Black Woman Analysis
by Léopold Senghor

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Black Woman Analysis

Léopold Senghor’s poem celebrates the female elements of African and African-heritage people. The Senegalese poet further associates femaleness with the essence of the African continent. The personification of Africanness is established as black and beautiful, as well as “naked.” The poem locates females within a range of traditional identities, including the mother, the lover, and the creative artist. In contrast to this positive view presented by an African male, Senghor offers the Conqueror: the white colonialist’s attitude was one of domination, a desired mastery that included sexual domination through rape. In the latter regard, the poet sexualizes political-economic conquest and associates women with the colonized and men with the colonizers.

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The lyrical qualities of the poem complement the poet’s praise of the black African woman’s creative qualities, both as 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.”

In the poem’s celebratory attitude toward the continent and women, Senghor presents a positive view of race and land as associated with gender. In that he is a man writing about women, however, his approach can also be understood as promoting the dominant male gaze that objectifies women.

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Black Woman” is a short poem in free verse, with eighteen lines divided into three stanzas of five lines each and one stanza of three lines. It is written in the first person and is addressed directly to the woman of the title, the black woman who gives the poem its theme.

This was one of many poems written when Léopold Senghor was living abroad, away from his own country of Senegal. During this period, he was a student in Paris and wrote about his childhood, which he viewed as a kind of paradise. These poems abound in his memories of Africa—an Africa seen in his mind’s eye—and are an imagined return to an idealized Africa.

Having experienced a feeling of estrangement amid Western society, he set out on a poetic quest for his homeland. He looked back to the time of his childhood and to the place where he was reared. The main themes in his first collection of poetry are a longing for his homeland, a nostalgia for his childhood, and especially an affirmation of his African heritage. “Black Woman” is one of the best-known poems from this collection. When Senghor writes of Africa, it is frequently in terms of a woman, a woman who is both wife and mother; she is the “promised land” mentioned in the poem.

The first stanza gives the theme of the poem: the natural black woman whose color is life and whose form is beauty. The poet has grown up in her shadow and has felt the gentleness of her hands. Now that he is grown, he returns to find her as if he were coming upon the promised land. He views her through a mountain pass at noon in the midst of summer, and her beauty strikes him directly to the heart, like the flash of an eagle.

In the second stanza, she is seen as a lover, a woman with the flesh of ripe fruit, a woman who can transport the poet with somber ecstasies of black wine, a woman with a mouth that makes his own mouth lyric. The poet elaborates, finding her a woman who is like a limitless savanna that shudders beneath the caresses of the east wind; a woman who is like a tight, well-sculpted drum that resounds under the fingers of the conqueror; a woman whose solemn contralto voice becomes the spiritual song of the loved one.

In the third...

(The entire section is 1,525 words.)