A people’s search for ethnic identification and solidarity, especially under conditions of colonial domination, is fraught with complexities, inconsistencies, and frustrations. And as Janet G. Vaillant cogently describes in Black, French, and African: A Life of Leopold Sedar Senghor, no one’s personal life experience has embodied this search any better than that of Leopold Senglior. This historical biography of one of Africa’s best-known leaders is driven by the following idea: that Senghor’s struggle to come to terms with his ethnic identity was shaped by, and eventually influenced, the relationship that evolved between Senegal and France during the first three quarters of the twentieth century. Throughout the book, Vaillant uncovers the interplay between African and French cultures that confronted Senghor during each phase of his life as he struggled to come to grips with who he was, African or French. Vaillant’s historical account of Senghor’s efforts demonstrates that his resolution of this conflict played a major role in the development of the Negritude movement and in the manner in which he led Senegal during its first twenty years of postcolonial independence.
Senghor’s childhood and adolescent years in Senegal are brilliantly chronicled by Vaillant. With the use of information gathered primarily from interviews with Senghor’s closest relatives and friends, Vaillant sketches the most important events, circumstances, and experiences that helped to shape his early years growing up in rural Africa. The most important of these included his being trained as a Catholic (although it was a Catholicism colored by certain traditional African beliefs); his being inculcated at missionary schools with the racist French value system which viewed Africans as significantly inferior to Europeans; his being both frustrated and supported in his educational and religious pursuits by French educators and clergy, including being denied the opportunity to become a priest; the inspiration provided by his sister-in-law, Helene Senghor; who recognized Senghor’s great intellectual and creative potential and encouraged him to realize it despite the obstacles he faced; and the reluctant willingness of his father, Diogoye Senghor, to let him travel to Paris to fulfill his educational aspirations.
Vaillant does a fairly good job in contextualizing this period of Senghor’s life. She provides an adequate outline of the communal nature of African village life and of the political and economic structures of French colonial domination that impacted the lives of every Senegalese in the first quarter of the twentieth century. She vacillates, however, in her analytical treatment of French colonialism—in some instances she is clearly critical of French policies in Senegal, and in others, for no apparent reason, she is not. This may result from the fact that this part of her account is poorly referenced, with an excessive reliance on G. Wesley Johnson’s The Emergence of Modern African Politics in Senegal (1967) for her data.
The strongest part of Vaillant’s entire study lies in her very careful discussion of the major factors that shaped Senghor’s young adult years in Paris between 1928 and 1939. Here the reader is inundated with the complexity of ideas and experiences that Senghor and some of his black colleagues digested and eventually synthesized into their own unique way of viewing themselves, their people, and European civilization. This view, which they termed Negritude, became the ideological framework upon which Senghor based his literary work and political activity.
Vaillant is right on target when she identifies the frustrations experienced by black French-speaking subjects in their illusory attempt to assimilate as the primary source of the Negritude movement. The contradiction between being encouraged to disown their own heritage and culture while at the same time being rejected in their assimilationist attempt to be French created the necessary tension and anxiety that fertilized the movement. As Vaillant observes, despite their eventual disenchantment with European civilization, Senghor and his colleagues in the Negritude movement borrowed heavily from European perceptions of Africa and its people. The views about Africa found in the writings of Maurice Delafosse, Leo Frobenius, and Robert Delavignette, three ethnographers, and in the literary works of Arthur Rimbaud and Maurice Barres were very influential in the development of Senghor’s ideas about Africa as reflected in his poetry and essays. These and a few other French intellectuals and artists represented a small minority of the European intelligentsia whose perceptions of Africa, although idealistic and quixotic, were positive and in sharp contrast to Europe’s dominant view of Africa.
Furthermore, Vaillant does not neglect to uncover the other major influence in the development of the Negritude movement: the creative work of important African-American figures in the Harlem Renaissance movement who, during the 1930’s, professed an intense pride in their black heritage. W. E. B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar; and many others were producing poetry, essays, short stories, and novels that pricked the racial consciousness of the French-speaking black intelligentsia in Paris. Vaillant argues convincingly that, combined with similar currents from the Caribbean, personified in men like Rene’ Maran and Aime’ Cesaire (the latter became one of Senghor’s closest friends), the Negritude movement benefited significantly from the black diaspora’s intellectual and artistic rejection of notions of white supremacy and black inferiority.
Where Vaillant falls short in this part of the book is in her treatment of the community of black nationalists—which, by all accounts, was a very powerful and influential force at this time. This segment of the African world receives only marginal consideration in her account. Pan-Africanists such as Marcus Garvey, for example, are completely ignored, so much so that there is not even a reference for him in Vaillant’s very extensive index. (The work of Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist of the early twentieth century, is referenced in the index and discussed extensively in the text as being a major contribution to the development of Negritude, despite the fact that Durkheim was nowhere near as influential in this context as were Garvey and other black...
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