Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 535
The speaker is presented as a pilgrim journeying to Africa, a sacred place that has cast a long, loving “shadow” over his life. He feels deeply connected to this unfamiliar land, describing Africa as his "Promised Land." Though the phrase may feel off-hand, he is in fact alluding to a biblical story in which Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt and towards the land promised to them by God. This biblical allusion suggests that the speaker, like the Israelites, is fleeing persecution elsewhere and seeking refuge in his own "Promised Land."
Although the speaker’s origins and life history are largely obscured by the poem’s brevity, readers understand the intense yearning that fills his days. His fixation on the continent stems from the African “shadow” that he has “grown up” within; while the term “shadow” implies an ominous darkness, in this context it is loving and maternal, feeling like gentle “hands…laid over [his] eyes.” From these descriptions, readers infer that the speaker views Africa as a mother figure and, thus, himself as the returning son, an allusion with yet more biblical implications.
In the poem, Africa is personified as a proud and beautiful "black woman." She has gentle hands, a "form which is beauty," a "solemn contralto voice," and her eyes are "neighboring suns." Her form takes on many aspects: she is at once an objectively beautiful woman, an instinctually maternal and fecund divinity, and a sensual creature. The speaker vacillates between these aspects, which swirl into an alluring portrait of idealized womanhood and upon which he locates his love and respect for the African continent.
In the sixth stanza, for example, this personified form of Africa is described in abruptly sensual language. The speaker describes "Firm-fleshed ripe fruit," a "mouth making lyrical [his] mouth," and a "savannah shuddering beneath the East Wind's / eager caresses." This potent physicality and sexually-charged language alter the speaker’s engagement with the land dramatically; where he was once a son returning home to his patient mother, he is now a man greeting his ardent lover. Like this titular woman, the continent is complex, multi-faceted, and deeply loved.
In the seventh stanza, the speaker describes the "tom-tom" drums as "muttering / under the Conqueror's fingers." The "Conqueror" is a reference to European colonizers who, by the early twentieth century, had colonized much of the African continent.
The "tom-tom" drums, symbolic of African culture, are personified as "muttering" their disapproval. The low, ongoing "muttering" of the drums could also represent (figuratively speaking) the pulse of Africa, suggesting that, although European colonizers may have conquered the land, they could never kill the culture. African culture, here represented by the "muttering" tom-toms, continues to pulse and throb, waiting for the opportunity to express itself freely and loudly once more.
In the poem's final stanza, the speaker personifies fate as "jealous," arguing that fate wishes to reduce Africa's beauty "to ashes." This is a device Senghor uses to emphasize Africa's beauty—so great that even fate is envious. The speaker also says that any ashes will "feed the roots of life," implying that even fate cannot kill Africa's beauty, which will rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes.