethiopiques (1956), and Nocturnes (1962) celebrates the cultural legacy of Africa while attempting to reconcile his affinity for European civilization with the devastating effects of its colonial policies. The recipient of numerous international honors and the first black person to be elected to the prestigious French Academy, Senghor was the first president of modern Senegal, a political position he served with distinction from 1960 to 1980.

Biographical Information

Born in Joal, a predominantly Muslim district near the port city of Dakar in French West Africa, Senghor was one of two dozen children belonging to his father, a wealthy peanut farmer and exporter. Senghor was raised Roman Catholic by his mother, one of his father's several wives, and received his early education at mission schools. In 1922 he began studies at a junior seminary in Dakar where he studied Greek and Latin classics for four years. After his rejection as a candidate for the priesthood, he enrolled at the Lycée of Dakar where he won recognition as a brilliant student and graduated in 1928 with high honors and a scholarship to study in France. Though his traditional French education encouraged him to abandon his native roots, Senghor's exposure to the indigenous culture of his Serer ethnic ancestors exerted a lasting impression upon him during his formative years. While in Paris, Senghor came under the literary influence of the French symbolists, poets Paul Claudel and St. John Perse, and surrealist André Breton. He also encountered West Indian students Aimé Césaire and Léon Damas who introduced him to the works of W. E. B. DuBois and Harlem Renaissance writers Claude McKay, Countee McCullen, and Langston Hughes. In 1933 Senghor became the first African to graduate from the Sorbonne with the agrégé de grammaire, the highest distinction of the French educational system. The next year Senghor, along with Césaire and Damas, co-founded L'étudiant noir, a journal devoted to black francophone literature and the elaboration of negritude, a term coined by Césaire. Upon the outbreak of World War II Senghor was called into service in the French Colonial Infantry. He was captured the next year during the German occupation of France and spent the next two years in a Nazi prison camp; he was subsequently awarded several military honors. After his release in 1942, he returned to teaching at the Lycée Marcelin Berthelot near Paris, participated in the French Resistance, and became increasingly active in politics.

The publication of Chants d'ombre in 1945 established him as a prominent spokesperson of negritude. Two years later he co-founded the literary journal Présence africaine with Alioune Diop. In 1946 Senghor married Ginette Eboue, the daughter of a Guyanese administrator; they divorced in 1956 and Senghor married Colette Hubert the next year. Senghor was elected as a delegate to the French National Assembly in 1946, founded the socialist party Bloc Démocratique Sénégalais in 1948, and held a succession of political posts in the French and Senegalese government until 1958. He presided over the legislative body of the Mali Federation, a Senegal-Sudan alliance that declared independence from France in 1959. When Senegal withdrew from the federation the next year, Senghor was elected as the first president of the newly established Republic of Senegal. Despite several attempted coups and civil unrest in Senegal during the late 1960s, Senghor was reelected in 1968 and 1973. During his two decades as president, he worked to stabilize Senegalese national politics, enact economic reforms, and establish a democratic socialist government. He sponsored the First World Festival of Negro Arts in 1966 and headed the formation of the West African Economic Community in 1974. Senghor resigned from office in 1980, becoming the first postcolonial African head of state to peacefully transfer power to a successor. Senghor has received numerous honorary degrees and in 1983 was named one of the forty “immortals” of the Académie Française.

Major Works

As the leading theoretician of negritude, Senghor's poetry and prose is in large part an embodiment of the movement's evolving ideology—artistic, political, social, and economic—during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Rejecting the notion of European supremacy and the forced assimilation of Western culture among colonized Africans, Senghor and other negritude writers, mainly French-speaking African and Caribbean writers, sought to inspire renewed pride in the rich history and cultural tradition of Africa. Senghor's first poetry collection, Chants d'ombre (variously translated as “Songs of Shadow,” “Shadow Songs,” or “Songs of Darkness”), expresses his feelings of exile, cultural estrangement, aversion to the bondage of colonialism, and nostalgia for the African paradise of his childhood and ancestors. Though stylistically influenced by contemporary French poetry and the irrational imagery of surrealism, Senghor's trademark verse merges European forms and allusions with the language and spiritual motifs of African folk song. The controlled, musical rhythms and long, annunciatory lines of his poems, often prefaced with instructions for accompanying instruments, evoke the sounds and atmosphere of his native land and people. Chants d'ombre contains several of his best-known poems, including “Nuit de Sine” (“Night of Sine”), “Neige sur Paris” (“Snow Upon Paris”), “Masque négre” (“Black Masks”), and “Femme noir” (“Black Woman”), an exuberant paean to the beauty of African womanhood.

The poems of Hosties noires (“Black Sacrifice”), many of which were composed during his wartime captivity, signal Senghor's growing sense of purpose and racial identity. Several of these, such as “Aux soldats Negro-Americains” (“To the American Negro Soldiers”) and “Désespoir d'un volontaire libre” (“Despair of a Free Volunteer”) extol the dignity of the African-American, West Indian, and Senegalese soldiers he befriended during the war. These poems also display Senghor's increasingly strident attacks on French colonialism and racial exploitation. In “Prière de paix” (“Prayer for Peace”), for example, he presents a litany of African degradation at the hands of unscrupulous and hypocritical Europeans, thinly tempered with a plea for divine forgiveness. Senghor also served as editor of Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malagache de langue française (1948), a highly influential anthology of black francophone writers from Africa and the Caribbean. This volume, with its now famous introductory essay “Orphée noir” (“Black Orpheus”) by existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, became a defining work of the negritude movement. Senghor's third volume of poetry, Chants pour Naëtt (1949), contains a series of love lyrics dedicated to his first wife. Here, as in other poems by Senghor, the female subject of the poet's affection serves as a metaphor for Mother Africa.

The poems of Ethiopiques, written during his early political involvement, evince Senghor's abiding desire to bridge opposing aspects of European and African culture. In the long poem “Chaka,” an adaptation of Thomas Mofolo's 1926 historical novel about a ruthless nineteenth-century Zulu chieftain, Senghor reflects upon the burdens of leadership, the necessity of sacrifice in the name of African unity, and his own persona as a “poet-politician.” In “New York” Senghor calls for an end to the city's racial division and acceptance of African-American culture as a regenerative force. Senghor's conciliatory sentiments are also evident in “Epîtres à la Princesse” (“Letters to a Princess”), a sequence of poems describing an African man's romantic attachment to a European princess, representing an allegorical union between North and South that mirrors Senghor's marriage to second wife Colette, a white Frenchwoman. Nocturnes, published a year after Senghor was elected president of Senegal, contains a revision of Chants pour Naëtt, retitled Chants pour Signare, and a series of elegies that explore the nature of poetry and the creative process. Senghor's subsequent volumes of poetry include: Lettres d'hivernage (1973); Elégies majeures (1979), which contains “Elégie des Alizés” (“Elegy of the Trade Winds”) and personal tributes to George Pompidou and Martin Luther King; and Oeuvres poétique (1991; The Collected Poetry), the definitive edition of Senghor's poetry. Senghor has also produced a large body of commentary on literary, political, and social subjects, including the essay collection Ce que je crois (1988) and three volumes under the heading Liberté—Nation et voie africaine du socialisme (1961; On African Socialism), Negritude et humanisme (1964; Negritude and Humanism), and Négritude et civilisation de l'universel (1977).

Critical Reception

Senghor is widely acclaimed as a poet of remarkable intelligence, versatility, and compassion. Critics consistently praise his ability to synthesize elements of Western and African experience and to evoke universality in the archetypal imagery of his verse, exemplified by “Black Woman,” considered one of his finest early poems. His several major works from the 1940s and 1950s—Chants d'ombre, Hosties noires, Chants pour Naëtt, and Ethiopiques—are generally regarded as his most significant. He is also highly esteemed for his important work as editor of Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malagache de langue française, which, as K. Anthony Appiah notes, “remains one of the models of African and Afro-Caribbean literary achievement.” Critical evaluation of Senghor's poetry is inextricably linked to its basis in negritude, an ideology whose wide-reaching influence waned during the early 1960s, though reemerged in America as a progenitor of the Black Pride movement. While many commentators approve of Senghor's effort to relocate black self-identity and solidarity in traditional African culture, some regard the concept of negritude as a Western intellectual construct that misrepresents black experience and engenders its own harmful racism. In addition, Senghor's assimilation of French language and literature, as well as his Christian piety and remarriage to a white woman, have lead a minority of detractors to view his devotion to Africa with skepticism. However, as Ulli Beier asserts, “Senghor … is not merely a Frenchified African who tries to give exotic interest to his French poems; he is an African who uses the French language to express his African soul.” Viewed as a prophet of reconciliation—racial, cultural, and political—Senghor is internationally respected for his overriding humanism and important contributions to the literature and politics of modern Africa.

Principal Works

Chants d'ombre (poetry) 1945

Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malagache de langue française [editor] (poetry) 1948

Hosties noires (poetry) 1948

Chants pour Naëtt (poetry) 1949

Ethiopiques (poetry) 1956

Rapport sur la doctrine et le programme du parti [Report on the Principles and Programme of the Party; also published as African Socialism: A Report to the Constitutive Congress of the Party of African Federation] (prose) 1959

Léopold Sédar Senghor (poetry and prose) 1961

Nation et voie...

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Criticism

Newsweek (review date 27 July 1964)

Newsweek (review date 27 July 1964)

SOURCE: “In Praise of Negritude,” in Newsweek, July 27, 1964, p. 80.

[In the following review, the critic offers praise for Senghor's Selected Poems.]

When a head of state so much as writes his own speeches, it is news; but when he writes a distinguished volume of poems, it is epochal. How often has it happened since King David?

Léopold Sédar Senghor is the President of the infant African Republic of Senegal, and a prominent theoretician who has contributed to black nationalism the world over one of its key terms and central concepts—négritude. Add to all this the fact...

(The entire section is 610 words.)

Gwendolyn Brooks (review date 13 September 1964)

SOURCE: “Singing Love Songs to a Continent,” in New York Herald Tribune Book Week, September 13, 1964, p. 18.

[In the following review, Brooks offers positive assessment of Senghor's Selected Poems.]

Leopold Sedar Senghor, President of the Republic of Senegal, says that he is black. He enjoys the fact. Beyond the simple certainty, he feels, is humanity—to which blackness, brownness, whiteness, yellowness must be secondary.

His I-am-a-black-man, broadcast in a heat-suffused voice, is not a defensive claim. He invites the world to audit his negritude, because the world seems interested. But he does not whine, he does not pant for alms or pity. For...

(The entire section is 932 words.)

Robert W. July (review date 25 October 1964)

SOURCE: “Rolling Rhythms,” in New York Times Book Review, October 25, 1964, p. 54.

[In the following review, July offers praise for Senghor's Selected Poems.]

Leopold Senghor, Africa's most celebrated exponent of negritude, has nowhere stated his philosophy more eloquently than in his hundred-odd poems published at intervals since 1945. Yet these major works of the philosopher-statesman of Senegal have been relatively unknown outside the French-speaking world for lack of adequate translation. It is a pleasure, therefore, to welcome this volume which presents approximately one third of the poet's output in versions which are always careful and frequently as rich in...

(The entire section is 473 words.)

O. R. Dathorne (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “Négritude and Black Writers,” in African Literature in the Twentieth Century, University of Minnesota Press, 1974, pp. 217-48.

[In the following excerpt, Dathorne discusses Senghor's interpretation of negritude, ancestral archetypes, and the intersection of Western and African influences in his poetry.]

As has been suggested so far, négritude like Pan-Africanism was a Caribbean sickness. Only people unfamiliar with the norms of tribal life could have diagnosed in such wide conceptual terms a myth of the heart and boldly prescribed such an imaginative recovery. Senghor was Senegalese; he learned his négritude from deraciné West Indians, but to it...

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Lilyan Kesteloot (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “Léopold Senghor: Chants d'ombre and Hosties noires,” in Black Writers in French: A Literary History of Negritude, translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy, Temple University Press, 1974, pp. 194-226.

[In the following excerpt, Kesteloot provides analysis of Senghor's formative influences, African themes, and early poetic style in Chants d'ombre and Hosties noires.]

Léopold Sédar Senghor was attracted to poetry very early. As a lycée student in Dakar, he was composing romantic verse even before he developed an enthusiasm for Corneille and Racine. In Paris, Senghor discovered Péguy, then the modern European and American Negro poets. Later...

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Frederick Ivor Case (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: “Negritude and Utopianism,” in African Literature Today: A Review, No. 7, edited by Eldred Durosimi Jones, Heinemann, 1975, pp. 65-75.

[In the following excerpt, Case discusses elements of intellectual alienation and false idealization in the negritude of Senghor and Aimé Césaire. Negritude, as a product of European acculturation, Case contends, “has nothing to do with the existential reality of the mass of black men.”]

Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor are indisputably the two great leaders of the Négritude movement which was born in France in the late 1930s. It is significant that both men are now politicians of some stature and that...

(The entire section is 2887 words.)

Janis L. Pallister (essay date April 1980)

SOURCE: “Léopold Sédar Senghor: A Catholic Sensibility?,” in French Review, Vol. LIII, No. 5, April, 1980, pp. 670-9.

[In the following essay, Pallister objects to critical interpretations of Senghor's poetry that emphasize the significance of symbolist, surrealist, and Roman Catholic influences in his work.]

It is arresting to note that many recent trends in Senghorian criticism, relying on a whole new set of critical clichés, should attempt to legitimize this great and fundamentally African poet by seeking to draw him into mainstream literature from France. Perhaps this is partially the product of another earlier critical strain that reproached Senghor the...

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Dorothy S. Blair (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “The Negritude Generation” and “After Independence, the First Twenty Years: New Themes, New Names,” in Senegalese Literature: A Critical History, Twayne, 1984, pp. 45-141.

[In the following excerpt, Blair provides an overview of Senghor's literary and political career, particularly his role as a leading figure of the negritude movement and Senegalese literature.]

The literary pioneers we discussed in the preceding chapter were, without exception, the docile and grateful products of the French educational system, their “civilizing mission” and assimilation policy as applied to Senegal. Not one of these writers questioned the superiority of Western...

(The entire section is 6919 words.)

Janet G. Vaillant (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Coming of Age,” in Black, French, and African: A Life of Léopold Sédar Senghor, Harvard University Press, 1990, pp. 117-46.

[In the following excerpt, Vaillant discusses the significance of Senghor's formative years in France and his early poetry.]

On the eve of World War II, Tours was a calm little town in the Loire Valley slightly to the south and west of Paris. The people of the region were known as bon vivants, lovers of good food and wine. They were sunny, like their rich and fertile countryside. Tours is, and was when Senghor arrived, a town typical of provincial France and the French heartland. Senghor particularly enjoyed the fact that it had...

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Roger Shattuck and Samba Ka (review date 20 December 1990)

SOURCE: “Born Again African,” in New York Review of Books, December 20, 1990, pp. 11-2, 14, 16, 18, 20-1.

[In the following review, Shattuck and Ka provide an overview of Senghor's political and literary career along with commentary on Oeuvre poétique, Ce que je crois, and Janet G. Valliant's Black, French, and African: A Life of Leopold Sedar Senghor.]

1.

On July 7, 1928, the graduation ceremonies of the new French lycée in Dakar, Senegal, were dignified by the presence of the governor general of West Africa. Primarily the children of white colonial administrators and businessmen, the school's hundred-odd students included about...

(The entire section is 7201 words.)

K. Anthony Appiah (review date 5 July 1992)

SOURCE: “Poet Laureate of Africa,” in Washington Post Book World, July 5, 1992, p. 2.

[In the following review, Appiah offers praise for The Collected Poetry.]

Sometime in the late '60s, one summer holiday at home in Ghana, I took down the collected poems that Leopold Sedar Senghor had sent my parents, and began to translate them from the French. My father was an African politician and diplomat of Senghor's generation, a generation whose leaders knew each other across national and linguistic divides. Senghor had sent him this elegant red volume, “the definitive version,” he wrote in his brief introduction, “of my poems.” I started at the beginning with...

(The entire section is 950 words.)

Isaac I. Elimimian (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Negritude and African Poetry,” in Critical Theory and African Literature Today: A Review, edited by Eldred Durosimi Jones, James Currey, 1994, pp. 22-43.

[In the following excerpt, Elimimian examines Senghor's contribution to the negritude movement, particularly his evocation of deceased African ancestry, black beauty, Western exploitation, and the possibility of reconciliation in his poetry.]

The word, ‘Negritude’, which connotes ‘blackness’, has been employed in literary discourse for decades. Charles Lamb used the word in 1822 in his essay, ‘The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers’. Aimé Césaire employed it in 1938 in his poem Return to my...

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Koffi Anyinefa (essay date Summer 1996)

SOURCE: “Hello and Goodbye to Négritude: Senghor, Dadié, Dongala, and America,” translated by Grace E. An, in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 51-69.

[In the following excerpt, Anyinefa examines Senghor's contribution to negritude ideology and his portrayal of African-Americans in “To the Black American Troops,” “Elegy for Martin Luther King,” and “To New York.”]

And I told myself of … New York and San Francisco
not a bit of this earth not smudged by my fingerprint,
and my calcaneum dug into the backs of the skyscrapers and my dirt
in the glory of jewels!
Who can boast of having more than I?
Virginia, Tennessee,...

(The entire section is 5005 words.)