Analysis

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Last Updated on August 30, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 283

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

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 542

“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 stanza, she is almost a goddess, so perfect that even her skin is smooth as the oiled skin of an athlete or a prince. She is like a graceful gazelle with celestial adornments. Pearls become stars on the darkness of her skin. The reflections of the setting sun on her glistening skin are delights on which the mind can exercise itself. The poet’s anguish is lightened by the sunlike glance from her eyes, when he is in the shadow of her hair.

In the fourth and last stanza, the poet—more philosophical—informs the black woman that he is celebrating in verse her beauty, which is passing, and her form, which he establishes eternally in his poetry, before fate can turn her to ashes in order to nourish the roots of life.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 700

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 as the oil on the limbs of an athlete or on those of the princes of Mali. She is now more of a goddess, a graceful but celestial gazelle, perhaps a totem for her people.

Associating her with eternity, the poet uses terms dealing with things eternal: earth, wind, summer, noon, stars, night, suns. The poet thus sees the woman not only in terms of a person, not only in terms of the earth, but also in a more cosmic sense. The poet also employs words dealing with color, many of which are synonymous with black—shadow, dark, and somber. These words that are images of darkness are contrasted with words that are images of light: brighten, gold, stars, and suns.

The poet also uses the device of inversion. The first line of the first stanza—“naked woman, black woman”—becomes “naked woman, dark woman” in the second stanza, and these words are inverted in the first lines of the last two stanzas. Inversion is again used, as the repetition of the theme in the final stanza uses the words of the first stanza—life, form, and beauty—but in inverted order.

Use of punctuation is sparse, the ends of the lines serving as the ends of the word groups. A change of tense occurs only in the third line of the first stanza, where the poet uses the past tense in order to recall the comfort that black womankind has given him. He immediately resumes the present tense for the rest of the poem. This effect helps to connect the past with the present. He had grown up under the black woman’s shadow; now he seeks solace again in the shadow of her hair.

Personification is another device, as the poet writes in the fourth stanza of Fate, which is jealous and capable of reducing one to ashes. It is in this stanza that he reveals his vocation of poet, as he informs the black woman that he is celebrating her beauty and her form in poetry, before she returns to ashes in order to nourish the roots of life. Thus the poet has moved, by means of description, metaphor, and personification, from praise of the black woman herself to an affirmation of the continuation of life. He has saved the best for last as he ends on a note of optimism.

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