Black Woman Themes
The three main themes in “Black Woman” are the beauty of Blackness, the celebration of Africa and African culture, and mortality.
- The beauty of Blackness: Throughout the poem, Senghor elevates physical beauty to spiritual heights and explores the beauty of the titular Black woman from many different perspectives.
- The celebration of Africa and African culture: The poem also celebrates and reflects upon Africa and African culture, acknowledging and empowering the ways that Africans were able to use African culture to subvert European imperialism.
- Mortality: The end of the poem turns to ideas of mortality and the natural progression of life into death.
Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 583
The Beauty of Blackness
In the fourth 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.
These lines compare the Black female subject to Africa itself; they celebrate the beauty of Black women and the divine land from which they hail. The speaker celebrates the physicality of Africa, both its land and people, asserting that beauty and Africa are reciprocal and interconnected, shaping each other in all things.
Throughout the poem, the speaker conflates the physical beauty of black women and the African continent with divine, spiritual beauty. He describes the titular Black woman from various though equally celebratory perspectives, exulting in the lovely visage of her multitudinous forms: from mother to continent to lover. He writes of her “color” as “life and her “form” as “beauty,” which connects her Blackness with life and her nature as inherently beautiful; in doing so, he argues that Africa—as a Black woman and as a continent—is valuable and worthy.
Moreover, the speaker reflects on how he grew up in the "shadow" of the Black woman. However, the idea of "shadow" is used as an affirmation of the positive effects of growing up near this beauty rather than as a type of negative association that plagued his youth. The speaker’s relationship to Africa—both the continent and its personified figure—is one of worship, situating him in subservience to the divine beauty whose shadow he has forever lived beneath.
Celebration of Africa and African Culture
While the poem largely functions as a reverential response to the beauty of Blackness, it also celebrates and reflects upon African and Pan-African culture. The speaker draws upon characteristic imagery, such as the princes of Mali, Gazelles, and savannahs, as well as tom-tom drums "muttering / under the Conqueror's fingers." These images conjure a bucolic vision of African life before the introduction of colonial exploitation; in so doing, the speaker uses the sites and scenes of African culture to empower Africans, reminding readers that, although the continent may bear the burden of Western oppression, its historic roots thrum through the land, heard in the not-yet-silenced tom-tom drums and seen in the endless freedom of the savannahs. Perhaps Africa was—and, at the time of Senghor’s writing, remained—subjugated, but its cultural landscape subverts European imperialism and remains strong and ever-present. To the speaker, these tokens of African life are not only beautiful and unifying but also symbolic of perseverance and longevity in the face of injustice.
The bulk of the poem is spent in worshipful praise of African beauty and culture, yet it ends existentially, considering ideas such as mortality and the natural progression of decay that ushers life into death. The poem, then, is an effort in preservation, an archival act the speaker undertakes to affix the titular woman to “the Eternal” before she is turned "to ashes to / feed the roots of life." Like all things, she is finite and resigned to oblivion. While he records her beauty in these lines, he also acknowledges that this beauty—of women, culture, and land—must eventually and inevitably fade into the past and form the incomprehensible future. The end he foreshadows is akin to a spiritual cycle, leading one beauty into another; the poem, then, traps these mutable moments in amber, freezing this moment of beauty and fixing it in undying words before it must collapse into something new and entirely unfamiliar.