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,...

(The entire section is 542 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem is a hymn of praise to the black woman—not only as an individual, but also as a symbol of African women and as a representative of her race. The first two lines serve as a statement of the poem’s theme: the beauty of the natural black woman, who though naked, is “clothed” in her color, which is life. There is also the poet’s response to this beauty, as the black woman is perceived in both sensory and emotional ways. The poet has experienced the touch of her hand, and he is struck to the heart by her beauty.

Even though the musical language and the rhythm of the original poem may lose something in translation—and many of Senghor’s poems were written to be accompanied by African musical instruments—one nevertheless perceives the impact of this poem through the imagery, metaphor, and personification that the poet employs.

In an enumerative style, similar to that of a litany, Senghor presents a series of images that are, in effect, the attributes of the black woman. He thus seems to summarize her qualities, beginning with a description of the natural woman, then—elaborating metaphorically—he describes her as the promised land, a plain that rustles, and the nocturnal sky. The poet thereby sees her not only in terms of a person, but in terms of the earth itself, and even the universe.

There are other metaphors: In the second stanza—more erotic than the first—the black woman is seen in terms of ripe fruit, black wine, a savanna that shudders beneath the “caresses” of the east wind, and an object—a sculpted drum—that responds to the touch. Even her voice is the song of the loved one. In the third stanza, the oil on her skin is seen by the poet...

(The entire section is 700 words.)