Black, French, and African

by Janet G. Vaillant
Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2622

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.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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 nationalists whom Vaillant has left out.) This is a major flaw because of the great influence Garveyism had on the entire African world. The Harlem Renaissance, which Vaillant correctly credits with having contributed significantly to the Negritude movement, owed much of its development to the Garvey movement, which preceded it by less than ten years. To her credit, Vaillant does discuss the influence of several authors among the black left; however, none of them was a dedicated black nationalist. Thus, the reader is left with the false impression that the black community in France and elsewhere at this time was composed of radicals, liberals, and conservatives, none of whom aspired to create black nations independent of white tutelage and control.

After discussing the origin of the Negritude movement and Senghor’s unique contribution to its development, Vaillant carries the reader through a series of experiences and events that were instrumental in shaping the evolution of Senghor’s career as a politician between the years 1939 to 1948. Lamine Gue’ ye, who replaced Blaise Diagne as Senegal’s most influential and prestigious politician and Senghor’s mentor, is given considerable attention by Vaillant as the immediate precursor to Senghor’s eventual success as a politician in the 1950’s. Vaillant describes Gue’ye as a political moderate who nurtured Senghor along very similar lines. Gueye’s assimilationist aspirations were very attractive to the then-developing Senghor; whose essays and poems of this period are perceptively analyzed by Vaillant. Indeed, Vaillant’s approach throughout the study is to show how the evolution of Senghor’s political beliefs and activity was always reflected in his literary work. What she finds is the evolution of a man who aspired to be both French and African, with an allegiance to the moderate (some would say reactionary) politics that he inherited from his predecessors and that eventually came to characterize most postindependent African states, including his own.

Vaillant’s discussion of the impact of World War II on France in general and Senglior in particular is illuminating. For approximately eighteen months, beginning in May of 1940, Senghor was interned as a French soldier in a German prisoner-of-war camp. He used this time to reflect on the many complex questions with which he and his contemporaries were faced. During this period, according to Vaillant, Senghor’s views on the need for Africans to assimilate the best traditions of European culture, without losing what is noble in their own culture, were strengthened; so too was his conviction that Senegal and other French-speaking dependencies of France should stay within the French constitutional orbit and not seek political independence and sovereignty.

After his release from prison camp and the subsequent end of World War II, Senghor immersed himself in the political and intellectual climate of postwar France. While continuing to make progress toward earning France’s highest scholarly degree, the Doctorat d’Etat, Senghor’s views crystallized still further as he reacted to the burgeoning demands for political independence in Senegal (and elsewhere in colonial Africa). As Vaillant points out, these demands were being made, in part, by young Senegalese radicals who attacked Senghor and his ideological cohorts for their willingness to work compliantly with the French colonial administration toward the decolonization of Senegal and other French-controlled territories. In this context, Vaillant does not vacillate in what is up until this point a fairly objective analysis of Senghor’s political aspirations: He is viewed as a political moderate who strongly desired that Senegal remain closely tied to France—politically, economically, and culturally.

Before discussing Senghor’s contribution to the independence struggle in Senegal and his subsequent tenure as head of state, Vaillant conducts an in-depth critical evaluation of the Negritude concept and one of its ideological by-products, African socialism. In her analysis of Negritude, Vaillant, for the first and only time in the study, departs from her role as the objectively detached historian and becomes a partisan observer. The basic fault she finds in Negritude is its tendency to attribute the cultural differences between Africans and Europeans to racial differences. For this reason she agrees with Jean-Paul Sartre, the French Marxist, who considered Negritude an “antiracist racism.” In short, they both believe that Negritude, in essence, was conceived in reaction to white racism, and, as such, created racial dichotomies that were, although different from earlier racist classifications, not firmly grounded in reality.

Vaillant does not entirely reject Negritude’s metaphysical notion that African culture is characterized by an emphasis on using emotion and intuition to understand the world and European culture by an emphasis on analytical reason. Instead, she poses an interesting challenge to this basic premise. Her dispute with Senghor on this question centers on what she feels is his failure to discern, on the one hand, the differences between cultural patterns that are distinctively European and those that are a result of modern, industrial capitalism, and, on the other hand, the differences between cultural patterns that are distinctively African and those that characterize many preindustrial societies. In essence, Vaillant believes that what Senglior’s Negritude may celebrate or deplore as being either typically African or European (for he saw good and bad in both) may, in fact, simply result from the level of technological and industrial development that has taken place in a given society.

Despite Vaillant’s very engaging and contentious treatment of the Negritude ideology, her own personal critique does not include the major problem many of Senghor’s contemporaries had with it, including some important French- speaking nationals such as Frantz Fanon of Martinique and Ahmed Sekou Toure’ of Guinea. They, along with Senghor’s opponents from English-speaking Africa, such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, reject one of Negritude’s most cherished assumptions about Africans: that they derive their knowledge of the world and live in harmony with nature through relying on their emotions, intuition, and feelings. According to this viewpoint, Africans have been and need to be just as analytical and scientific as other national groups, despite the constraints imposed by the conditions under which they have had to live. Africa’s contribution to scientific discovery is abundantly documented and needs no further validation; hence, in the view of Negritude’s African opponents, to credit this human contribution exclusively to Europe is racist. Curiously, Vaillant is completely mute on this question, which has been raised by some of Africa’s most eminent social thinkers.

Very little attention is paid to Senghor’s concept of African socialism. Viewed as an extension of Negritude, Vaillant outlines the differences between it and Marxiststyled socialism. She pulls liberally from Senghor’s writings on this subject, which argue that African socialism includes the humanism and spirituality that scientific socialism leaves out. These writings also argue that because of the absence of class cleavages in traditional African societies, African socialism has no need to base its program on class struggle. Vaillant says very little beyond this.

Vaillant concludes her study with a somewhat balanced account of Senghor’s role as Senegal’s leader during and after the struggle for political independence, and of his years in retirement. Here again, Vaillant portrays Senghor as a political moderate; she does this by examining the policies he advocated and pursued and, once again, demonstrating how they interplayed with his literary work. In general, Vaillant’s assessment of Senghor’s career as Senegal’s independence leader and president is unfavorable. In her estimation, he failed in his attempt to apply the concepts of Negritude and African socialism to Senegal. Vaillant recounts one glaring example of this in her discussion of Senghor’s failure to support his longtime friend and comrade, Mamadou Dia, whose more serious commitment to socialist policies earned for him the wrath of the Senegalese elite and led to his eventual imprisonment.

Vaillant further concludes that Senghor’s assimilationist policies vis-a-vis France contributed to the domination of French commercial interests in Senegal. Senegal’s effort at agricultural reform failed, in part, because of this condition, in addition to Islamic conservatism in the countryside. In sum, Vaillant holds Senghor partly responsible for the entrenchment of neocolonialism in Senegal. This conclusion is not novel. Senghor, along with Felix Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast, is regarded by many as one of Africa’s most conservative and compliant leaders. Vaillant’s conclusion, however, is buttressed with an impressive analysis of the specific details and conflicts that led to Senegal’s economic deterioration under Senghor.

Nevertheless, Vaillant credits Senghor with leaving Senegal a legacy of democratic institutions. And while this assessment is challenged by many, it is a fact that Senegal’s first thirty years of independence from France were devoid of the political turmoil that has strangled other states in Africa. Whether this can be attributed to Senghor is probably a matter for further debate.

The final chapter looks at Senghor as president emeritus. Vaillant briefly summarizes some of Senghor’s personal honors (such as being elected into the Academie Francaise) as well as some of his personal tragedies (such as the deaths of his two sons, one from suicide and the other from an automobile accident). She ends with a few broad generalizations and reflections on the significance of Senghor’s life, which she feels was characterized by great ambition. Vaillant’s study is equally ambitious, as it is comprehensive, balanced, and very well written.

Sources for Further Study

Atlanta Journal Constitution. August 12, 1990, p. N8.

Chicago Tribune. September 19, 1990, V, p.3.

Kirkus Reviews. LVIII, July 1, 1990, p.926.

Library Journal. CXV, July 10, 1990, p.26.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVII, December20, 1990, p. 11.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, October 21, 1990, p.26.

San Francisco Chronicle. October 21, 1990, p. REV8.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 14, 1990, p.966.

The Village Voice. XXXV, October 9, 1990, p. S6.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, November 11, 1990, p.1.

Wilson Library Bulletin. LXV, November, 1990, p.144.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access