Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Léopold Senghor’s 1945 poem “Black Woman” celebrates Africa, lauding it as a beautiful and proud continent with a rich cultural heritage. He communicates the beauty of the African continent through personification, describing it as a “Naked woman, black woman” with a "solemn contralto voice" and "watered skin." By using feminine beauty as the locus through which he praises Africa, Senghor creates a metaphorical physicality that is much easier for readers to visualize and understand; a beautiful woman is simpler to imagine than a beautiful land that readers may not have ever seen.
The line "Naked woman, black woman," or its oft-repeated variant, "Naked woman, dark woman," is uttered frequently throughout the poem, firstly, to emphasize that this is a proud continent, which is why it stands naked and unashamed, and secondly, to emphasize that its Blackness is the source of its pride.
The personification of Africa continues later in the poem when the speaker describes the "stars on the night of your skin" as "pearls." Pearls connote preciousness and beauty, and the metaphorical image of the stars as pearls adorning the skin of the personified Africa also suggests how vast Africa's beauty is. This vision of Black skin as the night sky upon which sit delicate stars furthers the image of feminine beauty and extends beyond mundane beauty; the titular Black woman becomes ethereal and celestial: she is of the stars, not of the earth.
In the third stanza, the speaker writes:
I come upon you, my Promised Land,
and your beauty strikes me to the heart,
like the flash of an eagle.
In this quotation, the speaker calls Africa a "Promised Land," alluding to a biblical story in which God promises Abraham that the Israelites would inherit a homeland, a land promised to them by the divine. Conjuring this story implies the author’s love for the land and emphasizes how sacred it feels to him. Moreover, the word "heart" is repeated three times in this stanza: he returns at “the heart of summer, at the heart of noon,” and the sight “strikes [him] to the heart.”
This repetition reaffirms the speaker’s deep emotional connection to and immense love for Africa. The final line hinges on a simile that compares Africa’s striking beauty to “the flash of an eagle,” which suggests that the beauty is majestic like "an eagle" but also so powerful as to be disorientating like a sudden "flash" of light.
At the end of the poem, the speaker declares that he will celebrate the beauty of Africa while he can, fixing it in words to the “Eternal,” where it will be preserved forever. He does so for fear of the inevitable, for when "jealous fate" turns Africa’s glory "to ashes to / feed the roots of life." There is a juxtaposition in this quotation between the "ashes" on the one hand, which imply death and decay, and "the roots of life" on the other, which suggest new life.
This seems a conspicuously ambivalent end to the poem, which up to this point is almost entirely centered on unadulterated celebration and positivity. Perhaps Senghor chose to end the poem in this way to suggest that even when death visits Africa, it will have the power to create new life again.