Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Léopold Sédhar Senghor was a twentieth-century Senegalese poet and politician who worked and wrote within a tumultuous and rapidly changing socio-political context. Although he grew up just outside of Dakar, the capital city of modern-day Senegal, he spent much of his early adulthood in France, where he lived for nearly two decades. Senghor’s life in France directly informed his political consciousness. As such, his unique ideology bore the stamp of Négritude—a Pan-Africanist, francophone sentiment that proposed federation for French colonies rather than independence—that he helped popularize. The Négritude movement advocated for African empowerment across spheres, intending to illustrate the value and beauty of African culture, writing, and people.
From 1960 to 1980, Senghor served as the first president of the newly formed Republic of Senegal; his two-decade-long presidency illustrated the same love and admiration for African land that he espoused in “Black Woman” decades earlier. In his 1945 poem “Black Woman,” which was written shortly after his return to Senegal after a sixteen-year interlude in France, Senghor writes reverentially of his land, people, and culture. Like his speaker, he is returning to the “Promised Land” and reuniting himself with the “shadow” presence that has followed him throughout his life.
However, Senghor couches this reunion in a metaphorical body, focusing the speaker’s exultation in the figure of a singular Black woman whose feminine beauty embodies the whole African continent. His speaker associates female beauty with the essence of the African continent, personifying the titular Black woman as an image of the land itself. She is Black and beautiful and “naked,” and she bears a multitude of varied but quintessentially feminine forms: at once, this Black woman is an earth mother, sensual lover, keeper of culture, and creative artist.
The speaker finds African values in the beauty and virtue of this divine female figure; in so doing, he juxtaposes her dual identity with the “Conqueror,” a figure representing the white colonists' attitude. By presenting Africa as a beautiful woman oppressed by a grotesquely figured male, Senghor conjures gender-based images of colonial violence, sexualizing the political-economic conquest and associating women with the colonized and men with the colonizers. “Black Woman” hinges on Africa’s femininity, which refers to its beauty and strength as well as its vulnerability.
The nuance of the Black woman’s role unfolds through Senghor’s lyrical free verse. Although he eschews traditional rhyme and metrical schemes, the repetition of the introductory stanza “naked woman, black woman” evokes a musicality that compliments the poem’s ode-like qualities. It speaks to the woman’s dueling creative qualities, as both mother and musician. The generative, fecund nature that he promotes is a characteristic not only of the fertility of the human and the land, but also extends into the celestial and, by association, spiritual realm.
A range of colors, not only black, emphasize the glory of Africa, as "gold" suggests the sun as well as the mineral wealth of West Africa, especially the Gold Coast colony (contemporary Ghana). An additional area of contrast is between the optimism of song, fertility, and hope in the "eternal" continuation against the exploitation, destruction, and despair that the land might be turned into "ashes." Senghor’s imagery and symbolism are rich, steeped in the shared luxury and despair of his cultural context.
While Senghor presents a positive view of race and land as inherently feminine in nature and, in doing so, celebrates Africa and women, he is also a man writing about women as sexual objects defined by their physicality; his “Black Woman” is an object of beauty defined by her reproductive ability, maternal instincts, and propensity for sexualized conquest. In this respect, his feminizing approach may appear less reverential and more informed by a dominating male gaze. Contemporary interpretation aside, “Black Woman” is an exultant poem written in praise of the African landscape by a rapt author enamored by his continent’s complex, well-preserved culture and despairing at its long and tragic history.