Black Woman Summary
“Black Woman” is a poem first published in 1945 and written by Léopold Senghor. The poem is written from the first-person perspective and in free verse, meaning that it has no set rhyme scheme.
- In the poem, Senghor personifies Africa as a beautiful woman, who is sometimes a maternal figure and sometimes a lover.
- In the final stanza of the poem, the destruction of Africa’s beauty is foreshadowed, and the speaker imagines that “jealous fate” will turn the beauty “to ashes.”
Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 919
"Black Woman" is a poem first published in 1945 and written by Léopold Sédhar Senghor. Senghor was a leading figure of the Negritude movement, an anti-colonial organization that originated in France and set out to celebrate and reclaim African identity and culture. In the poem, Senghor personifies Africa as a beautiful woman; his vision of her is multi-faceted, imagining her as maternal, earthly, divine, and sensual all at once. The poem is written from the first-person perspective and in free verse—meaning that it has no set rhyme scheme.
The first stanza comprises just a single line, "Naked woman, black woman." This line—or a slight variant of it—is repeated often throughout the poem. The woman embodies herself but is also a symbolic personification of the African continent: both are beautiful in their blackness, and her nudity indicates a proud and shameless knowledge of this beauty.
The "life" of Africa is blackness, and its "form" is "beauty." This assertion in the second stanza ties beauty with blackness, synonymizing the two concepts and inextricably linking them to the continent as a whole as well as those who inhabit it. This linkage is repeated for emphasis throughout the poem, reaffirming the speaker’s correlation of "beauty" as the necessary output of blackness and African life.
In the third stanza, the speaker describes his emotional tie to this woman and the land she represents: he has "grown up" in the "shadow" of Africa and remembers her gentle hands "laid over (his) eyes." Here, the personification of Africa takes on a maternal cast, a mothering figure who has reared the speaker, her son.
Moving into the fourth stanza, the speaker transitions from memory to present experience, describing his journey to Africa. He stands "high up on the sun-baked pass, at the heart of summer, at the heart of noon." Before him, is his "Promised Land," the land in whose "shadow" he has forever lived. Seeing Africa close up, he is struck by its beauty, which wrenches his heart “like the flash of an eagle.”
The single-line fifth stanza, "Naked woman, dark woman," is a variation of the poem's opening line. The repetition emphasizes the two key characteristics of Africa: her nakedness and her darkness.
In the sixth stanza, the speaker describes Africa much as one might describe a lover. He describes her "mouth making lyrical [his] mouth," suggesting two lovers kissing and characterizes the African savannah as "shuddering beneath the East Wind's / eager caresses." The words "shuddering" and "caresses" conjure sexual undertones. Here, Senghor suggests that African culture, symbolized by the "tom-tom" drums, has endured.
With the focus turned to endurance, Senghor uses the seventh stanza to transition toward colonial commentary, writing of the "Conqueror's fingers." The reference here is to the European colonizers who forcibly ruled much of Africa in the nineteenth century. Specifically, Senghor—who was born in Senegal—is likely referencing the French colonialism that dramatically affected his home country.
The speaker returns to the musical theme in the eighth stanza, where Africa's voice is described as a "solemn contralto" and "the spiritual song of the Beloved." Presumably, Africa's song is solemn because of the European colonizers; yet even through this oppression, Africa's maternal instincts endure, and she sings for her "Beloved" Africans who have been oppressed or uprooted.
Following these references to European colonization, there is yet another variation of the line that began the poem: "Naked woman, dark woman." The repetition of this line at this point in the poem implies that Africa will endure through and beyond even the toughest of times.
In the tenth stanza, the speaker again returns to the...
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beauty of Africa, encapsulated in the final words of the stanza, "pearls are stars on the / night of your skin." Africa here is presented as a beautiful woman adorned with precious and beautiful "pearls." The fact that the pearls are described metaphorically as "stars" suggests that Africa's beauty is heavenly, enduring, and vast. Moreover, the comparison of Black skin to night evokes a sense of infinite omnipresence, calling Black beauty a facet of existence as irrefutable and lovely as the night sky.
Africa's beauty is further described in stanza eleven, as "the glinting of red / gold against your skin." The color imagery here—of "red" and "gold" respectively—connotes heat, passion, elegance, and wealth. It conjures rich images of luxury and comfort, calling for a vision of African beauty that lingers in modern trappings.
In stanza twelve, the speaker describes how he is impacted by Africa's beauty. He says that his cares are "lightened by the neighboring suns of your eyes." The imagery of the suns here connotes the intensity and vitality of Africa's beauty. The vision of African glory tempers his fears, as if his worries are inexplicably tied to the continent’s nature, and by merely gazing upon its glory, he is healed.
In the thirteenth and penultimate stanza, the speaker declares that he shall continue to sing of and celebrate Africa's beauty but ominously declares his fear that her beauty may one day pass. However, he hopes that, through his singing, he can make Africa's beauty "Eternal."
In the final stanza of the poem, the speaker foreshadows the desecration of Africa’s beauty, imagining that "jealous fate" will turn it "to ashes." Perhaps the speaker, in the concluding stanzas of the poem, imagines this fate because he fears Africa’s beauty is too intense and too precious not to be ravaged and exploited once more by the aforementioned "Conqueror's fingers."