Leopold Senghor’s poem “Black Woman” is a vibrant celebration of his native Africa. Originally titled “Femme Nue, Femme Noire” and composed in French, this poem contains an extended metaphor that represents Africa through the body of a Black woman. The Senegalese writer uses numerous poetic devices throughout the poem in order to highlight the richness of African land and culture.
Senghor employs repetition to begin each stanza—“Naked woman, black woman”—in order to refer and frequently return to the image of a Black woman in his description of Africa. By directly addressing a woman, he uses personification to portray the land as if it were a living being. Africa first appears “Dressed” in lively, colorful clothes like an African woman. Africa is a protective, maternal figure to the poet in his youth.
I grew up in your shadow. The softness of your hands
Shielded my eyes
A hint of change appears in the simile “your beauty strikes my heart like an eagle’s lightning flash.” The woman’s beauty is no longer soft and nurturing, but dazzling, powerful, and slightly aggressive.
In the second stanza, Africa becomes a sensuous woman to the grown poet. She is a
Naked woman, dark woman
Ripe fruit with firm flesh, dark raptures of black wine,
Mouth that gives music to my mouth
Senghor uses various types of imagery to appeal different senses. The tactile images of soft hands become “firm flesh.” Readers can see the “ripe fruit” and dark black wine. The gustatory delights or “raptures” emphasize the exquisite taste of fine wine. The image of the woman’s mouth creating musical inspiration for the poet’s mouth mixes visual imagery with auditory imagery. Alliteration like “fruit with firm flesh” and “mouth that gives music to my mouth” emphasizes the sensual smoothness of the Black woman (Africa).
Caesura—a pause in the middle of a verse—creates both a break and a connection between related images. For example, the line “Ripe fruit with firm flesh, dark raptures of black wine” is broken up, yet the ideas are closely linked. Within a single verse (“Savanna of clear horizons, savanna quivering to the fervent caress”), Senghor describes Africa’s physical land before personifying it as a “quivering” being. The visual imagery of vast land and horizon is juxtaposed with the tactile imagery of a shaking response to passionate fondling. The repeated line “Naked woman, dark woman” is broken in half while linking together two related ideas—and possibly the same person. Overall, these instances of caesura create a balanced rhythm, as both parts of each line are nearly symmetrical.
Additional auditory imagery includes “moaning,” “deep contralto voice,” and “spiritual song.”
Senghor also presents various allusions. He uses Biblical references like “Promised Land” in the first stanza and “the Beloved” in the second stanza. The third stanza contains allusions to resources specific to Africa:
Oil no breeze can ripple, oil soothing the thighs
Of athletes and the thighs of the princes of Mali
Gazelle with celestial limbs
Oil-rich Africa produces oil so thick that even wind cannot stir it. A different type of oil—a salve or ointment—soothes the sore thighs of athletes, recalling the incredible speed and feats of African runners. The allusion to “princes of Mali” refers to Sundiata Keita, the founder of the Mali Empire in West Africa; this empire was known for its wealth in the trafficking of riches like gold, copper, and ivory. Finally, graceful, long-limbed gazelles are found primarily in Africa.
The third stanza contains more imagery, such as “pearls are stars/Upon the night of your skin” and “reflections of red gold from your shimmering skin.” The first example shows a sharp yet beautiful visual contrast: white pearls against black skin. It also continues the earlier themes of jewelry and “celestial” wonder. The second example uses alliteration to create a sensual flow—"reflections of red” and “shimmering skin.”
Senghor closes the poem with one final personification; he will put the woman’s “passing beauty” (perhaps Africa’s changing history) on record
before jealous Fate reduces you to ashes to nourish the roots of life.
Fate is an active and destructive player who diminishes the woman’s body (and the memory of Africa’s history); nonetheless, the poet will preserve beauty of the woman’s body to create joy for future readers. Likewise, Senghor’s celebration of Africa will feed the knowledge of future generations.