What is the plot of "Prayer to Masks"?
There isn't really a "plot" as such to this poem, as a plot implies a beginning, middle and end, with everything else a story entails. Rather, the poem describes a moment in time—an African man visiting the masks that represent the spirits of his ancestors, in a sacred place "that is closed to any feminine laughter, to any mortal smile." The theme of the poem is that the traditions and spiritualism of pre-colonial Africa are not only still alive in a world where Africa has been ravaged by conquest, the Africans viewed as "cotton heads, and coffee men, and oily men," but also that modern Africans must take strength from them to regain their dignity and independence.
The speaker of the poem believes he is created in the image of his ancestors—"you have composed this image, this my face"—and he now calls upon the ancestors in the poem to take advantage of this moment when colonialism is slowly dying, along with "the Africa of despotism." Now is the time, he says, for the ancestors to return to the children "who sacrifice their lives like the poor man his last garment" and to "teach rhythm to the world that has died of machines and cannons." It is racial memory, and the ancient history of the African people, the speaker suggests, that will help the people of colonized Africa come back to life again, as the ancestors "return the memory of life to men with a torn hope." The African people, far from what Europeans believe, are "the men of the dance," whose power comes from their rhythmic evocations of their ancestors.
The poem is about African people, and indeed the particular African tribe described, but it can be read as a condemnation of colonialism everywhere. It is popular in Australia, as it pertains equally well to the aboriginal peoples of Australasia.
"Prayer to Masks" is a poem by Leopold Sedhar Senghor. Senghor is from Sengal, Africa and was his country's president for 20 years.
Senghor begins by addressing black, red, and white masks of his ancestors. They are rectangular and appear to be made of paper. He addresses them with reverence and silence, reminding the masks of their power to guard, to purify, and to create.
In line 12 of the poem there is a shift from a reverent and quiet address to a powerful request. The author demands the masks to listen and notice that things in Africa are changing. The author reminds the masks of the history of Africa and calls for help in the rebirth of the nation.
Senghor calls upon the power of the masks and asks them to teach rhythm to the world, to bring back cries of joy and memories of life.
The poem ends with Senghor reminding the masks of the attitude of the world toward the Sengalese:
They call us cotton heads, and coffee men, and oily men.
They call us men of death.
The last two lines are a strong reminder that the men of Sengal become powerful when they return to their roots, when they dance and beat the earth with their feet.
But we are the men of the dance whose feet only gain
power when they beat the hard soil.