Over the course of his long career as a writer, philosopher, and statesman, the Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor has inspired countless young writers throughout the French-speaking world. Along with Aimé Cesaire and Léon Damas, he founded the négritude movement, which argued that the black people of colonial Africa and the Caribbean should take pride in their African roots and find in their native traditions an inspiration for a new literature and a new way of life. Senghor went on to put these ideas into practice in his wide field of activity. He wrote voluminously as a poet and as a philosopher of the new culture and politics of African independence from colonial rule. In the political arena, he was one of the major architects of independence for his own country, Senegal, and for French West Africa more generally. He served as president of Senegal for two decades.
"Prayer to the Masks" is typical of Senghor's writing throughout his long career, although it comes from his first collection, Songs of the Shadow, published in 1945. It exhibits clearly the features that would characterize his poetic writing: the use of African themes and settings, the highly rhythmic long lines reminiscent of the Bible and Walt Whitman, the evocations of music and song, and the contrast of the vitality of a mythic (and future) Africa with the present of both Europe and Africa under colonialism. It is the poem of a young man seeking to connect with a past he senses will give him inspiration to struggle past the damaged life of the present to forge a better future for himself and his people.