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Léopold Sédar Senghor 1906-

(Also has written under pseudonyms Silmang Diamano and Patrice Maguilene Kaymor) Senegalese poet, essayist, nonfiction writer, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Senghor's career through 1996. See also Leopold Sedar Senghor Poetry Criticism.

One of the preeminent African intellectuals of the twentieth century, Senegalese poet and statesman Léopold Sédar Senghor is hailed as a powerful voice of postwar black cultural pride and self-determination. A leading proponent of negritude, a literary movement based on the repudiation of Western imperialism and the reclamation of Pan-African heritage, Senghor was instrumental in the cultivation of postcolonial aesthetics and black racial consciousness. His acclaimed verse in Chants d'ombre (1945), Hosties noires (1948), Ethiopiques (1956), and Nocturnes (1962) celebrates the cultural legacy of Africa while attempting to reconcile his affinity for European civilization with the devastating effects of its colonial policies. The recipient of numerous international honors and the first black person to be elected to the prestigious French Academy, Senghor was the first president of modern Senegal, a political position he served with distinction from 1960 to 1980.

Biographical Information

Born in Joal, a predominantly Muslim district near the port city of Dakar in French West Africa, Senghor was one of two dozen children belonging to his father, a wealthy peanut farmer and exporter. Senghor was raised Roman Catholic by his mother, one of his father's several wives, and received his early education at mission schools. In 1922 he began studies at a junior seminary in Dakar where he studied Greek and Latin classics for four years. After his rejection as a candidate for the priesthood, he enrolled at the Lycée of Dakar where he won recognition as a brilliant student and graduated in 1928 with high honors and a scholarship to study in France. Though his traditional French education encouraged him to abandon his native roots, Senghor's exposure to the indigenous culture of his Serer ethnic ancestors exerted a lasting impression upon him during his formative years. While in Paris, Senghor came under the literary influence of the French symbolists, poets Paul Claudel and St. John Perse, and surrealist André Breton. He also encountered West Indian students Aimé Césaire and Léon Damas who introduced him to the works of W. E. B. DuBois and Harlem Renaissance writers Claude McKay, Countee McCullen, and Langston Hughes. In 1933 Senghor became the first African to graduate from the Sorbonne with the agrégé de grammaire, the highest distinction of the French educational system. The next year Senghor, along with Césaire and Damas, co-founded L'étudiant noir, a journal devoted to black francophone literature and the elaboration of negritude, a term coined by Césaire. Upon the outbreak of World War II Senghor was called into service in the French Colonial Infantry. He was captured the next year during the German occupation of France and spent the next two years in a Nazi prison camp; he was subsequently awarded several military honors. After his release in 1942, he returned to teaching at the Lycée Marcelin Berthelot near Paris, participated in the French Resistance, and became increasingly active in politics.

The publication of Chants d'ombre in 1945 established him as a prominent spokesperson of negritude. Two years later he co-founded the literary journal Présence africaine with Alioune Diop. In 1946 Senghor married Ginette Eboue, the daughter of a Guyanese administrator; they divorced in 1956 and Senghor married Colette Hubert the next year. Senghor was elected as a delegate to the French National Assembly in 1946, founded the socialist party Bloc Démocratique Sénégalais in 1948, and held a succession of political posts in the French and Senegalese government until 1958. He presided over the legislative body of the Mali Federation, a Senegal-Sudan alliance that declared independence from France in 1959. When Senegal withdrew from the federation the next year, Senghor was elected as the first president of the newly established Republic of Senegal. Despite several attempted coups and civil unrest in Senegal during the late 1960s, Senghor was reelected in 1968 and 1973. During his two decades as president, he worked to stabilize Senegalese national politics, enact economic reforms, and establish a democratic socialist government. He sponsored the First World Festival of Negro Arts in 1966 and headed the formation of the West African Economic Community in 1974. Senghor resigned from office in 1980, becoming the first postcolonial African head of state to peacefully transfer power to a successor. Senghor has received numerous honorary degrees and in 1983 was named one of the forty “immortals” of the Académie Française.

Major Works

As the leading theoretician of negritude, Senghor's poetry and prose is in large part an embodiment of the movement's evolving ideology—artistic, political, social, and economic—during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Rejecting the notion of European supremacy and the forced assimilation of Western culture among colonized Africans, Senghor and other negritude writers, mainly French-speaking African and Caribbean writers, sought to inspire renewed pride in the rich history and cultural tradition of Africa. Senghor's first poetry collection, Chants d'ombre (variously translated as “Songs of Shadow,” “Shadow Songs,” or “Songs of Darkness”), expresses his feelings of exile, cultural estrangement, aversion to the bondage of colonialism, and nostalgia for the African paradise of his childhood and ancestors. Though stylistically influenced by contemporary French poetry and the irrational imagery of surrealism, Senghor's trademark verse merges European forms and allusions with the language and spiritual motifs of African folk song. The controlled, musical rhythms and long, annunciatory lines of his poems, often prefaced with instructions for accompanying instruments, evoke the sounds and atmosphere of his native land and people. Chants d'ombre contains several of his best-known poems, including “Nuit de Sine” (“Night of Sine”), “Neige sur Paris” (“Snow Upon Paris”), “Masque négre” (“Black Masks”), and “Femme noir” (“Black Woman”), an exuberant paean to the beauty of African womanhood.

The poems of Hosties noires (“Black Sacrifice”), many of which were composed during his wartime captivity, signal Senghor's growing sense of purpose and racial identity. Several of these, such as “Aux soldats Negro-Americains” (“To the American Negro Soldiers”) and “Désespoir d'un volontaire libre” (“Despair of a Free Volunteer”) extol the dignity of the African-American, West Indian, and Senegalese soldiers he befriended during the war. These poems also display Senghor's increasingly strident attacks on French colonialism and racial exploitation. In “Prière de paix” (“Prayer for Peace”), for example, he presents a litany of African degradation at the hands of unscrupulous and hypocritical Europeans, thinly tempered with a plea for divine forgiveness. Senghor also served as editor of Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malagache de langue française (1948), a highly influential anthology of black francophone writers from Africa and the Caribbean. This volume, with its now famous introductory essay “Orphée noir” (“Black Orpheus”) by existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, became a defining work of the negritude movement. Senghor's third volume of poetry, Chants pour Naëtt (1949), contains a series of love lyrics dedicated to his first wife. Here, as in other poems by Senghor, the female subject of the poet's affection serves as a metaphor for Mother Africa.

The poems of Ethiopiques, written during his early political involvement, evince Senghor's abiding desire to bridge opposing aspects of European and African culture. In the long poem “Chaka,” an adaptation of Thomas Mofolo's 1926 historical novel about a ruthless nineteenth-century Zulu chieftain, Senghor reflects upon the burdens of leadership, the necessity of sacrifice in the name of African unity, and his own persona as a “poet-politician.” In “New York” Senghor calls for an end to the city's racial division and acceptance of African-American culture as a regenerative force. Senghor's conciliatory sentiments are also evident in “Epîtres à la Princesse” (“Letters to a Princess”), a sequence of poems describing an African man's romantic attachment to a European princess, representing an allegorical union between North and South that mirrors Senghor's marriage to second wife Colette, a white Frenchwoman. Nocturnes, published a year after Senghor was elected president of Senegal, contains a revision of Chants pour Naëtt, retitled Chants pour Signare, and a series of elegies that explore the nature of poetry and the creative process. Senghor's subsequent volumes of poetry include: Lettres d'hivernage (1973); Elégies majeures (1979), which contains “Elégie des Alizés” (“Elegy of the Trade Winds”) and personal tributes to George Pompidou and Martin Luther King; and Oeuvres poétique (1991; The Collected Poetry), the definitive edition of Senghor's poetry. Senghor has also produced a large body of commentary on literary, political, and social subjects, including the essay collection Ce que je crois (1988) and three volumes under the heading Liberté—Nation et voie africaine du socialisme (1961; On African Socialism), Negritude et humanisme (1964; Negritude and Humanism), and Négritude et civilisation de l'universel (1977).

Critical Reception

Senghor is widely acclaimed as a poet of remarkable intelligence, versatility, and compassion. Critics consistently praise his ability to synthesize elements of Western and African experience and to evoke universality in the archetypal imagery of his verse, exemplified by “Black Woman,” considered one of his finest early poems. His several major works from the 1940s and 1950s—Chants d'ombre, Hosties noires, Chants pour Naëtt, and Ethiopiques—are generally regarded as his most significant. He is also highly esteemed for his important work as editor of Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malagache de langue française, which, as K. Anthony Appiah notes, “remains one of the models of African and Afro-Caribbean literary achievement.” Critical evaluation of Senghor's poetry is inextricably linked to its basis in negritude, an ideology whose wide-reaching influence waned during the early 1960s, though reemerged in America as a progenitor of the Black Pride movement. While many commentators approve of Senghor's effort to relocate black self-identity and solidarity in traditional African culture, some regard the concept of negritude as a Western intellectual construct that misrepresents black experience and engenders its own harmful racism. In addition, Senghor's assimilation of French language and literature, as well as his Christian piety and remarriage to a white woman, have lead a minority of detractors to view his devotion to Africa with skepticism. However, as Ulli Beier asserts, “Senghor … is not merely a Frenchified African who tries to give exotic interest to his French poems; he is an African who uses the French language to express his African soul.” Viewed as a prophet of reconciliation—racial, cultural, and political—Senghor is internationally respected for his overriding humanism and important contributions to the literature and politics of modern Africa.

Principal Works

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Chants d'ombre (poetry) 1945

Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malagache de langue française [editor] (poetry) 1948

Hosties noires (poetry) 1948

Chants pour Naëtt (poetry) 1949

Ethiopiques (poetry) 1956

Rapport sur la doctrine et le programme du parti [Report on the Principles and Programme of the Party; also published as African Socialism: A Report to the Constitutive Congress of the Party of African Federation] (prose) 1959

Léopold Sédar Senghor (poetry and prose) 1961

Nation et voie africaine du socialisme [also published as Liberté II: Nation et voie africaine du socialisme, 1971; translated as Nationhood and the African Road to Socialism and On African Socialism] (prose) 1961

Nocturnes (poetry) 1962

Liberté I: Négritude et humanisme [Freedom I: Negritude and Humanism] (prose) 1964

Poèmes (poetry) 1964

Selected Poems (poetry) 1964

Prose and Poetry (prose and poetry) 1965

Elégie des Alizés [illustrated by Marc Chagall] (poetry) 1969

Lettres d'hivernage [illustrated by Marc Chagall] (poetry) 1973

Selected Poems/Poesies choises (poetry) 1976

Liberté III: Négritude et civilisation de l'universel (prose) 1977

Selected Poems of Léopold Sédar Senghor (poetry) 1977

Elégies majeures (poetry) 1979

Ce que je crois: Négritude, Francité et la civilisation de l'universel (essays) 1988

Oeuvre poétique [The Collected Poetry] (poetry) 1991

Newsweek (review date 27 July 1964)

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Newsweek (review date 27 July 1964)

SOURCE: “In Praise of Negritude,” in Newsweek, July 27, 1964, p. 80.

[In the following review, the critic offers praise for Senghor's Selected Poems.]

When a head of state so much as writes his own speeches, it is news; but when he writes a distinguished volume of poems, it is epochal. How often has it happened since King David?

Léopold Sédar Senghor is the President of the infant African Republic of Senegal, and a prominent theoretician who has contributed to black nationalism the world over one of its key terms and central concepts—négritude. Add to all this the fact that he is Africa's principal poet, and an important contemporary poet by any measure, and it is clear that the 58-year-old Senghor is perhaps the closest figure today to the Platonic ideal of the philosopher-king, the political leader who is also a thinker and artist. He is a figure unique in our time: and the American publication of his Selected Poems, translated from the original French, is a major event.

Like Walt Whitman, Senghor taps private sources deep within himself to discover in his experience the consciousness of his people and the drama of his continent. Blackness—“Negroness,” négritude—pervades his poems like ancestral spirits, but it is experienced, not as a stigma or predicament, but as a benefaction and sign of grace. Conquest over despair, acceptance, and pride drive through the poems like a strong river, unifying them by its powerful currents.

Senghor's dialogue with France is a particular version of the black-white encounter. In the earlier poems, the poet feels himself exiled by his blackness, and returns home “seeking to forget Europe in the pastoral heart of Sine.” Lonely, despised in Europe, he returns to his native village to “breathe the smell of our Dead, gather and speak out again their living voice, learn to / Live before I go down, deeper than diver, into the high profundities of sleep.”

In a series of poems written in the '40s, Senghor conquers his “store of hatred against the diplomats who flash their long teeth / And tomorrow will barter black flesh.” In the “Prayer for Peace” he finds that he is able to “pray especially for France,” though the white oppressor “has stolen my children like a brigand … to fatten her cornfields and cottonfields, for the sweat of the Negro is dung.”

The victory is achieved most notably in the brilliantly colored, chanting poems from the more recent volumes, Éthiopiques (1956) and Nocturnes (1961). In “New York,” a rhapsodic Whitmanesque poem driven by surging, powerfully cadenced lines, he sings the fusion of black and white—the ultimate fulfillment affected by the reconciliation of opposites: “… let the black blood flow into your blood / Cleaning the rust from your steel articulations, like an oil of life / … See, the ancient times come again, unity is rediscovered the reconciliation of the Lion the Bull and the Tree …” The poem ends on a note of consummation and confidence, the voice of the black poet in a black society deeply in possession of himself: “It is enough to open your eyes to the April rainbow / And the ears, above all the ears to God who with a burst of saxophone laughter created the heavens and the earth in six days. / And on the seventh day, he slept his great Negro sleep.”

The final line of the final poem (“Elegy of the Waters”) falls from a crescendo of almost Biblical cadences to a calm climax which may stand as the motto-line for all of Senghor's poems: “And life is born again colour of whatever is.” We may all refresh ourselves by those life-giving waters.

Gwendolyn Brooks (review date 13 September 1964)

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SOURCE: “Singing Love Songs to a Continent,” in New York Herald Tribune Book Week, September 13, 1964, p. 18.

[In the following review, Brooks offers positive assessment of Senghor's Selected Poems.]

Leopold Sedar Senghor, President of the Republic of Senegal, says that he is black. He enjoys the fact. Beyond the simple certainty, he feels, is humanity—to which blackness, brownness, whiteness, yellowness must be secondary.

His I-am-a-black-man, broadcast in a heat-suffused voice, is not a defensive claim. He invites the world to audit his negritude, because the world seems interested. But he does not whine, he does not pant for alms or pity. For what is there, he would ask, in or under his skin that requires these nuisances? He does regret the chasms between man and man and he does rather believe that creative and public exchange is going to be possible.

As blazing company for this “blackness” urgency, Senghor has an assimilated respect for his art. He was happy to discover that he could sing. He was happy to discover himself in possession of a voice as remarkable for tenor flight as for baritone delve. He did not, however, let it go at that. He worked for technical subtlety. He achieved a language that is virile and beautiful; various, too, in spite of its firm devotion to Whitmanesque, abandon and straddle-stance. (Many of the verses are loved lassoes, managed, however, by a resourceful hand.) “Biblical” lifts and falls Senghor's music must have had in its infancy. But it is chiefly exquisite self-laceration that will produce the deceptive ease of these lines from “Chaka”:

A cackling farmyard, millet-caters in
a muffled cage.
Yes a hundred glittering regiments, plush velvet
silken plumes, gleaming with grease like red copper.
I have set the axe to the dead wood, lit the
fire in the sterile bush
Like any careful farmer. When the rains came
and the time for sowing, the ashes were ready.

And these from “To the American Negro Soldiers”:

 … their night fills with a sweetness
of milk, the blue fields of the sky are covered with flowers, softly the silence
You bring the sun. The air throbs with liquid
murmurs and crystalline whistling and the silky beat of wings
Aerial cities are warm with nests.

And the opening lines of “Congo,” an authentic and triumphant contrast to that monster of Vachel Lindsay's which purports to be “a study of the Negro race”:

Oho! Congo oho! I move the voices of
the koras of Koyate to make your great name their rhythm
Over the waters and rivers, over all I remember (the
ink of the scribe remembers nothing).
Oho! Congo, asleep in your bed of forests, queen
over Africa made subject
Phalli of mountains, hold high your pavilion
By my head by my tongue you are woman, you are
woman by my belly
Mother of all things in whose nostrils is breath,
mother of crocodiles and hippopotami
Manatees and iguanas, fishes and birds, mother
of floods that suckle the harvests.
Great woman! Water wide open to the oar and
the canoe's stem
My Sao my lover with maddened thighs, with long
calm waterlily arms
Precious woman of ouzougou, body of imputrescible
oil, skin of diamantine night.

Selections have been made from five books—Chants D'Ombre (1945), Hosties Noires (1948), Chants Pour Naett (1949), Ethiopiques (1956), and Nocturnes (1961). Chants D'Ombre illumines the frustrations of exiles, the desperate solitudes and languors of an African student in Paris. Memory returns him to his childhood in the Senegalese village of Joal, where he was born and where he had a sense of belonging. His personal division symbolizes division between Africa and Europe (for the actual electricity of which, incidentally, France had no notion of training her semi-adoptee; Senghor's history includes service to the French government as a deputy to the French Assembly and Secretary of State for Scientific Research). Hosties Noires observes the African soldier's isolation, humiliation, fortitude. Here, too, the condition of the American Negro soldier is considered, with candor and in the spirit of wry comradeliness. Chants Pour Naett, pieces of which reappeared in Nocturnes, features love. A Senghor love poem will often seem as much a cry to the flesh and soul of Africa as to those of a woman. The voice of Ethiopiques is not only more dexterous but more self-conscious and more annunciatory than that of its predecessors. In Nocturnes Senghor is least public, and if his future route is to derive from this recent speech, the product may be what is currently referred to, with little respect, as “pure poetry.” It is, of course, doubtful that life in our day will allow this to happen.

We are told nothing of the translators of this book of poems, his first to appear in America, and this is unfortunate. John Reed and Clive Wake contribute a helpful introduction which should be consulted after the poetry has been read. They assure us that they have adhered to the “detailed meaning” of the French text, and they believe that the result is “readable as English free verse poems.” They have furnished a glossary to explain the African words used by the poet.

Senghor is a “literary” poet, in spite of the emotion-rich qualities of his several-faceted heritage, which easily might have induced him to favor more lenient rhythm and diction. His writing roots are French: even Whitman came to him indirectly, via his turn-of-the-century influence on the vers libre of France.

Able to depart in fury but also able to return, able to hack and heal, able to breathe, Senghor is a curious mosaic of flowers, disquiet, and masculine affirmation.

Robert W. July (review date 25 October 1964)

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SOURCE: “Rolling Rhythms,” in New York Times Book Review, October 25, 1964, p. 54.

[In the following review, July offers praise for Senghor's Selected Poems.]

Leopold Senghor, Africa's most celebrated exponent of negritude, has nowhere stated his philosophy more eloquently than in his hundred-odd poems published at intervals since 1945. Yet these major works of the philosopher-statesman of Senegal have been relatively unknown outside the French-speaking world for lack of adequate translation. It is a pleasure, therefore, to welcome this volume which presents approximately one third of the poet's output in versions which are always careful and frequently as rich in imagery. If not quite as musical, as the originals.

The African quality of Senghor's poetry is easy to trace the rolling rhythms, the vivid evocation of smell, taste, and sound, the romantic dreamy sensuousness, the preoccupation with religion and the supernatural, the insistence on intuitive experience and sympathetic logic, and the ultimate appeal to nature in all its forms.

All this is poised against the materialist, irreligious, rationalist, machine-made West and the lesson is implicit: civilization can only be saved by cleaving to the essential truths of human existence still preserved in Africa. But this does not adequately explain Senghor's poetry which owes at least as much to the West as to Africa. Not only do we have the accomplished craftsman skilled in the tools of a western language and poetic form, but there are artistic and philosophic trends in Europe to be accounted for.

It is after all the music of the French language which sustains Senghor's lyricism. Further, it is through the highly polished French artistic tradition that we experience most clearly the soft scent of the tropical night and the cool rain on the hot land what is more reminiscent of Senghor, for example, than Ravel's three art Songs of Madagascar. Finally disillusionment with material plenty which leads only towards destruction and psychic emptiness is a western not an African, idea.

Ultimately however, the value of Senghor's poetry rests squarely on its own merits which are not parochial but universal. One cannot fail to respond to the quiet beauty of the “Night that dreams Leaning upon this hill of clouds, wrapped in its long milky cloth,” to the sensuousness of “My Negress fan with palm oil. Slender as a plume. Thighs of a startled otter, of Kilimanjaro snow. Breasts of mellow rice fields hills of acacias under the East Wind,” to the thudding rhythm of “Masks! Masks! Black mask, red mask, you white and black masks,” or to the mystery and magic of “the hour of prima, terrors they rise from the bowels of the ancestors. Away inane and shadowy faces evil snout and evil breath.” Thus the special pleading of negritude fades before the eloquence of the poet whose humanity represents and refreshes us all. It is the universal artist who speaks.

O. R. Dathorne (essay date 1974)

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SOURCE: “Négritude and Black Writers,” in African Literature in the Twentieth Century, University of Minnesota Press, 1974, pp. 217-48.

[In the following excerpt, Dathorne discusses Senghor's interpretation of negritude, ancestral archetypes, and the intersection of Western and African influences in his poetry.]

As has been suggested so far, négritude like Pan-Africanism was a Caribbean sickness. Only people unfamiliar with the norms of tribal life could have diagnosed in such wide conceptual terms a myth of the heart and boldly prescribed such an imaginative recovery. Senghor was Senegalese; he learned his négritude from deraciné West Indians, but to it he brought something new—the novelty of the initiated. He alone knew; they could only hazard guesses. Therefore it was in the language of Césaire and Damas that Senghor wrote that “those who colonised us justified our political and economic independence by the theory of tabula rasa. We had, they assessed, invented nothing, written nothing. We had neither carved, painted nor sung.” Senghor adds that it was impossible to return to what he considered the sources of négritude and that the time of the Songhai Empire and of Chaka had passed. “We were students in Paris and students of the twentieth century,” and this conflict is present in Senghor's verse from the very start. His evocations of Africa are in the Césairean manner, though at times perhaps they echo Damas. Later he would arrive at Claude Wauthier's conclusion that négritude could only be understood “in relationship with other people.” At first, however, Senghor bluntly admitted that it was to some extent racism. Sartre commented that “because it is the tension between a nostalgic past into which the Black no more completely enters, and a future where it will give way to new values, Négritude fashions itself in tragic beauty and finds expression only in poetry.” Earlier in the same essay, which prefaced Senghor's 1948 anthology, Sartre had contended that “we have one hemisphere with three concentric circles. At the periphery stretches the land of exile, colourless Europe. Next comes the dazzling circle of the Indies and of childhood, which dance the round in circling Africa. And then Africa, the last circle, navel of the world, pole of all black poetry … Africa beyond reach, imaginary continent.” The Pan-Africanist C. L. R. James was to assert at the time that Sartre's “explanation of what he conceives négritude to mean is a disaster.” But it must be realized that Sartre was mainly describing all the poets represented in Senghor's anthology, only six of whom were Africans. The majority of poets were West Indians who, according to an American writer, “for the most part are more intense in their reaction to the estrangement of the African in the West than the poets of the continent itself are.” And, as has been seen, I have not attempted to argue against this contention.

Because of her failure to place négritude in a historical perspective, Lilyan Lagneau disagrees with Sartre. She maintains that Senghor had to make no great effort to retrieve his sources because “elles sont toutes proches et ont nourri sa jeunesse” (they were all near him and had been part of his youth). The imaginary continent was rightly, as she argues, “inventé par les Antillais au sein de leur exil” (invented by the West Indians on account of their exile). Senghor did, however, publish his first two volumes as a Black man in exile, a man who was formless and faceless and who pretended he had to invent a past. Indeed two recent compilers and translators of some of his poems in English believe that although “Senghor feels that his poetry is closer to folk poetry … [his] poetry is not folk poetry.” The folk-poet takes his sources for granted; Senghor at times seem to flirt with the folk past.

What, then, is his poetry? Most of it is accompanied by an appropriate traditional instrument which sets the rhythm. He makes use of place names from his childhood—Cayor, Futa, Dyilor, Joal—as well as heroes of his tribe—Dyogoy, Sitor, Kumba, Siga. And to all this the belafong, kora, kalam, gorong, kama are supposed to be fitting complements. Senghor had some obvious advantages over his contemporaries because of his nearness to the object of recall and, perhaps more important, to the ancestor-image that frequently dominates his poetry as it does so much African literature. Nevertheless, the poetry is written in a European language, and one has to inquire how right W. E. Abraham was when he dismissed Senghor's poetry as “French verse interlarded with African allusions.” This statement could be modified to include French verse written by other Black “Frenchmen” who made use of certain local Senegalese allusions.

His “Nuit de sine” from Poèmes (1964) portrays the African woman who in the poem archetypically symbolizes the omnipresence of death. Lines such as the following do not distinguish the poem as “Black” or “African.”

It is the time of the stars and the night which dreams
Lying back on this hill of clouds, dressed in a gown of milk
Houseroofs are gleaming gently. What are they saying with such confidence
to the stars?
Within, the hearth is put out amidst intimate bitter and sweet scents.

This could have been written by any European poet. The “s” sounds in the French convey the silence and privacy that the poet wishes to intensify, and it possesses none of the harshness of Césaire or the irony of Damas. Perhaps here the tiger does proclaim its tigritude. Were it not for other parts of the poem, however, this would be but a slight piece. The poem builds itself up through spirals of silence until at the apex an unnamed woman and man emerge. References to palm trees, dark blood, forests, children on their mothers' backs, the ancients of Elissa, the smoky hut identify an African (Senegalese) locality. But the high point of the poem is achieved when Senghor switches from the formless to the formed, ditching the descriptive element that has no place in the traditional love for humanizing the abstract.

Woman, light the lamp of clear oil and let the children, like
their parents, talk about their ancestors.
Listen to the voice of the Ancestors of Elissa. Like us exiled
They did not wish to die, to lose their seminal flow in dust.
Let me listen too in the smoky hut for the phantom visit of propitious
My head glistens on your breast like a kuskus ball smoking out of the
Let me breathe the smell of our Dead Ones, let me recall and repeat
their living accents, let me learn
To live before I go down, deeper than the diver, into the deep darkness
of sleep.

Here is expressed the theme of exile; the themes of Damas and Césaire are apparent, but uppermost is the eternal presence of the ancestors, who, together with the protagonist and the children, form links in the chain of humanity. This part of the poem succeeds best; in it we see the African writer who exists with a past that is never past. The comparison of the dead and the exiled living is a forced one and indeed does not make sense logically within the poem or within the framework of the culture recalled by the poet. To say that the ancestors did not wish to die just as Senghor and his student-friends did not wish to be exiled from their cultures is wrong. The importance of the ancestors is in their immortality, in the fact that they did die but continue to live. Puny comparisons with the predicament of Paris students humiliate the ancestor-archetype.

Clearly the most noteworthy point to emerge here is that within a French poem Senghor introduces a note that no European or West Indian poet could have struck. Though he was westernized and had been taught of the eternal permanence of matter, his African instincts, in addition, continuously assured him of the indestructible spirit of man. What Senghor is therefore attempting is for him the obvious—the invoking of the ancestor and the presence of the Vital Force in everything, about which Fr. Placide Tempels and Alexis Kagamé have also written.

More obviously but no less powerfully, Birago Diop dramatizes the ancestor-theme in his poem “Souffles.”

Those who are dead have never really gone away
They are at the Woman's breast
They are in the Child's weeping
And in the firebrand bursting into life
The Dead are not under the Ground.

Earlier in the same poem Birago Diop asserts, “Les Morts ne sont pas morts” (the dead are not dead). It is no accident that in the lines just quoted archetypal mother and child provide a similar link with the apparent dead, as is true as well in Senghor's poetry. Birago Diop returns to this theme in “Viatique,” another successful poem in Leurres at Lueurs (1960), where one learns of the “ancêtres qui furent des hommes” (the ancestors who were men). It was a subject that Senghor found lacking in Césaire, as he says in his “Lettre à un poète,” dedicated to Césaire, “Have you forgotten your nobility, which is to celebrate / The Ancestors, the Princes and the Gods. …” Senghor failed to realize that Césaire did not have either ancestors, princes, or gods. All Césaire could do was bemoan their loss. But it was with this voice that Senghor and Diop were able—despite their identification—to divorce themselves from Caribbean writers and to announce their place in the cosmos of African reality. Sartre admired this quality in Diop's poetry “because it speaks directly from the tribal story-tellers and in the same oral tradition.” Though Sartre's contention is not entirely true, it is certain that the bulk of Diop's work is an attempt, in Senghor's phrase, to return to the sources. Diop's contribution will be assessed more fully when we come to consider his prose.

The ancestor-theme in Senghor as well as in other African writers often gives way to the emergence of the stereotype. “Femme noire,” which characterizes the eternal woman, is just this. Written in the form of a praise song, it is nevertheless a startling departure, for traditional praise songs never extolled the beauty of women. But like the praise singer the poet assumes the role of custodian of the culture.

I sing your beauty which passes and fix your form in eternity
Before a jealous Fate reduces you to ashes to nourish the roots of life.

Through the object of praise Senghor comes nearer to an understanding of himself. The manner in which the woman experiences her world is meant to show her familiarity with it. We find therefore that the poem is a very sensuous one; the sight of the sun and shadow in the first stanza, the sound of the East wind, the tom-tom, and the lover in the second bring us closer to the felt nature of the experience.

The Black woman in Senghor's poetry is a synthesis of mother and lover. In this way she is equated with the land, with harvest and drought; she is both giver and receiver. Therefore she best appeals to Senghor's poetic demands. As a mere consumer of French culture, must he be driven to the despair of Césaire and Damas, or could the African presence give his poetry more vitality and a source of positive values?

Some parts in Chants pour Naëtt (1949) provide an answer to this question. The solution was not the total rejection of the white world and acceptance of the African world, but the blending of both. This is what Mbella Sonne Dipoko referred to as the point at which “cultural negotiations are about to open … a meeting-place, a compromise, was agreed upon.” In the same context, Senghor wrote that the hero of Peter Abrahams's Wreath for Udomo is “a tissue of contradictions [for he] tyrannically loves his black Africa, and he loves a white woman.” It was to Césaire's “rendez-vous de la conquête” that Senghor had come in this verse in Poèmes:

And we have delighted, my love, in an African presence
Furniture from Guinea and Congo, heavy and polished, dark and light.
Masks primitive and pure on walls distant yet so near.
Tabourets of honour for the hereditary hosts, the princes from the High-Country.
Wild perfumes from the thick tresses of silence
Cushions of darkness and leisure like the source of quiet wells.
Eternal words; faraway the alternating chant as in cloths from Sudan.
And then the friendly light of your kindness will soften the obsession
of this presence in
Black, white and red oh red like the soil of Africa.

Here the poet frankly admits that the past was an invented one for the négritude poets. Senghor differed from them in that, though he began with their conclusions, he escaped their bitterness and turned toward the familiar. At the center was always man, the poet-hero himself.

Senghor's method and manner continue in subsequent volumes. The local Africa is used to describe the general, the symbolic, woman. Less of his vituperation is present in Nocturnes (1961). He has come a long way from his Hosties noires (1948), which is essentially made up of war poems exploring the love-hate relationship with France. He recognizes his “frères noirs” (Black brothers) but adds “ne dites pas que je n'aime pas la France” (do not say I do not love France). Damas described “cousin Hitler” in one poem but Senghor, as both soldier and prisoner of war, could acknowledge France while still retaining an element of “la voix de l'Afrique planant audessus de la rage des canons longs” (the voice of Africa sounding near the rage of long cannons). By the time of Nocturnes the reconciliation between the spiritual longing for Africa and the physical need for Europe was complete. Senghor is no longer capable of writing purely love poems like those in Chants pour Naëtt or poems solely concerned with the backward glance to Africa. In Nocturnes he reaches the poetic equivalent of what in his essays he calls humanism and he further develops the idea expressed in “Chaka” (Ethiopiques, 1956) that poetry must now be sacrificed in the same way that Chaka had to sacrifice Nolivé. The “Elégies” in Nocturnes conclude the poetic quest for pacification. The world is one and man and child are indivisible. Chaka's words could well be Senghor's:

Here I am re-joined with the earth. How shiny in the Kingdom
of childhood
And it is the end of my passion.

The poetry had completed a circle, coming back to the childhood of a movement, a race, a person for verification. Senghor's conclusion is probably again Chaka's—“Mais je ne suis pas le poème, mais je ne suis pas le tam-tam / Je ne suis pas le rythme …” (But I am not the poem, nor am I the drum / I am not the rhythm …). Senghor has liberated the Black poet from his dilemma, the imaginative writer has become more than the agent for executing a people's art. Such a writer can no longer dictate to his audience and the debate has ended. There remains, however, the next task, which offers a wide spectrum of possibilities. Senghor not only is exposing the African writer to the dialogue of the whole world but is also asking him to be a witness to private areas of experience.

Lilyan Kesteloot (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8078

SOURCE: “Léopold Senghor: Chants d'ombre and Hosties noires,” in Black Writers in French: A Literary History of Negritude, translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy, Temple University Press, 1974, pp. 194-226.

[In the following excerpt, Kesteloot provides analysis of Senghor's formative influences, African themes, and early poetic style in Chants d'ombre and Hosties noires.]

Léopold Sédar Senghor was attracted to poetry very early. As a lycée student in Dakar, he was composing romantic verse even before he developed an enthusiasm for Corneille and Racine. In Paris, Senghor discovered Péguy, then the modern European and American Negro poets. Later on, while studying for his degree in literature, he read the works of the medieval troubadors and a great deal of Claudel, but experimented with his own talent as a writer mainly by translating into French the poems of his homeland, Senegal.

Much has been made of the profound influence of Saint-John Perse on Senghor. In the part of this chapter devoted to literary analysis, we shall show to what extent the discovery of Saint-John Perse influenced Senghor's style. Senghor did not yet know Perse's work when he composed his own first two books of poems, Chants d'ombre and Hosties noires, whose major themes we now propose to analyze.

These poems were written between 1936 and 1945, not all at once like Césaire's Cahier, but at long intervals. Nor do they follow a psychological progression, like Damas's poems. Only a few of them are dated. Though we can place in time those which were written during World War II and perceive a definite evolution in the thinking, this is possible only occasionally in the other poems. The very first poem, “A l'appel de la race de Saba,” which dates from 1936, already reveals the principal themes of Senghor's entire work.

The downbeat of Senghor's negritude is unquestionably his “pilgrimage to the ancestral fountains,” his return to Mother Africa, for him not at all “the imaginary continent” invented by West Indians in the depths of their exile. Senghor did not need to make a great effort to rediscover his origins; they were close to him and nourished his youth. He had the privilege of being born in 1906 to a family of very un-Europeanized landowners who lived in an opulent “villa” that sheltered more than sixty persons, including servants. For many years he lived in Djilor and Joal, rural Senegalese villages, and did not attend a “white school” until the age of seven, when he entered the seminary at Ngasobil; he later on went to Dakar for his Latin humanities. During that period, he used to come home to the village for his vacations.

Senghor thus knew his country, his “childhood kingdom,” as he called it, extremely well, and was impregnated with its culture.

J'y ai vécu jadis, avec les bergers et les paysans … J'ai donc vécu en ce royaume, vu de mes yeux, de mes oreilles entendu les êtres fabuleux par delà les choses: les Kouss dans les tamariniers, les Crocodiles, gardiens des fontaines, les Lamantins, qui chantaient dans la rivière, les Morts du village et les Ancêtres, qui me parlaient, m'initiant aux vérités alternées de la nuit et du midi. Il m'a donc suffi de nommer les choses, les éléments de mon univers enfantin, pour prophétiser la Cité de demain, qui renaîtra des cendres de l'ancienne, ce qui est la mission du poète.

(I lived there long ago, among the shepherds and the farmers … I lived then in this kingdom, saw with my eyes, with my ears heard the fabulous beings beyond things; the ancestral spirits [the Kouss] in the tamarind trees; the crocodiles, guardians of the springs; the seacows who spoke to me, initiating me in turn to the truths of night and noon. It has therefore been enough for me to name these things, the elements of my childhood universe, to prophesy the City of tomorrow, which shall be born from the ashes of the ancient, which is the poet's mission.)

[Subsequent quotations from Senghor's original French prose and poetry are provided in English translation only; the French text has been omitted, except where the mechanics of the French language are specifically discussed.]

Senghor was rooted in this civilization which had survived the ancient Mali empire, assimilating both Islam and Christianity without losing any of its original traditions. His Africa was living, profuse, completely unlike Césaire's (“Bambara ancestors,” his evocation of “the king of Dahomey's amazons”) or Damas's (“till now I've kept the conical ancestral faith high among the rafters of my hut”), visions of a mother continent reduced to ethnological reminiscence or disembodied symbols.

Senghor's return to his native land was thus accomplished without any of the pain typical among the West Indians. His were only pleasant memories of a coddled childhood in the bosom of a family which formed a “large household, with its grooms, stablemen, shepherds, servants, and artisans.”

At nightfall, the house at Djilor was a veritable painting of biblical opulence.

[Dimly I am on the steps of the deep house
My brothers and sisters press their incubating warmth against my heart
I rest my head upon the knees of Ngâ my nurse, Ngâ the poetess
Head throbbing with the warrior gallop of the dyoung-dyoung drums, with
the racing of my blood's pure blood
Head humming with the distant songs of Koumba—the Orphan Girl
In the center of the court the solitary fig tree
And chatting in its moonlit shade the Man's wives, voices grave
and deep as their eyes and the nighttime fountains of Fimla.
And my father stretched out on peaceful mats so tall so strong so handsome
Man of the Kingdom of Sine, while about him on their köras, griots
with heroic voices make their ardent fingers dance
While from afar with a sense of warm strong smells the classic sound
of a hundred cattle rises.]

Senghor conserves the memory of a society deeply rooted in its traditions, its values and its history. One can certainly detect the traces of ethnology. It was surely not from the griots that Senghor learned that Pharoah “seated people on his right” or that the glorious Gongo Moussa reigned from 1307 to 1332. But certainly local myths and the genealogies of the dyalis sang the glory of his forbears, who were cousins of Prince Koumba Ndofène, and recounted the sixteen-year struggle against the powerful Almamy of Fouta Djalon.

[They slaughter us, Almamy! We are not dishonored.
Neither could these mountains rule us, nor his horsemen surround us,
nor his bright skin seduce us
Nor his prophets corrupt us.]

Two princesses of royal blood and their servants were able to escape the massacre:

[And among them the mother of Sira-Badral, founder of kingdoms,
Who would be the salt of the Serers, the salt of these salty people]

This historical past explains the moral values of that warrior and pastoral people—sobriety, a sharp sense of honor, scorn of money but love of the vital riches, children, and cattle:

[… sparse were the wants of their bellies.
Their shield of honor never left them nor their loyal lance
They amassed no silks not even cottons to decorate their darlings.
Their herds covered their lands, like their dwellings in the divine
shade of fig trees
And their granaries creaked with grain stowed by children.
Voices of the Blood! Thoughts to ruminate upon!]

A simple and vigorous morality which was developed in an harmonious social order—disparaged by the West for reasons of their own—where the prince was not a tyrant but the defender and guarantor of his subjects:

[You are no parasitic plant on the vegetable abundance of your
They lie; you are no tyrant, you do not feed yourself upon their fat
You are the rich instrument of savings, granaries swollen for the days
of sorrow
Behold you are upright, fortress to keep the enemy at bay
I do not call you silo but chief who gathers up the strength who strengthens
the arm, but head who receives the blows and bullets
And you do honor to your people …]

Religious values give meaning to this universe and animate the cosmic life. The ancients initiate the young to these “forests of symbols” whose poetry Senghor feels extremely deeply. The following poem, perhaps one of the most beautiful he has written, bears witness:

[Toko-Waly, my uncle, do you remember those long ago nights when
my head grew heavy on your patient back?
Or how you took my hand in yours and guided me through signs and shadows?
The fields blossom with glow worms; stars alight in grass and trees.
There is silence all around
The only stirrings are the perfumes of the bush, hives of russet bees
that dominate the crickets
And, muffled tom-tom, the distant breathing of the night.
You Toko-Waly, you hear what is inaudible
And explain to me the signs our forbears make in the marine serenity
of the constellations
The Bull, the Scorpion, the Leopard, the Elephant and the familiar Fish
And the Spirits' milky splendor in the infinite celestial tann.
But here as veils of darkness fall is the Goddess Moon's intelligence.]

The poet, like every other African, learned nature's language very early and lived in close relationship to Ancestors, whom he held in veneration:

[I stretch upon the earth at your feet, in the dust of my respect
At your feet, Ancestors who are present. …]

He knew that the dead were not dead, that he himself was the “the grandfather of his grandfather … his soul and his ancestry,” and he kept preciously secret “in [his] most intimate vein” the name of his totem, “My ancestor with the lightning-scarred, the stormy skin,” the third name given at his initiation, which no African dares reveal for fear of putting himself in the hands of an enemy. Senghor acquired this knowledge during the long nights of Sine, nights which he evokes with warm fervor:

[Woman, light the limpid butter lamp, so around it Ancestors
can come to chat like parents when their children are in bed.
Let us listen to the Ancients of Elissa. Exiled, like us,
They did not wish to die, or lose their fertile torrent in the sands.
Let me listen in the smoky hut where friendly souls have come to visit
My head upon your breast, warm as couscous
newly steaming from the fire
Let me breathe the odor of our Dead, let me gather and repeat their
living voices, let me learn
To live before I sink, deeper than a diver, into the lofty depths of

The nearness of the dead in no way depreciates life. Senghor tastes its fruits both as poet and artist. Chants d'ombre contains at least eight love poems, of which the most famous glorifies “Black woman”:

[Naked woman, dark woman
Firm fleshed ripe fruit, dark ecstasies of black wine, mouth that makes
mine lyrical;
Savanna with pure horizons, trembling at the ardor of the East Wind's
Sculpted tom-tom, taut tom-tom murmuring beneath the Conqueror's

But in addition to love, there were the festivals, high points of community life, where Christian rites and native ceremonies mingled:

[I remember funeral feasts steaming with the blood of slaughtered
The noise of quarrels, the griot's rhapsodies.
I remember pagan voices beating out the Tantum
And the processions and the palms and the triumphal arches.
I recall the dance of the nubile girls
The battle songs—and oh!—the final dance of the young men,
Chests bent, and the women's pure love cry—Kor Siga!]

Yes, Africa truly lives in Senghor's poems! Yet he left it “for sixteen years of wandering” through a Europe he learned to know firsthand “in the narrow shadow of the Latin Muses,” before becoming “a shepherd of blonde heads” at the lycée in Tours, and later in Paris: “good civil servant … good colleague, elegant, polite … Old France, old university, the works.” To all appearances, Senghor was perfectly assimilated.

Then why his unusual activity with L'Etudiant Noir? Why his defense of Africanism and support of anticolonialism as early as 1928? For personal reasons, first of all. In Europe, Senghor felt lonely. There were very few African students in Paris in those days. Most of the blacks there were West Indians, and although they succeeded in creating a unity around a New Negro ideology, the various mentalities differed on many points. Damas regretted that he had never had a free childhood. Césaire—whose wife was expecting a second baby when the Cahier was published—was not homesick for his country but wished to transform it: His memories were painful. As for the solitary Senghor, “left to the hypocritical silence of this European night, held prisoner by white, cold, well-smoothed sheets and all the anguish and qualms which inextricably encumber me,” he turned to the “paradise of his African childhood,” to his friends there, crying out his immense nostalgia:

[I write to you because my books are white as boredom, misery
and death.
Make room for me around the pot, let me sit once more in the place still
warm for me,
Hands touching as we share the rice that steams with friendship.
Let the old Serer words pass from mouth to mouth like a friendly pipe.
May Dargui share his juicy fruits with us—a harvest of all scented
You, serve us your good words, as big as the umbilicus of prodigious
What singer will call the Ancestors tonight,
Will bring the peaceful jungle beasts about us?
Who will send our dreams to lodge beneath the eyelids of the stars?]

But these too tangible memories make his exile seem more terrible and intensify his homesickness:

[I remember, I remember …
My head in motion with
What weary pace the length of European days where now and then
An orphan jazz appears sobbing sobbing sobbing.]

Beneath his European clothes, Senghor felt like a foreigner. How far he was from his own clothes, from his own customs! The reproach Senghor puts on the lips of a Senegalese prince in his poem “Le message” testifies to his ridiculous appearance as a man “assimilated and uprooted”:

[Children with short memories, what did the kôras sing
to you?
You decline the rose, they tell me, and your ancestors the Gauls.
You are doctors of the Sorbonne, paunchy with diplomas
You collect pieces of paper
Your daughters they tell me paint their faces like whores
They wear their hair in chignons, go in for free love to elucidate the
Are you happier? Some trumpet goes wa-wa-wa
And you weep there on the great holiday and family feasts.
Must the ancient epic story be unfurled for you?
Go to Mbissel and Fa'oy; say the rosary of the sanctuaries that
marked out the Great Way
Walk upon the royal road again and meditate upon the way of cross and
Your high priests will answer: Voices of the Blood!]

Yet Senghor's stay in France was far from useless. First, it taught him where his heart was; second, that the suffering of his race was vast. As a child, Senghor had been so happy and docile by nature that he had never criticized his teachers. In Paris, the contact with French intellectuals and West Indians and Americans of his race awakened his conscience. At the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, he was first listed among the “talas,” but then he went through a violent crisis and became a socialist. It was then that he met Aimé Césaire, whose rebellion had begun to smoulder while he was still in Martinique. Along with Césaire, Senghor questioned Western values to such a point that for more than a year he lost his religious faith.

All the themes of present-day negritude appear in Senghor's work from this moment on. First, the affirmation of his color! This is clearly shown in the titles of his poems: Chants d'ombre (“Shadow songs,” or “Songs of darkness”)—Hosties noires (“Black hosts” or “Black victims”)—“A l'appel de la race de Saba” (“At the call of the race of Saba”)—“Masque nègre” (“Negro mask”)—“Femme noire” (“Black woman”), etc. Second, the feeling of solidarity with all oppressed peoples of the world. It has been said that Senghor was moved by the poverty and misery of the proletariat before becoming aware of the passion of his own race. Certainly, however, one encounters his loyalty to his original culture even in his first poem:

[I do not erase the footsteps of my father nor of the
fathers of my fathers in my head open to the winds and plunderers of
the North.
May my guardian spirits not permit my blood to grow insipid like some
assimilated, civilized soul.]

His wish for the liberation of Africa can be seen as a proletarian emancipation where there would be

[Neither masters any more nor slaves nor knights nor griots of
Nothing but the smooth and virile camaraderie of battles
And may the son of the captive be my equal the Moor and Targui, those
congenital enemies, my companions.]

Senghor included in this struggle

[… all white workers in the fraternal struggle
the miner from Asturia, the Liverpool docker,
the Jew chased out of Germany, and Dupont and Dupuis
and all the boys from Saint Denis.]

And hailed it with the classical slogan (printed in capital letters):


Only later was Senghor to realize the particular oppression of which his race had been the victim: slavery, the looting of Africa, the humiliation and servitude of colonization. Gradually, he too accepted these, and to the general indictment against Europe he would add the ancient wounds

[… of a land emptied of its sons
Sold at public auction cheaper than herring, and with nothing left but
its honor.]

He denounced

[White hands that pulled the trigger on guns that crushed empires
Hands that whipped slaves, that whipped you
White powdery hands that slapped you, painted powdery hands that slapped
Sure hands that delivered me to solitude and hate
… diplomats who show white teeth
And tomorrow will barter black flesh.]

Senghor learned all this and would not forget it, even if he did not wish to “bring out his stock of hatred.” Too often he has been called the man of conciliation. His words of peace (“Oh! do not say that I do not love France”) have been boasted of in contrast to those of his rebellious brothers, particularly Césaire. The indictment against colonization that runs throughout Senghor's poems, however, is not so easily overlooked. His disillusioned contempt of the “mud of civilization” which dehumanizes “the boulevard crowds” of Europe, “sleepwalkers who have rejected their identity as men,” as well as Africa, where “on the Sudanese plain, desiccated by the East Wind and the Northern masters of Time,” men deprived of freedom are slowly suffocating, are too quickly forgotten.

[… nothing but sand taxes forced labor the whip
And spittle the only dew for their inextinguishable thirst in memory
of green Atlantic pastures
For barrages of engineers have not satisfied the thirsty souls in polytechnic

Senghor's bitterness, increased by his personal experience of segregation, has never been sufficiently recognized:

[I no longer recognize my brothers, the white men,
Lost as they were this evening at the films, beyond the emptiness they
left about my skin.]

In the crucible of war, Senegalese soldiers were “caught in the toils, delivered to civilized barbarity, exterminated like warthogs” or abandoned at the time of France's downfall in 1940 and deposited in German prison camps:

[Hunger and hatred fermented there in the torpor of one mortal
And noble warriors were begging cigarette butts]

And the Negro continued to do K. P. and latrine duty for the “great pink children.” “Who else but the high born will do the lowly jobs?” asks Senghor. But his witticism hides only thinly a pain and bitterness he was not always able to contain:

[Europe has crushed me like the flat warrior beneath the pachydermal
feet of tanks
We cried out our pain in the night. Not a single voice gave
The Princes of the Church were silent, statesmen claimed the hyenas
were magnanimous

“It certainly concerns the Negro! It certainly concerns mankind!
Not when Europe is involved!”]

To present Senghor as a tender elegiac, as Aimé Patri has done, is to weaken him. Can he have forgotten Senghor's shouts of virile rebellion?

[… I shall tear the banana laughter from all the walls
of France
Forward! And may there be no song of praise o Pindare! But shaggy
war shout and quick sword thrust!]

To call Senghor a “man of civilization” seems to us ambiguous. The last poem in Hosties noires, although entitled “Prière de paix” (“Prayer for peace”), is the one with the most violent accusations. Reading it, one realizes to what extent the poet's “pardon” is the opposite of “compromise.” Senghor forgives while remaining very much aware of his race's suffering and the misdeeds of political and missionary France. His forgiveness is great only because it is offered with complete lucidity:

[At the foot of my Africa, crucified these four hundred years
yet breathing still
Lord, let me repeat its prayer of pardon and of peace.
Lord God, forgive white Europe!
It is true, Lord, that for four centuries of enlightenment she threw
her yelping, foaming dogs upon my lands
Lord, forgive those who made guerrillas of the Askias, who turned my
princes into sergeants,
Made houseboys of my servants, and laborers of my country folk, who
turned my people into a proletariat.
For you must forgive those who hunted my children like wild elephants
Who trained them to the whip and made them the black hands of those
whose hands were white.
You must forget those who stole ten million of my sons in their leprous
And who suppressed two hundred million more.
A lonely old age they've made me in the forest of my nights and
the savannah of my days.
The glass before my eyes grows misty, Lord.
And the serpent Hatred stirs his head within my heart, the Serpent I'd
thought dead … 
Kill it, Lord, for I must proceed upon my way and strangely,
it is for France I want to pray.
Lord, among the white lands, set France upon the Father's right.
Oh, I know she too is Europe, she too like some northern cattle rustler
raped my children to swell the cane and cotton fields, for negro sweat is
like manure.
Yes, Lord, forgive France, who expresses the right way so well and makes
her own so deviously
Who invites me to her table, and tells me to bring my own bread, who
gives with her right hand while the left takes half back again.
Yes, Lord, forgive France, which hates all occupations and imposes hers
so heavily on me
Who throws open her triumphal routes to heroes and treats her Senegalese
like hired hands; making them the black dogs of her empire
Who is the Republic and delivers her countries to the concessionary
That have made my Mesopotamia, the Congo, a vast cemetery beneath the
white sun.]

It was not that Senghor made peace with the West over the dead bodies of his victimized race, but that war had revealed to him all the horror of racism. The spectacle of French people in their turn bruised and ravaged and struggling against oppression enabled him to rise above his resentment and to recognize aspects of France he could love—the faces of its suffering:

[The fiancée who mourns her widowhood
The boy robbed of his youth
And the woman weeping, oh, for her husband's absent eye, and the
mother seeking her child's dream among the rubble.]

and that of its freedom:

[Bless these captive people who twice have known how to liberate
their lands and dared proclaim the advent of the poor to those of royal lineage
Bless these people who break their bonds, bless these people reduced
to their last extremity who confront the wild greed of the powerful, the torturers.]

This is why Senghor forgives more easily than Damas or Césaire—also, because he benefits from that basic psychological equilibrium due to his happy childhood and, in addition, because he feels strong with the strength of Africa's future.

But if, for the edification of a world henceforth without hate or racism, Senghor asks his Dead, “Oh, black Martyrs, let me say the words of forgiveness,” it is not a matter of forgetting blood so abundantly spilled, but rather one of making it bear fruit.

[No, you have not died in vain, O Dead! This blood is no tepid
It moistens our thick hope which will blossom at twilight.
It is our thirst, our hunger for honor, those great absolute queens.
No, you did not die in vain. You are the witnesses of Africa immortal.]

Senghor's devotion to his people remains total. It was to the black lands he came in search of “earthy virtues” to arm himself with the qualities of Sudanese heroes, with the “fervent science of Timbuctoo's great doctors” and the “courage of the Guelwars.” To dedicate himself, this modern knight spontaneously rediscovered the religious tone appropriate to solemn oaths: “Permit me to die for the cause of my people.” What love for the race whose ambassador he aspires to be, what faith in its reserves of life, joy and hope!

[You are the flesh of the primitive couple, the fertile belly,
the soft roe
Like the leaven necessary to white flour.
For who shall teach rhythm to a world dead from cannon and machine?
Say who shall revive the memory of life to the man with disemboweled
They call us men of cotton, coffee, oil.
We are men of the dance whose feet take on new strength by striking
the hard ground.]

When Senghor declares his conviction that “any great civilization, any true culture is the result of cross-breeding,” we must not infer from this that he wished to give up any of the African Negro values nor that he was disposed to welcome everything Europe might offer.

The problem we blacks of 1959 now face is to discover how we are going to integrate African Negro values into the world of 1959. It is not a question of resuscitating the past, of living in an African Negro museum; it is a question of animating the world, here and now, with the values of our past. This, after all, is what the Negro Americans have begun to do.

Senghor does not fail to warn African politicians that “cultural colonialism, in the form of assimilation, is the worst of all.” And if today he declares himself in favor of mixed civilizations, this involves—to use his own expression—“confrontation” and “symbiosis.” As in Hegelian synthesis, the two contrary assertions—Negro values and Western values—must purify each other, retaining only the best traits of each, in order to achieve the harmonious amalgamation desired by Senghor.

Senghor has a style as different from his confreres as it is possible to imagine. His poems are more elaborated. He knows them by heart and willingly recites them, being somewhat the “man of letters.” Like all true poets, however, he composes in response to an inner need. To sing, he must feel deeply moved. He writes his poem in a single outpouring, then reads it, seeks the high points and sometimes the meaning, because when he takes up his pen he does not always know what he will write.

The poems in Chants d'ombre and Hosties noires quickly attained the breadth of those of his mature period; the well-formed characteristics of Senghor's style are already recognizable.

In the poems one finds a universe where the harmonious background of his Senegalese childhood—the Ancients of Elissa, Joal-the-Shady, the kings of Sine, the griots, the dances, the great house at Djilor, and the black woman with “hands with the scent of balsam”—become corroded by the anxieties of a Prodigal Son torn between two cultures who laments, threatens, or forgives, but who, whether happy or bruised, always returns to drink deep at the fountain of Kam-Dyamé near his “sober-eyed ancestors who understand all things.”

We discover a sensuous love of his country's names, names of places and people that have solemn and mysterious sonorities:

[Dyob!—from the Nagabou to the Walo, from Ngalam to the
sea the songs of amber virgins will rise
And may the stringed kôras accompany them! …
You among all Elephant of Mbissel, who adorn your poet-praise
maker with friendship
I recall the splendors of the setting sun
From which Koumba N'Dofene would have cut his royal cloak]

Next his marked taste for transpositions, which lighten biblical-style verses:

[How vast how empty the courtyard with the smell of nothingness
The golden note of the flute of silence leads me, the shepherd,
my long ago dream brother leads me
And the warm ashes of the man-with-lightning-eyes, my father,

We said that Senghor had read and imitated a good deal. If we recognize from time to time definite analogies with Claudel or Saint-John Perse—it should be remembered that his discovery of the latter occurred considerably after his first poems—we must not forget the influence of Senegalese poets, whose literary methods he assimilated. Senghor's manner of celebrating in song a person he wishes to honor, for example, is the same as that of the Senegalese griots, for whom the repetition of a name is as important as the praise itself and who never fail to call upon the meritorious ancestors:

[Sall! I proclaim your name Sall! from the Fouta-Damga to Cap
Mbaye Dyob! I want to speak your name and tell your worth
And I repeat your name: Dyallo!
Noble must your race be and well-born the woman of Timbo who
rocked you in the evenings to the nocturnal rhythm of the earth]

This is true to such an extent that, wishing to honor the heroism of a simple soldier, Mbaye Dyob, the poet almost apologizes for not being able to sing his genealogy or to mention any of his ancestors. The custom of lauding the ancestors of anyone one wishes to praise is so usual in Senegal that suitors for the hand of a maiden always pay a griot to celebrate the great deeds of their ancestors, and the nobility of their beloved's lineage.

Senghor's ambition, moreover, following the example of the griots, was to become the “dyâli” of his people, their “Master of Language” as well as their ambassador.

Yet Senghor's style is distinguished above all by the swing of its rhythm and the length of the verses—the length of a respiration—which gives his poems the monotonous motion of the waves of the sea:

[I summon forth the theory of servants on the dew
And great calabashes of milk, calm above the rhythm of their swaying

This style lends itself to prayers, natural to Senghor's religious spirit:

[O bless this people, Lord, who seek their own face beneath the
mask and scarcely recognize it]

as well as to nostalgic songs of regret:

[We shall no longer take part in the sponsorale joy of harvests
We shall rehearse for a feast already faded the old-time harvest dance,
the light dance of heavy bodies
At the hint of dawn, when in the choir the weaker voices of the maids
grow tender and tender the smile of the stars!
We shall move forward shoulder to shoulder, bodies fervently quivering
Toward the resonant mouths and the praises and the heavy fruits of the
intimate tumult!]

It is also suitable for evoking the mystery that hovers over villages haunted by the ancestors:

[And you pool, of Kam-Dyameacute; at noon I used to drink your
mystic water from the hollow of my hands
Surrounded by companions smooth and nude and decked in flowers from
the bush
The shepherd's flute would modulate the slow pace of the herds
And in its shadow as it ceased drums would echo in the haunted tanns.]

But Senghor's verse is better than any other at “singing a noble subject”:

[Ah! I am sustained by the hope that one day I shall run before
you, Princess, bearer of your staff of honor to the assembled populace.
And like the white dromedary's, may my lips for nine days at a
time be chaste of all terrestrial water, and silent.]

If we had to choose among several adjectives, we might call Senghor's style “processional.” The verses spin out, without crests, in groups of about fifteen waves; the words proceed regularly, at a rhythm kept slow by the insertion of deep-toned syllables.

The device is especially noticeable, for example, in the lines repeated below, where the “low note” of the deep-toned French -an and -al sounds is in contrast to the high-pitched tone of the vowels—é, i, u—and to the “occlusive” consonants—c, d, t, thm, lm, lb:

Je ressuscite la théorie des servantes sur la rosée
Et les grandes calebasses de lait, calmes, sur le rythme des hanches balancées.

To give added rhythm to this “processional” style, Senghor often uses alliteration. He either chooses as a dominant note the first consonants, such as the r, s, t, of the first line above, or he emphasizes a single consonant or vowel as follows:

Voici que décline la lune lasse vers son lit
de mer étale.
[And now the weary moon sinks into her slack sea bed.]

Sometimes the echoes of two (or three) sounds call and answer one another:

A travers Cayor et Baol de sécheresse
où se tordent les bras les baobabs d'angoisse.
[Across Cayor and Baol dryness that twists the arms of baobabs
in pain.]

Sometimes a harmony is begun in an early line and the poet gets caught in his own trap. In the following verse, for example, the diphthongs of one line release a series of further soft diphthongs in the next:

Ses paupières comme
le crépuscule rapide et ses yeux
vastes qui s'emplissent de nuit.
Oui c'est bien l'aïcule noire, la Claire aux yeux
violets sous ses paupières
de nwt.
[Her eyelids like rapid twilight and her vast eyes filling filling
up with night.
Yes, it is she, the dark ancestor, Bright with violet eyes beneath her
lids of night.]

Of course, it may be a case of imitative harmony:

Et seize ans de guerrel Seize ans le battement des tabalas de
guerre des tabalas des balles!
Seuls bourdonnent les parfums de brousse, ruches d'abeilles
rousses que domine la vibration grêle des grillons.
[And sixteen years of war! Sixteen years of war drums beating,
beating out like bullets!
The only humming is the perfumes of the bush, swarms of russet
bees that dominate the crickets' thin vibrato.]

Most of the time, however, the device has no other aim but the sensual. The author is attracted by the plastic qualities of certain consonants and repeats them, not in imitation of nature, but because they stimulate or sustain his inner rhythm, even independently of the subject matter involved.

The rhythm is not always the same. It can rise to the syncopated beat of the American Negro jazz Senghor is so fond of:

[But if one must choose at the hour of affliction
I chose the flow of rivers, wind and forests
The assonance of plains and streams, I chose the pulsebeat of my unclothed
The vibrations of the balafong, the harmony of strings and brasses that
sound out of tune
I chose swing, swing, yes swing!

More often, the beat quickens to a dance rhythm—strangely enough, a typically African dance, which doubles a skipping step, one-two on one foot and one-two on the other. Senghor re-creates this step by redoubling and emphasizing the accentuated syllables:

Et quand sur son ombre elle
se taisait, résonnait le tamtam des tanns
Nous n'avancerons plus dans le frémissement fervent de
nos corps égaux épaules égales.
Ma tête bourdonnant au galop guerrier des dyoung-dyoungs, au grand galop de mon sang de pur sang.
Qui sera le sel des Sérères,
qui seront le sel des peuples salés.
[And when at its shadow she grew silent, the drums of the haunted
tanns were echoing.
No more shall we move forward shoulder to shoulder fervent bodies
My head humming with the warrior gallop of the dyoung-dyoung
drums, with the racing of my blood pure blood.
Who will be the Serer salt, who will be the salt of the people
who've been soiled.]

He can also re-create this dance step by repetition of the consonants marking the downbeats. The dentals and explosive labials play the role of hands beating the tom-tom:

Des peaux précieuses des barres de
sel, de l'or du Boure de l'or du Boundou.
[Precious skins, bars of salt, of gold from Boure, of gold from

Senghor's rhythm is processional, but it is often a dancing procession, like the procession of the Brazilian Negroes in Marcel Camus's film, who are already vibrating with the carnival dances as they descend from their hills toward the Bay of Rio. It is no accident that Senghor took such pleasure in the movie Black Orpheus, whose “incontestable negritude” he so much appreciated.

Music is one of the basic elements of Senghor's poetry, and he is aware of it: “I persist in thinking that a poem is complete only if it becomes song, with words and music at the same time.” “A poem is like a jazz score where the execution is as important as the text!”

To understand the crux of a Senghor poem, it is not enough to have understood the meaning of the words and images, which seem to us even secondary in importance. Rather one must communicate with the poet's emotion by discovering the rhythmic throbs of his work, never forgetting that: “Strangely enough, the Negro belongs to a world where speech spontaneously becomes rhythm as soon as a man is moved to emotion, restored to himself and his authenticity. Yes, speech then becomes a poem.”

We have doubtless noticed the assimilation of rhythm and poetry: “Speech becomes rhythm, speech becomes poem,” says Senghor. “Negro poets,” he also writes, “are above all cantors. They are tyrannically obedient to an ‘inner music.’” One final example. The title of Senghor's longest poem in Chants d'ombre is “Que m'accompagnent köras et balafongs.” In this title, the very names of the instruments give rhythmic resonance to the poetic line: repetition of the hard c (Que m'acc … ko …) and the final “-ong,” of which the “g” must be sonorous (… agn … fong).

This verse must therefore be accented as follows:

Que m'accompagnent kôras et balafongs

This small example brings out a major difficulty for us Westerners. To “grasp” the rhythm of a Senghor poem, we must first get rid of our French manner of accentuating words. In the above line, we spontaneously place the accent on the syllables pa, ras, and fong, or on the final syllables. We thus miss the basic rhythm of the line.

Senghor himself calls our attention to the importance of this scansion: “Rhythm,” he says “does not arise merely from an alternation of short and long syllables. It can also rest upon—and one too easily forgets that this was partly true of Greco-Latin verses—the alternation of accented and unstressed syllables, of downbeats and upbeats. This is the way it is with Negro African rhythm.” But he immediately points out that “in a regular poem, each verse has the same number of accents,” whereas the basic rhythm of a Negro African poem, the one which gives it its specific character, “is not that of speech, but of the percussion instruments accompanying the human voice, or, to be more exact, those which beat out the basic rhythm.”

It is typical of Senghor to indicate, at the head of many of his poems, the instruments which should accompany them: “Woi for three kôras and a balafong,” “For Khalam,” “To a sonorous background of funeral drums,” “For three tabalas or war drums.”

For these reasons, it is difficult for French-speaking people to recite a Senghor poem. They have to abandon their natural accentuation and avoid emphasizing what seems important to them: “The fashionable diction called expressive, in a theatrical or ordinary style, is anti-poetry.” It is because he has not understood this that Mr. Clancier, too French-minded no doubt, has hoped that “Senghor will succeed in creating a language with a more varied rhythm, where a picture, a word, will suddenly raise its crest around which the figure of the poem will take shape; then we shall really penetrate into his poetic universe, which is original and richly human.” We hope we have shown with sufficient clarity how right Senghor was to reply: “Don't you see that you are asking me to organize poetry in the French manner, as a drama, whereas for us it is a symphony.

With Senghor music and poetry are inseparable. Several attempts have been made in Paris to reproduce the musical rhythm of his poems with the instruments indicated by him. Recently, during a recital of Negro poetry at the Congolese University of Lovanium, the poem “Chaka” was chanted by a black student to the accompaniment of a tom-tom. It was an astonishing success, and all Kinshasa was talking about the “Senghor concert,” obvious proof that this author's poetry loses its apparent atonality when correctly recited.

We have explained above how to interpret the poetic phrase, an expression we use intentionally to suggest the “musical phrase.” We have shown how certain sounds give the “tone” and their repetition the “beat” to Senghor's poetry. Also, how this poetry is built on a rhythm whose discovery is essential if one wishes to reach not an external, rationalized understanding of the poem but its creative source, its original impulse.

One realizes then that the screen of “monotony,” of which the author is so often accused, has been pierced: that his emotions were not always calm, peaceful, serene, as has so often been said. Senghor can be as intensely affected as Césaire, for example, but he exteriorizes less. The emotion is felt deeply, by a “tightness in the stomach and the throat.” Senghor does not have an explosive temperament. “With me, an emergency makes me ill, my face becomes ashen,” he has said. In the same way, various emotions are hidden in his poems. Their monotony is not due to incapacity of expression, nor lack of strong feelings; it is an integral part of Senghor's personality. It is the monotony of the savannas, whose rhythm is broader, less hurried than that of the forest, akin to those interminable modulated chants of the Batutsi and close also to the Bantu poems.

[Fire men see only in the night, on the darkest nights,
Fire that burns without consuming, that sparkles without burning,
Fire that flies without body, without wings, knowing neither hearth
nor hut,
Fire, transparent palm-tree fire, a fearless man invokes thee.]

Besides, was not even Césaire considered monotonous? And Edouard Glissant? Western ears that have not learned to listen to the tom-tom and Negro chants, ears that have not yet absorbed their rhythm, will find them monotonous. Yet the monotony of Negro poets, Senghor says, “is the seal of their negritude.”

If rhythm is of such importance to the Negro poet, Senghor has often repeated, it is because through his incantations it “permits access to the truth of essential things: the forces of the Cosmos.”

These forces, Africans believe, are propagated in the form of waves. And Senghor added: “And, since contemporary physics has discovered the energy contained in matter, the waves and radiations, this is no simple metaphor.” For modern physicists, too, the “world's substance is made up of rhythmic energy waves.” In Sudanese cosmogonies, waves represent water, and water is life: They also represent technique (the to-and-fro motion of the weaver's shuttle) and speech, which is also propagated in the form of waves. Waves thus represent all the various manifestations of creative energy.

Rhythm enables the artist to participate in the vital cosmic forces thus endowing him with creative power. The object created—be it sculpture, painting, or poem—is a work of art only if this rhythm is apparent. “To respond to and be in harmony with the rhythm of things is the Negro's greatest joy and happiness, his reason for living. In black Africa, a work of art is a masterpiece and fully answers its purpose, only if it is rhythmic.”

And this is true not only of works of art, but also of dances, “to dance is to create”; or of work: Negroes weave, sow, reap, always accompanied by voices singing or the sound of the tom-tom. Not only to encourage effort, but to make the work effective. This characteristic is still so deeply rooted today—even when rapport with the cosmogony is lost—that both the West Indian peasant and the African worker still feel the need to sustain their effort with rhythmic songs.

It is also by means of this participation in world forces that rhythm is an instrument of knowledge. Africans only know the Other, only “penetrate” the Other, be it person or object, because they instinctively seize the waves emanating from it. Comparing Descartes to a black African, Senghor would have the latter say: “I feel the Other, I dance the Other, therefore I am.” He thus emphasizes the fundamental difference between European logic, “analytic through use,” and Negro logic, “intuitive through participation.”

Largely inspired by aboriginal cosmogonies, Senghor, one can see, has developed his thoughts on African rhythm to the level of a philosophy. In any case, he has emphasized the importance of rhythm in poetry, and especially in his own work. Not all of his rhythmic poetry, in truth, is successful. Occasionally music that is too facile makes his poems banal:

Rythmez clochettes, rythmez langues rythmez rames
la danse du Maîtres des rames.
[Set the bells in rhythmic motion, the tongues, the oars, the
dance of the master oarsmen.]

The difference is palpable in the following line:

Paissez mes seins forts d'homme, l'herbe de lait qui luit sur ma poitrine.
[Feed upon my strong man's breast, the milky grass that
gleams upon my chest.]

On the other hand, particularly in recent poems, the image is stronger than the rhythm. It is in this, above all, that one could talk of the influence of writers such as Claudel and Saint-John Perse. We must not forget that Senghor himself admits he is an “intellectual crossbreed,” and it is inevitable that he should be marked by Western poetics. Occasionally he regrets it. For example, in replying to a criticism quoted earlier of Clancier: “I may have yielded to your advice, since repeated by others. I would regret it if I were aware of it.” And one must admit that the use of Western images that are almost clichés weakens certain of his poems which have a well-marked rhythm:

[May twelve thousand stars be lit each night about the Main Square.]

or sometimes destroys their originality:

[I know the Paradise lost—I have not lost my memory of
the childhood garden blossoming with birds.
The white lilac is mown, and the scent of lilies-of-the-valley
has faded.]

On the other hand, Senghor has succeeded in writing admirable verses which he would be wrong to disown, even though they are in a typically French manner:

[Love is my empire and I have a weakness for thee woman
Stranger with gladelike eyes, cinnamon apple lips and sex like an ardent
 … You the distant flute that answers in the night
From the other shore of the inshore sea that joins opposing lands
Complementary hearts: one the color of flame, the other dark, the color
of precious wood.]

Should we confess that we regret Saint-John Perse's influence on Senghor? Certainly his poems have become more polished; he has eliminated the clumsy prosaics that mar certain poems in Hosties noires. More refined today, Senghor's style cloaks several layers of meaning. On the other hand, the emphatic, occasionally declamatory character of Senghor's poetry has increased. Amid this pomp and ceremony, one sometimes misses certain accents of Chants d'ombre, so moving in their simplicity.

Frederick Ivor Case (essay date 1975)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2887

SOURCE: “Negritude and Utopianism,” in African Literature Today: A Review, No. 7, edited by Eldred Durosimi Jones, Heinemann, 1975, pp. 65-75.

[In the following excerpt, Case discusses elements of intellectual alienation and false idealization in the negritude of Senghor and Aimé Césaire. Negritude, as a product of European acculturation, Case contends, “has nothing to do with the existential reality of the mass of black men.”]

Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor are indisputably the two great leaders of the Négritude movement which was born in France in the late 1930s. It is significant that both men are now politicians of some stature and that Senghor is generally considered as one of the greatest supporters of the concept of Francophonie. He has made use of his position as President of Senegal to promote the recognition of African cultural values throughout the world and is an international figure whose reputation has spread beyond the French-speaking nations. …

One of the principal characteristics of any racism is its negative basis. It is, essentially, the negation of the humanity of a racial group and the denial of all the values of that group. Césaire's Négritude, and Senghor's also, is the affirmation of African cultural values. It is a positive expression of human dignity and pride which, of necessity, has to be preceded by a ‘purification’ of the harmful aspects of the Western European conditioning of the Black which has made him turn against himself. Césaire's repudiation of this conditioning is the recognition that cultural and religious values are not absolute but entirely relative. As Senghor declared in a speech before the Ghanaian Parliament in 1962:

Négritude is not even attachment to a particular race, our own, although such attachment is legitimate. Négritude is the awareness, defence and development of African cultural values. …

However, the struggle for négritude must not be negation but affirmation.

Césaire recognises in his essay, Discours sur le Colonialisme, that the principal error of the European lies in the equations:

Christianity = Civilisation

Paganism = Barbarity

Everything and everyone is judged in relation to these values.

One certainly could not accuse Senghor of racism. Whilst Césaire was once a member of the French Communist Party and is still a Marxist, Senghor has been Catholic for most of his life. Born in 1906, he also left his native land to further his academic education in France and was also a student at the Ecole Normale Sup‚rieure.

Senghor's greatest contribution to the Négritude movement appears to have been his personal influence on Caribbean writers, the sons of a people who had for centuries been humiliated, enslaved and alienated from their culture and from themselves in the name of Western European Christianity.

Senghor's poetic work is characterised by a quiet dignity and pride, his richest verse, mostly composed to be set to traditional West African instruments, expresses his desire to return to the native village that he has left so very far behind:

Toko'Waly my uncle, do you remember those distant nights
when my head grew heavy against the patience of your back?
Or holding me by the hand, your hand led me through the shadows and
The fields are flowers of glowworms; the stars come to rest on the grass,
on the trees.
All around is silence.
Only the droning scents of the bush, hives of red bees drowning the
stridulation of the crickets
And the muffled tom-tom, the far-off breathing of the night.

(‘For Koras and Balafong’ in Chants d'Ombre

Then at the end of that very beautiful poem ‘Joal’ which is also in the collection Chants d'Ombre we read this striking stanza:

I remember, I remember …
In my head the rhythm of the tramp tramp
So wearily down the days of Europe where there comes,
Now and then a little orphaned jazz that goes sobbing, sobbing, sobbing.

It is particularly in this first collection of his poems that the nostalgic note is struck although it is also evident in the later collections of verse.

Senghor also condemns the savagery of the European rape of Africa but acknowledges a great debt to French humanism and to the French language. His speeches and essays are of great importance and interest to the student of Negro-African cultures.

What is very striking indeed in Senghor's writings is the passionate love of Africa and of France which never seem to enter into conflict. Speaking of Africa he says:

What is forgotten is that this land was abandoned for three centuries to the bloody cupidity of slave traders; that through the murderous actions of the Whites, twenty millions of its children were deported to the West Indies and to the Americas, that two hundred million died in man hunts. What is generally forgotten is that each ‘benefit of colonisation’ has had its reverse.

Négritude et Humanisme

In the same article, which appeared in Présence Africaine in 1950, he goes on to say that the West's technological contribution to Africa is of value only if the soul of the African is not altogether altered by the new exterior forces that threaten its tranquil homogeneity.

In a very famous article entitled ‘French as a Language of Culture’ which appeared in the November 1962 number of Esprit, Senghor gives five reasons why the French language is of such great importance to African writers. Firstly, he says, many of the elite think in French and speak it better than their mother tongue. Secondly, there is the richness of the French vocabulary. Thirdly, French, through its syntax, is a concise language:

To the syntax of juxtaposition of Negro-African languages is opposed the syntax of subordination of French; to the syntax of concrete reality, that of abstract thought: in point of fact, the syntax of reason to that of emotion.

Négritude et Humanisme

Fourthly, the stylistic demands of the French language open new universal dimensions to the reader. It is the fifth reason that is of particular concern here, and I will quote the entire paragraph that explains it.

Fifth reason: French Humanism. It is precisely in this elucidation, in this re-creation, that French Humanism consists. For man is the object of its activity. Whether it be in the case of Law, of Literature, of Art, even of Science, the distinguishing mark of French genius lies in this concern with Man. French always expresses a moral. This gives it its character of universality which counterbalances its tendency to individualism.

In the poem ‘Prayer for Peace’ dedicated to Georges and Claude Pompidou, Senghor prays for France:

O Lord, take from my memory the France which is not France, mask
of smallness and hatred upon the face of France
That mask of smallness and hatred for which I have hatred … yet
I may well hate Evil
For I have a great weakness for France.
Bless this people who were tied and twice able to free their hands and
proclaim the coming of the poor into the kingdom
Who turned the slaves of the day into men free equal fraternal
Bless these people who brought me Thy Good News, Lord, and opened my
heavy eyelids to the light of faith.

(‘Prayer for Peace’ in Hosties Noires

This poem was written in 1945 and it hardly seems that Senghor's love of France and his gratitude have altered.

Though Césaire does not insist on his love of France in his work, both he and Senghor, the Marxist and the Catholic, look forward to the day when all peoples will recognise and respect differences in culture and when all the oppressed of the world will join hands in brotherhood.

In his play Et les Chiens se taisaient, Césaire's hero illustrates universal tolerance:

Suppose that the world were a forest. Good!
There are baobabs, flourishing oaks, black pines and white walnuts;
I would like them all to grow, firm and strong,
different in wood, in bearing, in colour,
but equally full of sap and without one encroaching on the other's
different at the base
but oh!
may their heads join high, very high, in the ether so as to form for
a single roof
                                        I say the only protective roof!

Et les Chiens … Acte II)

It would be superfluous to quote similar sentiments expressed by Senghor since they are easily to be found in his speeches and essays.

What seems to characterise Négritude then is an assertion of African dignity, a desire to return to the cultural values which are deeply rooted in traditional religion, and the future hope of a universal brotherhood in a universal civilisation.

I will now attempt to analyse this black ideology through the application of certain concepts on African ontology discussed by Professor John Mbiti in his book African Religions and Philosophy.

John Mbiti defines two dimensions of African reality which he calls the Sasa period and the Zamani. The Sasa is the now, the immediate future, the near period of time in the past, present, and future. Zamani is the period beyond which nothing can go. It is the past incorporating the present. …

Mbiti sets out to show that existence is apprehended by the African in traditional society in such a way that the immediate future is the only future perspective that exists. Consequently, in traditional religions there is no prophetism and no future paradise. For time—to use Western terms—recedes rather than progresses and the Golden Age—that era of the black man's greatness—the era of Timbuctoo and Benin, the era of the Yoruba and the Zulu, of Shango and Chaka, lies in the Zamani period. The Sasa is an ever-constant construction of the past and not of the future. Utopia exists in the past.

It is interesting that if one examines the works of Senghor and Césaire it becomes evident that they are characterised by elements peculiar to the Zamani period. The revalorisation of African artistic and humanistic values coincides inevitably with the creation of a myth superimposed on African history. It is difficult to say which comes first since revalorisation and myth are interwoven to the point of identification, one with the other. …

Senghor's poems convey an attitude and an atmosphere that are different. But this normalien living in Paris and writing of a traditional African society is in fact looking back to what is another age and another place in terms of his evolution within the Western European world. Like so many African and Caribbean writers he is at a great distance in terms of space and time from his subject.

This brings to mind the story of Camara Laye and the composition of L'Enfant Noir, translated variously as The African Child and The Black Child. At the time of writing, Laye was experiencing the solitude and misery of the black worker in France. He would work in the factory during the day and return alone to the Africa he was trying to recreate for himself in his cold, barren room. The result is stunning in its stark simplicity but it is the fruit of a very painful period of parturition.

Senghor, the intellectual, has long left this stage behind him. He does not battle against being an assimilado and accepts his cultural métissage and is proud of it. In an article entitled ‘On the Freedom of the Soul or the Praises of Métissage’ which appeared in the October 1950 issue of Liberté de l'Esprit, Senghor reminds us that most great civilisations have depended on the grafting of culture on culture to reach their high stage of development. Africans should therefore take advantage of this opportunity in cultural development being offered by the European colonisation of their native land. The same idea is repeated several times in his essays and speeches. In the 1956 Conference of Black Writers and Artists, held at the Sorbonne, a lively discussion developed between the Afro-Americans and Antilleans on the one hand and the Africans on the other. Here is part of Senghor's contribution to the discussion:

So we, too, are objectively half-castes. And this is where I would quarrel with Césaire while agreeing with him. Today we are objectively half-castes … much of the reasoning of French Africans derives from Descartes. This is why, quite often, you don't follow us, as we don't altogether follow you, because you, like the Anglo-Saxons, are pragmatists.

Prose and Poetry

However, since Senghor can declare:

I think in French; I express myself in French better than in my mother tongue.

Négritude et Humanisme

in that famous essay published in Esprit, he has evidently been a victim of the acculturation which appears to have been the aim of the French educational system in Africa. This cultural imperialism serves to make the victim nostalgic and sentimental about a past that still exists in the present reality of the mass of his brothers’.

In terms of space and time the writer is so far removed from the reality of his people that having lived in Western society and having been assimilated by its values, the African has moved out of his traditional ecological milieu, out of the socio-cultural structure of his people and he has begun to move forward in time. …

What I am attempting to show is that the concept of Négritude is the direct product of a successful process of acculturation undertaken by the European in Africa. It is an intellectual concept that has nothing to do with the existential reality of the mass of black men. It is the means of integrating alienated man in the security of a myth that he has created for his own benefit and for that of his social class.

The individualism peculiar to the exercise is the antithesis of the authentic cultural values of Africa where art is for the largest possible group but yet not vulgarised. The oral tradition in literature is a community participatory exercise. Dance and sculpture, by their very nature, are community-oriented activities. Aesthetics for its own sake is a nonsense and absurd since man as a collective being is forever at the centre of artistic expression. The esoteric nature of Césaire's writings leaves no doubt about the individualism of his work. His intellectualisation and mythification of the black man's reality further alienate him from his brothers with whom he can feel only an intellectual solidarity.

The black man in the tramway, shunned by Césaire, serves as a catalyst in Return to my Native Land. Césaire awakens to the reality of his blackness and to the universality of his Négritude. However, his predilection for the fine French phrase, the obscure word that frequently sends even the educated reader vainly searching in his dictionary, this parade of Western European erudition that Frantz Fanon analyses so well in Black Skin, White Masks, serves only to remove him yet further from his people. Indeed he appears to be writing not for them but for a white public. …

Both Césaire and Senghor project themselves in another country and at another period which is no longer theirs. For Senghor thinks of a way of life now lost for him among his Serere people. Césaire looks towards a traditional African life that he cannot know and towards periods of the past when Africans governed Africa and when Africans liberated themselves of a foreign yoke in Haiti. Both men are looking towards a utopian state.

I am not trying to say that Senghor and Césaire are completely oblivious to every aspect of the black man's reality. But as a map is an abstraction of a city, province or country, the economic and political awareness of problems is an intellectualisation and institutionalisation of social reality.

Négritude is then a new religion of the middle-class black intellectual and as such it dulls his sense of reality. His eyes are firmly fixed on a utopian period although he can hear the cries of anguish of his brothers struggling through their present reality. But the Western-educated intellectual is also future-oriented and yet another myth is the implication that the Zamani Utopia may return, and the Utopia is the myth that the humanistic values of Négritude will prevail and that eventually, a harmonious universal civilisation will evolve, deeply impregnated with the sap of African cultural and moral values. Western philosophies—Marxist as well as Christian—have led black intellectuals to these conclusions. Angela Davis and Martin Luther King have very much in common.

Western religious philosophy has ensnared the black man into a belief in dialectical or evolutionary processes towards universal harmony where eventually he will be assimilated or integrated. But assimilated and integrated into what? If the black man does become integrated into Western European thought patterns and humanistic values, as Césaire and Senghor have been, then he becomes alienated or a man divided against himself—whichever terminology one prefers.

The concept of Négritude cannot be the answer to any situation pertaining to the reality of the black masses. It is a fine idea, useful and necessary to the cultural development of a Western-educated elite. It is also perhaps a necessary stage in a true renaissance of African culture so long devastated or bastardised by ignorance and prejudice. But at best today Négritude seems no more than yet another of Western Europe's philosophic aberrations.

Janis L. Pallister (essay date April 1980)

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SOURCE: “Léopold Sédar Senghor: A Catholic Sensibility?,” in French Review, Vol. LIII, No. 5, April, 1980, pp. 670-9.

[In the following essay, Pallister objects to critical interpretations of Senghor's poetry that emphasize the significance of symbolist, surrealist, and Roman Catholic influences in his work.]

It is arresting to note that many recent trends in Senghorian criticism, relying on a whole new set of critical clichés, should attempt to legitimize this great and fundamentally African poet by seeking to draw him into mainstream literature from France. Perhaps this is partially the product of another earlier critical strain that reproached Senghor the politician, Senghor the poet and Senghor the man for not being sufficiently African, while putting the whole concept of negritude and aggressive assimilation under attack. Now there seems to be a compulsion to make him sufficiently European. Whatever the reason, it is baffling and disconcerting to find Geneviève Lebaud in her 1976 book entitled Léopold Sédar Senghor, ou la Poésie du royaume d'enfance, making frequent comparisons of Senghor to Saint-John Perse, Rimbaud, Claudel, and in particular Baudelaire. This latter cue is pursued in a very recent article in French Review by Alfred J Guillaume, Jr., who ostensibly authenticates these comparisons between Baudelaire and Senghor by having engaged Senghor himself in a conversation on the subject. A year previous to this, Serge Gavronsky drew parallels between Senghor and the two French poets, Baudelaire and Claudel, while mustering structuralist jargon for his arguments. It is revealing, however, that Lebaud works herself into a corner and is finally forced to conclude correctly that Senghor's universe “n'est pas celui des poètes maudits.” (This she must say despite Césaire's assertion that all modern poets are poètes maudits, who have taken the train for hell.) It seems to me, also, that Senghor himself refutes the comparison between Baudelaire's poetic vision and his own at many points in Guillaume's reported conversation but especially when he insists upon the African artist's identification with the object; for if the European Symbolist remains separate from the object he evokes and if the non-metaphysical European surrealist embodies simultaneously the signifiant and the signifié, they are essentially different from the concrete African poet who names only the signifié and leaves it up to the reader to supply the signifiant. Moreover, many passages in Senghor's Liberté I make the same basic assertions as we find in Guillaume's dialogue, which therefore tells us nothing particularly new about Senghor. Furthermore, we must keep in mind that what a poet has to say about his own poetry in a post hoc and contrived context such as this is not always fully reliable. Yet, I suppose that many readers of French Review would be drawn to a reading of this article because Baudelaire's name is in the title whereas an article devoted exclusively to Senghor might not be so compelling. (Years ago readers were drawn to Senghor's anthology by the fact that Sartre had written an introductory essay for it, and in certain quarters the reading of Senghor is still “justified” in terms of his link with Sartre.)

I would submit, however, that we must regard African literature written in French as a distinct entity, just as we do American and English literature. Senghor's expression “Retour au sources” surely does not suggest that the literary springs from which he has deeply drunk are the Chanson de Roland and the French symbolist poets. Nor does it refer to the Catholicism with which Senghor is repeatedly linked. Eager to find ways to stimulate a response in students and readers to so-called Francophone writers, and anxious to offer tags which will ostensibly make Senghor appear appealing and accessible to the Westerner, the writers of French civilization books and manuals sometimes make of Senghor's Catholicism a common denominator. Hence, Denoeu in the 1972 update of his French Cultural Reader writes: “Léopold Sédar Senghor, né près de Dakar, Sénégal en 1906, fils d'un riche propriétaire terrien, catholique, alla continuer ses études Paris.” One is struck by the strong emphasis given to the “occidental side” of his African “métis culturel.”

More damaging still are the serious critics of Senghor, such as Hymans, who in his relatively recent book Léopold Sédar Senghor, An Intellectual Biography, repeatedly insists on Senghor's Catholicism as the mainspring of his poetic and political expression. To appreciate Senghor's philosophy, says he, “it is necessary to understand the basic personal characteristics of its author. He is a Catholic intellectual stirred by ardent faith; he is the African political leader most possessed with French culture.” Hymans analyzes what he perceives to be the main influences on Senghor, including Claudel and his theory of co-naissance, as well as Maritain and his Neo-Thomism, not to mention the Fathers of the Holy Spirit at Ngasobil and the primacy of the spiritual coming through this order and indeed through the whole Esprit movement. He quotes Abacar N'Diaye, for his amusing if peculiar assertion that Senghor is a Christian thinker who has forgotten to close his missal. Then Hymans himself writes, “Senghor's Catholicism sets him apart. His religion is responsible for the catholic (universal) love which characterizes his works. This universal love prevents Senghor from advocating violence and consequently distinguishes his work from that of the majority of other black poets. Catholic love is the basis for both his cultural and political theories.”

All this is very troubling. Hymans's attempt to impose maîtres à penser on Senghor is one thing. That Senghor has read Claudel, Maritain and Teilhard de Chardin is well known. But he has also read the African literatures and is repeatedly insistent upon the role that the maîtres griots and the Dyâli, that Maronyai and Soukeina have played in his formation. “Influence on” is not, after all, synonymous with “explanation for,” or “basis of,” and Hymans's work disregards the fact that, as Senghor himself says in his response letter, “the elements of symbiosis cannot be reduced to the elements which compose it …” Moreover, one would not by the reading of Catholic philosophers and poets thereby be more (or less) Catholic.

The question thus asserts itself. Is Senghor's Catholicism any more “responsible” for his sense of love and fraternity or for his usual gentleness than is his fundamental personality developed in terms of his Serer people and in the pastoral context of his early years spent with such persons as his uncle Tokô'Waly, of whom he writes with considerable lyrical effusion in “Que m'accompagnent Koras et Balafong”? Why can it not be an African love reinforced by the poet's Catholicism? Is the spiritual content of Senghor's poetry so fundamentally Catholic as Hymans contends? Senghor himself writes: “Catholicism cannot ignore Animism without laying itself open to a serious bankruptcy. In these countries of sandy plains, nothing solid, nothing durable can be built except on the stony foundation of Animism.” We must, thus, observe that Senghor himself regards African religion as the foundation, and Catholicism as a type of reinforcement, or superstructure.

I would, then, refute the concept that the essential key to understanding Senghor's poetry is found in the Symbolist and surrealist poets, and, similarly, I would refute the notion that the key to his spirituality or sensibility is summed up in his Catholicism, which, after all, is not a significant aspect of his “royaume d'enfance,” that is, of that Serer substratum of his existence he so eloquently recovers in his poetry.

Indeed, if we contemplate the African images and concepts in Senghor's poetry (as so appropriately and meticulously studied by Sylvia Washington Bê and Van Niekerk) we must come away with the overwhelming conviction of their supreme domination over his muse. Animism (or the cult of the pango), the cult of the ancestors, the collective peace of the African village, are fundamental themes around which the poems revolve. Rhythm and beat of the tom-tom are the vehicles through which these largely religious but not necessarily Catholic themes are expressed.

Now, can we say that these are mere symbols or poetic poses—that is, forms of exoticism—reflecting the African way of life, whereas the authentic identity of the man lies in his Catholicism? A dangerous hypothesis at best, in view of Senghor's theory of anthropopsychism, or the appropriation by the maskbearer or poet of a psychic form and force wherein the lion does not represent strength and courage to the one who invokes the animal, but rather wherein the invoker literally assumes the attributes of the lion. (Such an idea is not, I suppose, too far from Claudel's concept of co-naissance, wherein one simultaneously acquires by mind and comes into being … which explains why Claudel, perhaps more than any other Western poet, has revealed in his poems the truly metaphysical character of African art, including its literature.)

I would submit that the identifiably Catholic content of Senghor's poetry happily figures in its intellectual content and metaphor as a superstructure, or, more properly, as a tangential convergence. Let us recall that out of the terrible depths of his artistic frustration, Ezra Pound, reflecting the schizophrenia of the surrealistic and cubistic movements, cried out, “I cannot make it cohere.” It is my contention that Senghor the African, with more potential for a fragmented vision than Pound, does indeed make it cohere. How is this done?

If we take as an example Senghor's invocation for the recovery of his royaume d'enfance, his Joal, in which he appears to paraphrase the twenty-third (or for the Catholic the twenty-second) Psalm:

Segneur de la lumière et des ténèbres
Toi seigneur du Cosmos, fais que je repose sous Joal l'Ombreuse
Que je renaisse au Royaume d'enfance bruissant de rêves.


One is struck here by the identification of God as the Lord of the Cosmos, the monotheistic primordial creator known to almost all African religions without reference to the Judeo-Christian tradition. One is struck also by the specificity in the replacement of the green valleys by the poet's African cradle: Joal l'Ombreuse. But in particular, one is struck by the fact that the phrases echoing the Psalm have no Eucharistic application, though this is the most common one for most Catholics.

Indeed, reference to the Christocentric Eucharist itself—so fundamental to the Catholic sensibility, so basic, so central to Catholic theology, and everywhere present in the poetry of Claudel—is rare in the poetry of Senghor. The concept of sacrifice is largely restricted to an association with the hosties noires or black human sacrifice (especially in times of war). Human sacrifice may be said to be present, too, as it accrues to the fate of the African at Western hands, and to the African cult of the ancestors, anagogically related to the Catholic doctrine of the communion of saints. But the sacrifice of Christ himself remains incidental in the poetry of Senghor, except as it is mystically transposed to the suffering black. In the “Prière de paix,” for example, Senghor uses the metaphor of the ciborium for his book, which he thinks of as containing a vision of the blacks as the crucified Jesus, or as crucified Africa, sacrificed for the salvation of the whites, but also representing the scourgers of white consciences. When scrutinized, Senghor's allusions to ritual sacrifice in the Catholic religion seem to be more superficial than those pertaining to African ritual sacrifice. For example, reference in “Masque nègre” to the “patànes des joues” is merely an image referring to the shape of the host (and the cheeks) rather than a metaphor recalling its Eucharistic and sacrificial meanings.

On the other hand, strong metaphors of African sacrifice, showing the tensions between the peaceful herbivore and the carnivore, between the gallinaceous and the aggressive, abound in Senghor's poetry. Especially noteworthy in this connection is Senghor's recourse to concepts of African sacrifice, found in “A l'appel de la race de Saba,” the following lines of which ring with profound lyrical effusion and authenticity:

J'offre un poulet sans tache, debout près de l'Aîné,
bièn que tard venu, afin qu'avant l'eau crémeuse et
la bière de mil
Gicle jusqu'à moi et sur mes lèvres charnelles le
sang chaud salé du taureau dans la force de l'âge, dans
la plénitude de sa graisse.

The offering and sacrifice of hen and bull are, of course, not consonant with Catholic liturgical worship, but are here conceived as giving greater protection to the African poet's gift than the Eucharist might.

Likewise, though allusions to the Eucharist are, as we have seen, present in Senghor's poetry, there is little to suggest a Tantum Ergo (except reference to the song per se, as juxtaposed to the Kor Siga), whereas outbursts of joyful praise are to be found for millet beer. “Hê! vive la bière de mil à l'Initié,” cries the poet in his ecstasy.

Finally, the rites of circumcision as a bridge between primal innocence and the responsibilities of adulthood within the context of African community have similar profound and lyrical meanings for Senghor that (in his poetry) remain mechanistically unrelated to the Judeo-Christian significances of this rite.

Now, equally basic in the Catholic confession is the doctrine of the Trinity. But the African cosmogony with its notion of the double dialectic of dyad-triad, combining and recombining to create the father-mother-child-cluster—that is, the nucleus of humanity—is more basic to Senghor's world view. Thus, in discussing creativity, he likens the poet to the woman in labor, who must give birth (“Postface”). The poet's triadic references (often linked to fertility) do not evoke the Holy Trinity but rather the earthly trinity, model of the Christian family (Joseph, Mary, and Jesus). Apparent allusions to the Trinity by Senghor must, I think, be regarded as coinciding with what is at least equal if not more basic in Senghor's mind-set: the African concept of the triad. Similarly, dyadic patterns are linked to the African androgynous vision, to the African myths of the primordial couple as much as to any particular Catholic belief. (See “The Elegy of the Trade Winds.”) Truly African, for example, is the poet's assertion in “Kaya Magan” that he is “les deux battants de la porte, rythme binaire de l'espace, et le troisième temps.”

Now, if the Eucharist, the sacrifice of Christ, and the Trinity are concatenate tenets of Catholic dogma, access to the sacraments is through the waters of baptism; and the worship of the Trinity as well as the reception of the sacraments is the preparation for paradise and reunion with God—which is not, surely, the most pressing desire expressed by this poet, as it is by, say, San Juan de la Cruz. In the poetry of Senghor the cleansing waters of Christian baptism—though doubtless the earliest initiation rite the poet ever experienced—seem no more formative of his spirituality than the beneficial Fountains of the Elephants and of Kam-Dyamé, whose mystic water the poet as a child drank in the hollow of his hands, surrounded by his companions—they so smooth and naked, adorned with the flowers of the bush. And after reading the “Elégie des circoncis,” can we not say, too, that the African way of circumcision, viewed as an initiation rite, takes precedence in the poet's psychology over Christian baptism, or Holy Communication, or confirmation?

Less importantly, the Virgin Mother, who has for centuries captured the Catholic imagination, is far from uppermost in Senghor's mind, though we all know that in more than one poem he celebrates woman as genetrix, woman mystically bound to Mother Africa. That the Song of Songs apparently becomes mixed into the metaphors found in his famous “Femme noire” seems merely to add a dimension to the African focus of the poem, rather than to relocate its impetus. Nor can the invocation to the angry, red-eyed Mother in Senghor's “A l'appel de la race de Saba” be realigned with the Virgin Mother, despite the repeated Hail Mary-like “Mère, sois bénie” with which the poet begins each strophe.

Similarly, the Esprit invoked in the poem “L'Ouragan” cannot be readily associated with the Holy Spirit of Christian doctrine, as the poet calls upon his muse, which is the wind or the Spirit, to breathe on the strings of his kora and to let his song rise up. Yet here, as is usually the case, the Christian dimension can be added—like an outer ring to the cortex—without its doing violence to the African thrust of the poem.

I do not wish to belabor the point. We could continue these doctrinal analysis and distinctions ad infinitum, but I believe we would only continue to find that while Senghor's Catholicism is not absent from his muse, his missal was definitely closed when he sat down to write his poems, as was also his catechism. The conventional longings of the Catholic spirit seen in such poets as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Merton, Paul Claudel, even Charles Péguy, do not necessarily surface in this poetry; nor can the presence of gentleness and fraternal love be characterized as more Catholic than African. What some might claim to be most Catholic in Senghor's poetry is the absence of murmuring. Put another way, what for some readers may be most Catholic in Senghor is the frequent presence of conciliation or pardon, that is, of charity, which strongly affects the poetic tone.

Ironically, however, the themes of pardon we are inclined to associate with Senghor's Catholicism are in truth expressed in less than Christian terms. In the “Prière de paix,” in which the black race is seen as martyred, Senghor alludes to the petitions for forgiveness in the Our Father. Interestingly enough, he does not ask pardon for Africa's trespasses (perhaps because he feels the Africans have no guilt, no original sin?). The poem is in reality a recital of the white man's crimes and trespasses with a prayer for his pardon tacked on. As Peters says, “The peace prayer proceeds by attack, laying bare the wrongs which must be pardoned.” Thus Senghor's notion of pardon is, from a psycho-sociological point of view understandable, but, from a theological point of view, doubtful, to say the very least. In “Neige sur Paris” the reader quickly ascertains that the poet expresses no hope that the rewards of heaven will be accorded to the penitent and the erring, but only the desire for an apparently earthly peace. Here again Senghor focuses on the bitter realities of Europe and identifies Africans with the suffering Christ.

Thus, even poems that superficially present the aura of reconciliation and peace, and that would at first blush appear to be the most Catholic or Christian of Senghor's works, must upon close scrutiny be found to emanate from non Christian sources. Towra has thus found “Neige sur Paris”—despite its religious fervor—not so much to represent a turning of the cheek as—in view of its period and content—to voice the political platform of peace adopted by the European left and in particular the French Popular Front of the Blum regime. Moreover this poem's long list of the colonists' crimes against the black race, while profoundly moving from a poetic and human point of view, attenuates the plea for pardon expressed in it. The poem—in some ways one of Senghor's greatest and surely one of his most famous—lacks the mysticism of the Joal poems, and on the other hand, fails as a model for even a modern Christian prayer. When set against the Our Father, we have seen that some of the key aspects of the pardon petitions are clearly missing in this poem. It emerges more as a kiss of peace, or the laying down of the sword, prior to communion.

Philosophically speaking, Senghor, like Teilhard de Chardin, has formulated a concept of the universal society or brotherhood of the future, though the concept may be as Serer as it is Catholic. On the one hand we may say that Teilhardian eschatological theories themselves have vied with the traditional doctrine enough to meet with resistance in the Catholic hierarchy (though Pope John XXIII confessed to not understanding them). On the other hand, the concepts as sifted through Senghor's perspectives are necessarily marked with the notion that the black African will have special contributions to make to this future society and to the noosphere—contributions that were doubtless rather remote from the thinking of Teilhard. Furthermore, while the concept of fruitful fraternity is fundamental to Teilhard's teleology and, moreover, is a vital aspect of the Christian ethos, it cannot be said to be exclusively Christian, when also advocated by atheists and agnostics such as Camus and Malraux, as well as by all Marxist thinkers, not to mention many Jewish and Moslem theologians in the bargain. It is, rather, despite its long heritage, the twentieth-century thinker's highway to the salvation of the world, and—if one happens to still believe in it—of the individual soul.

In a prodigal son who views himself as pure, and whose return is a charitable return to pagan Africa, to his ancestors, to the world of telekinesis and telluric forces, and whose prayer for the fervent knowledge of the doctors of Timbuktu is directed to the Elephant of Mbissel, fraternity is conceived in a dialectical frame. His brothers are sometimes the whites, but are certainly less often the whites of the world (to whom Dadié directs his famous poem) than his fellow sufferers, his fellow blacks. As Senghor writes, “Je veux revoir le gynécée de droite: j'y jouais avec mes frères les fils du Lion.”

Indeed the question of the European white world is in this poetry one of postponement:

Demain, je reprendrai le chemin de l'Europe, chemin de l'ambassade
Dans le regret du Pays noir.

When dealing with the rubric of fraternity or social interaction, one should recall that religion for Senghor is not to be separated from society or culture. Religion, he writes, represents “l'effort de socialisation et de totalisation. Un effort pour comprendre … l'Homme et l'Univers dans une vision de profondeur. Pour les organiser harmonieusement, en intégrant l'Homme dans l'Univers.”

If, then, the poetry of Senghor presents a picture that is less than orthodox Catholic, it is because he avoids the particularization of cult in order to achieve modus vivendi that offers universal (or total) and serene harmony for man. And the lack of murmur, the picture of serenity that Senghor ultimately presents in his later collections is at once the least Catholic (capital C) and the most catholic (small c) imaginable. Unlike Saint-John Perse, the tension is not between classical calm and romantic storm, and the bridge to be raised is not between the world of gentleness and the hard or epic world. Nor is the bridge to be raised the Claudelian hieratic one between good and evil. The bridge to be erected is, rather, between the dialectical opposites of Africa and the West (or Seine and Sine), between Serer tribal beliefs and Christian values, between plant and phallus, herbivore and carnivore, life and death. And the poetic gospel Senghor preaches in his poetry is not akin to the priestly one of Claudel, who responds to the commandment of Christ to spread His word over the world. Senghor's gospel is that of negritude with everything this implies. Furthermore, the Thomistic sic et non which Hyman insists upon as fundamental to Senghor's world view is in reality merely a reinforcement of his own gospel's mission, his own declaration of the values of the black world and the committed living out of those values. And also, unlike Ezra Pound, Léopold Sédar Senghor makes all the forces bearing upon his muse melt together and cohere.

Therefore, while Catholic piety cannot be said to be the grist of his poetic mill, Senghor's verses are the mosaics of a poetic African Sanctus, as rich, as diffuse and as varied, but as authentically African in pitch and purpose as the musical one has been. This had to be, if the poet were to express effectively his chosen African way, his toiling black people, his sense of exile. This had to be, too, if he were to celebrate Africa—that night in which he claims all his contradictions are resolved in the primal unity of his negritude. It had to be if he were to declare to us his Empire of Love (“Le Kaya-Magan”), his African love, “qui meut les mondes chantants” (“Que m'accompagnent …”).

These seeming contradictions were necessarily set down in juxtaposition so that Senghor might assert his africanité, which, ironically and paradoxically, is his only viaticum. Such dialectical structures are indeed the source of the poet's metaphysical Angst, which, while not appeased, is mastered, so that the serene holiness of his poetry is apprehended unequivocally by the reader as the chief manifestation of its emotional depth and of the great-souled quality which obtain, regardless its politico-sociological drift, all too often over-emphasized by the poet's critics. Within his poetry, then, Senghor's sensibility must be judged as African and Catholic, though perhaps more African than Catholic and it is surely by any standards more eclectic, more ventilated and more catholic (small c) than it is orthodox Roman, doctrinaire or crypt-like. All that is to its credit, or so it seems to me.

Finally, as I asserted at the onset and believe I have demonstrated in this article, if Senghor's is an AFRICAN Sanctus, then criticism of his work must not overemphasize the exclusively western features of his poetic expression—such as his debt to surrealism or his Catholicism—to the detriment of his possibly more fundamental African aesthetic, his African super-real and metaphysical vision, and his African religious orientations.

Dorothy S. Blair (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: “The Negritude Generation” and “After Independence, the First Twenty Years: New Themes, New Names,” in Senegalese Literature: A Critical History, Twayne, 1984, pp. 45-141.

[In the following excerpt, Blair provides an overview of Senghor's literary and political career, particularly his role as a leading figure of the negritude movement and Senegalese literature.]

The literary pioneers we discussed in the preceding chapter were, without exception, the docile and grateful products of the French educational system, their “civilizing mission” and assimilation policy as applied to Senegal. Not one of these writers questioned the superiority of Western values; none showed any symptom of disquiet over a possible loss of cultural identity. But neither had any one of them been exposed to the cosmopolitan stimuli and intellectual hurly-burly of Paris student life. At the bottom of the educational ladder was a self-taught herdsman; at the top, a priest formed in the airtight academic chamber of a Catholic seminary.

However, in the 1930s, more and more outstanding young Senegalese were proceeding with scholarships to institutions of higher and professional training in France. They made contact with fellow blacks from Madagascar, the Caribbean, North America, and other parts of Africa. Some American Negro expatriates formed an important element in the intellectual melting pot of the Paris Left Bank: in particular, the writers Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Jean Toomer, who took refuge in France when their “New Negro” movement seemed to have failed. W. E. B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey, the “Black Moses,” had been in the vanguard of this movement. In 1903, DuBois had published his Souls of the Black Folk, denouncing the lack of opportunities for Negroes in the United States, invoking the greatness of the African past, and calling upon blacks themselves to refute the idea that they were congenitally inferior. He founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, with a periodical, the Crisis, as the organ for their propaganda.

In 1917, Garvey, a Jamaican black nationalist, established a branch of his Universal Negro Improvement Association in Harlem and held rallies and parades to bring Pan-Africanism into the streets. The American exiles brought with them to France DuBois's and Garvey's ideas of a black renaissance, to be discussed wherever black students and prominent personalities met: at the Cité Universitaire, the cafés, or the home of the Martiniquan sisters, Andrée and Paulette Nardal, who kept open house for black intellectuals, poets, novelists, and politicians, as did their compatriot, René Maran, whose novel Batouala had won him the Goncourt Prize in 1922.

In 1931, Paulette Nardal, in collaboration with the Liberian Dr. Leo Sajous, founded the bilingual (English-French) Revue du monde noir/Black World Review, in which American, Caribbean, and African blacks testified to their powers of independent thought and original personalities. One of the white contributors was the German ethnologist, Leo Frobenius, whose history of African civilization revealed that the so-called Dark Continent had had a medieval culture equal to that of the West, and taught young blacks that they could be as proud of their own history as the one they had learned to adopt with “their ancestors the Gauls.” In this period before the outbreak of the Second World War, orthodoxies were being challenged in art, literature, and politics. Earlier in the century, Picasso and Apollinaire had started a vogue for “primitive” sculptures, African masks and statuettes, defying aesthetic canons that had stood unquestioned for five hundred years in Europe. André Breton had published his two manifestos of surrealism (1924 and 1930) and put his theories into practice in the first surrealist novel, Nadja (1928), in which he had recourse to primitive myths. Many young intellectuals, including those from the Caribbean, were militant Marxists. All these general factors contributed to a climate favorable for the birth of the Negritude movement.

DuBois and Marcus Garvey, with their call to American Negroes to assume their identity in pride and awareness, can be considered the remoter ancestors of the movement. However, a more direct influence came from a group of students, led by Etienne Léro from Martinique, who frequented the Nardal sisters' “salon.” In June 1932 they launched a review called Légitime défense. (The title, the legal term for self-defense as an extenuating circumstance in cases of homicide, indicates the aggressivity that informs the contributions and the passionate anger in which the movement, for which the review was to be the organ, was conceived.) Légitime défense was the title of a pamphlet by André Breton, published in 1926, in favor of Communism; Léro and his collaborators thus clearly indicated their Marxist-Leninist stance and their adoption of surrealism as the art form of the future. Their foreword spelled this out unambiguously, proclaiming their anticapitalist, antibourgeois, anti-Christian principles. Addressing themselves directly to French-speaking blacks from the West Indies in the first instance, they stated in a verbal splutter of frustration and venom their intention eventually to reach all black intellectuals and students: “Impossible as it is for us to speak to the black proletariat, to whom international capitalism has not given the means to understand us, we speak to the children of the black bourgeoisie, to all those who are not yet killed-off highly-placed done-for turned into successful university academics decorated corrupt rotten well-to-do decorative prudish unequivocal opportunists.” (my translation respects the original punctuation!)

Léro and his team launched equally vituperative attacks on poetasters from the Caribbean. Even if they had read any of the works from Senegal we discussed in Chapter 2, they would hardly have thought them worth mentioning. René Ménil indicted “so-called writers” who were producing “this abstract and objectively hypocritical literature” that interested neither the black nor the white man, since it was only a poor imitation of French literature of the past. Léro, in even more blistering terms, arraigned the West Indies writers' pretentiousness, inauthenticity, casuistry, portentousness, impenitent conformism, their cult of the past rooted in their Greco-Latin education. But most of all he berates his compatriots for making it a point of honor to write in such a way that a white man can read their works without being able to guess their pigmentation.

Légitime défense was black writers' first published protest against the process of acculturation to which they had been subjected simultaneously with colonization. The magazine did not survive its first number, but it was to have lasting repercussions. It was the first bugle call, rallying black writers to the banner of what was to be known as the Negritude movement. But where it called for a black renaissance and spurred black writers to a pride in race and color, exhorting them to dig deep down in search of their cultural roots, primarily as part of an ideological and political struggle, the apostles of Negritude gave priority to the cultural conflict per se. The latter were not necessarily Communists or even fellow-travelers; they simply insisted on Negro culture and black values as the basis for literary forms and inspirations. The prime movers in this cultural awakening were Aimé Césaire from Martinique, Léon Gontran Damas from Guyana, and Léopold Sédar Senghor from Senegal; associated with them were two other Senegalese, Birago Diop and Ousmane Socé.

Senghor was twenty-two when he came to Paris in 1928 to study for an arts degree at the Sorbonne. In 1935 he became the first African to pass the highly competitive agrégation examination, entitling him to teach in French high schools. For the next five years, his academic career took him to various towns within reach of Paris, during which time he was writing the poems he published after the war as Chants d'ombre. Birago Diop arrived in France a year after Senghor, to study veterinary medicine at the University of Toulouse and later at the Institute of Tropical Veterinary Studies at Alfort, on the outskirts of Paris. Here he came into contact with the black youth of the Left Bank and, in particular, his compatriots, Socé, who was also studying veterinary medicine, and Senghor.

During his years in France, while he was closely associated with black intellectuals' literary and political ambitions, Socé completed his first novel, Karim, begun in Senegal, and started work on Mirages de Paris. Birago was recalling the stories his grandmother had told him in his childhood and translating into French the adages of the “Senegalese Socrates,” Kotje Barma. He bears witness in his autobiography to the life the three shared in the Latin Quarter and tells how Socé, during visits to the Cuban Cabin, a Montmartre nightclub, “surreptitiously scribbled notes for his next novel, Mirages de Paris, which he first called Panamite, on the strength of his newly-acquired knowledge,” and how all his friends at Alfort lent a hand with correcting the proofs of KarimLa Plume raboutée).

In 1934 Césaire, Damas, and Senghor founded their Etudiant noir as an organ for their theories about Negro-African culture and as an outlet for creative writing by all French-speaking blacks. Donald Herdeck refers to it as a “modest news-sheet” and is probably quoting Lilyan Kesteloot who calls it “un petit journal sans prétentions” (an unpretentious little newspaper). Kesteloot herself admits that none of the original founders had been able to supply her with copies of the paper, nor had they any memory of how many numbers appeared. For information about its aims, we must have recourse to indirect evidence, the most reliable being in subsequent writings by its founders. Kesteloot quotes a letter, written to her by Senghor in February 1960, saying “L'Etudiant noir and Légitime Défense represented respectively the two tendencies dividing the students. Though the two magazines had been subjected to the same influences, they differed on several points. L'Etudiant noir laid down that the cultural aspect was of primary importance. For us politics were only one aspect of culture, whereas Légitime Défense maintained that the political revolution should precede the cultural revolution.” In the same letter, Senghor explains: “We accepted Surrealism as a means and not as an end, as an ally, not as a master. We were quite prepared to take our inspiration from Surrealism, but only because Surrealist writing discovered the spoken word” ([Kesteloot,] Les écrivains noirs de langue française).

Surrealism could offer liberation from the rigorous discipline of formal French syntax: the ellipsis and syntactic license that surrealist poets used could be particularly seductive to those composing in an acquired language, who favored expression and imagery that was intuitive, esoteric, fluid, rather than consciously rational, referential, stable, and semantically significant. However, none of the Senegalese poets, at least those of the first Negritude generation, resorted to basic surrealist techniques: experiments with psychoanalytical inspirations in automatic writing, preference for apparently incongruous elements in the free play of hallucinatory analogies, exploitation of the individual unconscious psyche as a guide to poetic expression. But they did learn from the surrealists that poetry could be used as a revendication of liberty as well as a revolt against traditional modes of literary expression. The aspect of Breton's Message automatique that particularly appealed to them was the total equality of all normal human beings when faced by a subliminal message, and the fact that this message constituted a common heritage, of which each can demand his share. They also appreciated the incantatory power that the surrealists ascribed to words, using them as R. Short expresses it, “like talismans with magic power over the world.” This is probably what Senghor meant when he said, “Surrealist writing rediscovered the spoken word.”

From all the evidence, the word Négritude never appeared in L'Etudiant noir, nor is it of anything except academic interest to know if it was used in verbal discussions from 1932 to 1935, before Césaire launched it in print in his Cahier d'un retour au pays natalNotebook of a Return). But the word soon proved a useful, effective, evocative identification tab for Senghor's, Césaire's, and Damas's theories: a call for black intellectual solidarity, a refutation of assimilation, the assertion of Negro-African cultural heritage, and eventually, the indictment of racism and a rallying cry for anticolonial polemics.

It is not my intention here to give any more general definition or redefinition of Negritude, with its rapidly evolving protean character and the many features that French-African writers subsequently attributed to the term. The reader can refer to the many articles, chapters, and books that have been devoted to the subject, particularly in the last twenty years. What interests us is the motor force it lent in the first place to the three very different and original Senegalese authors, directly associated with L'Etudiant noir and the birth of the Negritude movement, and the influence it had on their disciples who published poetry, novels, and dramas in the immediate postwar and preindependence period. We shall see in their own works the expression of the primary concerns of Negritude: the preservation of oral literature and indigenous folklore; the rediscovery and presentation to Western readers of an African concept of life, with a universe peopled with and governed by invisible, telluric forces; in poetry, the assumption of African symbolism, rhythms, and canons of aesthetics; in novels, the difficulties faced by African society in accommodating an “assimilated,” twentieth-century persona to the traditional moral, social, and spiritual values of their ancestors. In a word, to borrow the symbol first popularized by O. Mannoni and discussed at length by Janheinz Jahn, Caliban is still content to use the language of his master, Prospero, not yet to call down the “red plague” upon him, but to break out of the prison of this language and its alien culture and fashion from it a pliant instrument for his own self-expression. …

In his preface to the Nouveaux contes d'Amadou Koumba, Senghor reminds us that “in olden times prose differed little from poetry. A story was rhythmic, only the rhythm was a little freer than that of the poem.” Birago Diop illustrates this blurred frontier between prose and poetry. His contemporaries, the dominant forces behind the Negritude movement—Césaire, Damas, and Senghor—concentrated their literary creativity solely in the field of poetry. Jacques Chévrier suggests that this was a deliberate choice of medium, influenced by their classical studies and contemporary surrealist writing. This would discount the fact that they were all instinctive, gifted poets, such as no amount of deliberate intent could have forged, and all produced poetry as naturally as an apple tree produces apples, irrespective of the influence of their classical education or the artistic climate of the thirties in which they matured.

In the case of Léopold Sédar Senghor, the poetry of his homeland was part of his childhood environment long before he ever came in contact with the languages and literatures of the West. He tells us of the lessons he learned from Marône, the poetess of his village, how, as a child, he listened to the hallucinatory chants of the griots, and how he later started on his own road to original composition by transcribing and translating traditional oral poetry. When, as a high school teacher in France, the “black shepherd” explains his own provenance to his white flock, he tells them, “My childhood, my lambs, is old as the world and I am young as the dawn of the world eternally young. / The poetesses of the sanctuary nurtured me / The King's griots sang for me the authentic legend of my race, accompanied by the sound of the mighty kôras.” He returns to this theme of early poetic influences when he relates how he laid his head “throbbing with the warlike gallop of the royal drums, on the lap of Ngƒ the poetess,” a head “singing with the distant songs of Koumba-the-orphangirl,” while his father, “Man of the Kingdom of Sine, reclines at peace upon his mats and the griots' fingers of fire dance to the heroic voice of the kôra's strings.”

Senghor destroyed all his juvenilia, but we know that at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris and later at the Sorbonne, he fell under the spell of the Parnassian and symbolist poets and wrote his master's dissertation on Baudelaire, taking these as his models for his first verses. When, with Césaire and Damas, he experienced a spiritual awakening and set out to rediscover his African heritage, to explore again his “Childhood Kingdom,” “to be reborn to the land which was (his) mother” (Chants d'ombre), he never returned to the regular metrical verse or rhymed stanzas, but proclaimed his Africanness in free verse, with haunting irregular rhythms. In adopting these, Senghor has freely acknowledged the debt he owed to Paul Claudel and Saint-John Perse: “I have read much, from the troubadours to Paul Claudel. And imitated much. … I will admit that when I first discovered Saint-John Perse after the Liberation, I was as dazzled as was Paul on the road to Damascus. But what is surprising about this? Such poetry is not entirely that of Europe and it is no accident, as Jean Guéhenno points out, that the texts of the Dogon cosmogony ‘are not without analogy with the poems of M. Claudel and M. Alexis Léger’ (Saint-John Perse). But I already had in a drawer the material for two volumes of poetry” (Poèmes).

These two volumes would be Chants d'ombre, poems written from 1930 up to the outbreak of war, and Hosties noires, written just before and during the war, including poems from the prison camp, Front-Stalag 230, where he spent two years. On the question of the significance of Claudel and Saint-John Perse to a reading of Senghor's own work, Clive Wake has pointed out that they can be seen as “cognate poets” rather than as models for imitation: “Claudel the professional diplomat, living most of his adult life outside France … ; Saint-John Perse, also a career diplomat, also living almost continuously outside France, preoccupied with the theme of exile.” Before we leave this question of influences to concentrate on what is specific to Senghor's themes and prosody, we should note the debt he owed to Maurice Barrès's novel Les Déracinés (The uprooted), which he read while still a pupil at Louis-le-Grand and which awoke in him a realization of the need to affirm his own roots. J. L. Hymans has drawn attention to the importance of Barrès's influence on Senghor in his “Intellectual Biography” of the poet.

Senghor began his spiritual and literary pilgrimage back to his own roots in the poems he published in the same year he was elected to represent his country in the Constituent Assembly that drew up the constitution for France's Fourth Republic. The first poem in Chants d'ombre, “In Memoriam,” expresses his nostalgia as an expatriate and affirms his atavistic solidarity with his distant countryfolk, especially their dead. In Africa, the presence of death does not mean the rejection of life, and though death is a key theme of these “Songs of Darkness,” they also celebrate the vibrant life of Black Africa. Life is ever-present sound and movement; life is the gamut of human emotions, associated with the traditional themes of lyric poetry, which are all present in these verses: absence, nostalgia, loneliness, love. The latter is best expressed in the celebrated “Femme noire,” the black woman who is, in the first place, the individual loved one and also the archetypal African woman, whose beauty is inventoried in erotic imagery. She is also the “femme obscure,” suggesting the dark mysteries of fertility, the fecund symbols of motherhood; so the black woman is also the poet's mother in whose shadow he grew up. Finally, the black woman symbolizes the whole black continent: “And lo! now in the heart of summer and of the noonday, I discover your promised land from the height of a sun-burnt mountain-top / And your beauty strikes me full in the heart like the flash of an eagle. …”

Inextricably interwoven with the personal and universal lyric themes is an ever-present reference to the larger issues of Africa's history and Europe's destiny. “Lettre à un poète” (a letter addressed to Aimé Césaire) sets out his principles on the black poet's mission and the specific source of his inspirations, and includes praises offered to the “Ancestors, Princes and Gods” of Africa. This poem is important both as a manifesto of Negritude theory and as an example of poetic form. Although we have not space here to analyze Senghor's poetics in detail, it is worth noting that this is one of the few published poems in which he retains a regular rhyme scheme (although not obeying the strict laws of classical prosody, which do not permit feminine and masculine endings rhyming together, for example) in couplets of subtle, irregular rhythmic patterns, marked by assonances, alliterations, and internal half-rhymes, in off-beat, syncopated cadences. Senghor goes on to invite his fellow poet to return to the black poet's themes and preoccupations, the sources of his inspiration and racial identity, and to continue to capture the rhythms and mysterious life of the African night.

In using the subjects of Africa's past in references, imagery, and major thematic treatment, Senghor is as much the griot's disciple as Birago Diop. He echoes local tradition, invokes his people's moral and religious values, and recalls the Malinke warrior-emperors' exploits, the wars waged by Samory, and the resistance of the former Serer Kingdom to local conquests. “Prière aux masques” (“Prayer to the masks”) is an invocation to the ageless ancestral gods to support Africa in her distress after the decline of the former empires, but it also expresses the poet's deep concern for Europe's fate in the years of tension leading up to the Second World War. With the two continents linked by an umbilical cord, he is acutely aware that Europe's downfall must be accompanied by that of Africa, “in the death-throes of a piteous princess.” This theme is developed in its full grandeur and solemnity in the long ode “Que m'accompagnent kôras et balafong” (To the accompaniment of kôras and balafong, subtitled u'oï, “lament”), a poem that sums up all the themes and preoccupations of Chants d'ombre, expressing the poet's full consciousness of his mission, and like “Prayer to the masks,” anticipating the war themes of the next volume, Hosties noires.

Some of these early poems express Senghor's desire for unity between the two continents, but his “Neige sur Paris” (“Snow upon Paris”) is a bitter indictment of the ravages the West wrought in Africa. Writing at Christmas 1938, when Christians were celebrating the message of peace and Europe was threatened with imminent war, he contrasts ideals and reality: the theory of universal brotherhood and the facts of a divided world. He draws the parallel between Christ's Calvary and Black Africa's suffering at the hands of the white peoples. Throughout his catalogue of grievances against Europe, he strives to reach a spirit of Christian forgiveness, which he expresses in the last line of the poem, a discreet reference to his white companion whose “… mains de rosée, le soir” soothe his burning cheeks. The last poem in Chants d'ombre, the important “Retour de l'enfant prodigue” (“Return of the prodigal son”), proclaims his allegiance to his origins and solidarity with his fellow Africans. Despite “sixteen years of wandering,” his heart is still “pure as the East wind in the month of March,” and so he defends himself against the charge of having become merely a black Frenchman.

The next volume, “Black Victims” [Hosties noires] is explicit: it opens with homage to the black soldiers, the tirailleurs sénégalais, recruited into the French army, and closes with “Prière de paix” (“Prayer for peace”). This is his bitterest and most cynical indictment of Europe, home of Christian ideals. He inventories all the injustices white men have meted out to the African continent, from the time of slavery through the whole era of colonization. He specifically arraigns France, because she has set herself up as the upholder of equality and brotherhood, liberty and enlightenment. This poem is the counterpart of the earlier “Snow upon Paris.”

Whereas most of the poems in this collection belong to the period of the 1939-45 war, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1936 inspired “A l'appel de la race de Saba” (“To the call from the race of Sheba”) in which Ethiopia, the ancient monarchy which traced its history back to the Queen of Sheba, becomes the symbol for rape of all Africa. When France was defeated and occupied in 1940 and all her allies were fighting for survival, Senghor again found his loyalties divided; from then till 1942, his bitterness is replaced by concern for Europe's ordeal and France's humiliation. In the prisoner-of-war camp, where he, the erudite black agrégé, found himself serving as scribe to illiterate poilus, he acquired a deep compassion for the common people of France, for whom he felt the same solidarity as for the black conscripts. He paid homage to the former in “Femmes de France” (“Women of France”); He celebrated the latter in poems entitled “Aux Tirailleurs sénégalais morts pour la France” (“To the Senegalese tirailleurs who died for France”), “Désespoir d'un volontaire libre” (“Despair of a free volunteer”), “Prière des tirailleurs sénégalais” (“Prayer of the Senegalese tirailleurs”), “Camp 1940, au Guélowar” (“To the descendant of the Malinke conqueror”), “Camp 1940, to Abdoulaye Ly.”

In 1942 Senghor was released from captivity on grounds of ill health; he returned to Paris to a teaching post, but lived under surveillance. He missed the warm, spontaneous humanity of the camp; moreover, to the solitude and humiliations a black man had to suffer in occupied France is added his disillusionment with the superficiality, materialism, and insensitivity he saw around him. He again expressed anger and despair in the caustic “Lettre à un prisonnier” (“Letter to a prisoner”). As in the poem answering the appeal of the race of Sheba, he turns for consolation and hope to the ancient wisdom of Africa, the spiritual quality of the African, which he opposes to the sophistication, coldness, and alienation of “the crowds on the boulevards, sleepwalkers who have renounced their identity as men.”

After the war, Senghor is elected to the French National Assembly; no longer an exile expressing nostalgia for Africa, he is the honored, confident “Ambassador of the black races.” He marries Ginette, the daughter of Felix Eboué, a Guyanan who becomes governor-general of French Equatorial Africa, and composed for her Chants pour Naëtt (Songs for Naëtt), which were incorporated into Nocturnes, after the marriage was dissolved, under the more general title of “Chants pour Signare.” By removing the personal dedication, he made it possible to interpret the poems as an address to the spirit of Africa in the form of the gracious, noble Senegalese signare. These beautiful and moving verses express a lover's deep passion with great discretion and sobriety (there is less sensual, erotic imagery than in many of his other poems), while at the same time suggesting the poet's emotional attachment to his native land.

The unity of theme of Senghor's next volume, Ethiopiques, stems from his responsibility as a leader of his people. He evokes the role of the ruler in traditional African societies, as in “Le Kaya-Magan” (The emperor of ancient Ghana), with whom he identifies: “Kaya-Magan je suis! la personne première / Roi de la nuit noire de la nuit d'argent, Roi de la nuit de verre” (Kaya-Magan am I! The primordial person / King of the black night of the silver night, King of the night of glass). At the same time he associates his role as voice of his people with his function as diplomat and peacemaker, whose task is the reconciliation of races and healing of differences. In this way he is able to resolve the contradictions and ambiguities arising out of his dual loyalties to Africa and Europe, Senegal and France, to the spiritual essence of Africa—symbolized by the queen of Sheba—and to the white woman who is now his wife. This dichotomy is touched on in “L'Absente” (“The absent one”), embodying the poet's muse and expressing his reluctance to abandon his role as a visionary under the pressure of politics; it is then fully resolved in the group of poems “Epîtres à la princesse” (“Letters to the princess”), dedicated to his wife's grandmother, the marquise de Betteville. These are, on one level, personal expressions of affection; they are also the affirmation of the spiritual union between the North, symbolized by the princess of Belborg, and the South—the culture of Africa—of which the poet is the embodiment: “Et mon pays de sel et ton pays de neige chantent à l'unison” (And my land of salt and your land of snow sing in unison).

Senghor had long cherished the ideal of universal understanding and brotherhood, an ideal that survived his temporary bouts of bitterness and disillusionment with Europe. In Chants d'ombre, he had already declared he had “dreamt of a sunlit world in the fellowship of (his) blue-eyed brothers” (“Retour de l'enfant prodigue”). Now, in the dramatic poem “Chaka” in Ethiopiques, he puts into the dying Zulu king's mouth the retort, “I have wished all men to be my brothers,” when challenged by the Voice of the White Man with having a “voice red with hatred.” Senghor's Chaka is not the bloodthirsty tyrant of Mofolo's novel, but an astute political leader and military strategist who died trying to ensure African unity. He is also identified with his creator, who presents him as a poet-ruler and poet-prophet.

In giving this dramatic form to his own ambivalence, Senghor attempts the confirmation of his conviction that from contradictions of this kind will stem the reconciliation of the differences between colonized Africa and the European colonizing powers. When his next volume of poems, Nocturnes, appears, Senegal has achieved independence and the poet-statesman is elected the first president of the new republic. …

In spite of his duties as president of the new Republic of Senegal, his important role in African and international affairs, and his major prose writings on socialism and politics generally, Senghor still continued to find time and inspiration for poetic composition. The first volume of poems published after his election as president was Nocturnes (1961). This included the revised version of the love poems, Chants pour Naëtt, now entitled “Chants pour signare,” five “Elegies,” and the “Song of the Initiate.” Many of the new poems reflect the poet's concept of his personal mission to restore a life of harmony, plenitude, and greater spiritual dimensions to his countrymen and announce his homeland's regeneration. In the “Song of the Initiate,” he proclaims himself “the son of Man son of the Lion, roaring in the hollow back of the hills” (the lion being Senghor's ancestral totem and also the symbol of Africa and of a sovereign; it features in the new Senegalese national flag). In his “Elegy of the Circumcised Boys,” the circumcision rite, marking the passage of the adolescent boy to manhood, becomes the metaphor both for the poet's personal progress to political maturity and his country's attainment of manhood after having undergone the trial period of pain and mental stress.

The theme of the night, suggested by the title Nocturnes, had long been a basic element in Senghor's poetry and is, as Lamine Diakhaté indicates, richer even in symbolic associations in African mythology than in Western writings. Night here suggests a time of serenity and also of disquiet; a time of mystery, linked with the past (and also a nostalgic return to the Kingdom of Childhood) and with the dead; thus an assertion of the continuity of society. Night is also traditionally in Africa the time for dialogue, communication with one's fellows. So Senghor chooses an apt title for both a statesman's message to his people and the apostle of Negritude's message to his literary disciples, as one chapter in the evolution of the political struggle and the affirmation of black values is closed and the literature of independence is about to be launched. Senghor's next volume of poetry will not appear for nearly ten years, returning then to the inspiration of his earlier intimate love songs. We have already mentioned in Chapter 1 the climatic overtones he gives to this work, Lettres d'hivernage, associated with the African equivalent of the European autumn. It includes some of the most moving and certainly the most personal verses that Senghor had yet written, indicating that for the poet-president the moment for committed poetry seemed to have passed, so that he could now devote his gifts to the themes that have universally inspired lyric verse.

Senghor's work did not continue to elicit unqualified praise from a new generation of black intellectuals. To his contemporaries of the interwar years and to the first generation of postwar writers, he had been an inspiration and a trailblazer. In the period of decolonization, some of his younger country folk were beginning to question his literary reputation and contest his political authority, based as it was on a nondogmatic socialism and a desire to conciliate the interests of Africa and France, to arrive at a compromise between capitalism and communism. His literary adversaries criticized his erudition, his pedantry, which made his poetry elitist, inaccessible to the masses. Typical of this attitude is Vive le président (Long live the president) by the Cameroonian Daniel Ewande, a satire on “our colonized Africas” whose tone ranges from burlesque to vituperation. However, when political considerations are no longer relevant to judging works of art and the latter are allowed to stand as their own monuments, there seems no doubt that Senghor will be acclaimed by posterity as Africa's greatest French-language poet of the twentieth century, and his postcolonial compositions will be seen to have added considerably to his literary stature.

In his seventies, he shows himself in a deeply contemplative and often melancholy mood in his latest published work, Elégies majeures (“Major Elegies”). The first of the six long odes, “Elégie des alizés” (“Elegy of the Trade Winds”), dedicated to his wife Colette, follows the moods of the changing seasons of his homeland, which in turn echo the poet's emotions and mental states, from disillusion to freshness and renewal, from existential nausea to a sense of deliverance. Finally, at the year's end, the fortified poet is inspired to redefine his relationship to his people and his role as poet, anticipating no doubt his intention to retire from the presidency at the end of 1980.

He also redefines the Negritude that informed his first poetic works thirty years before in a deliberate echo of his friend and contemporary, Aimé Césaire's famous lines in Cahier d'un retour au pays natal. “My negritude,” writes Senghor, “is not the slumber of the race but the sunshine of the soul, my negritude is vision and life / My negritude is the trowel in the hand, is the lance in the fist / The Ivory Staff of Office … / My task is to rouse my people to their futures aflame …” (Elégies majeures). He seems to repent of the arcane nature of his verse, proclaiming kinship with all black workers whose approval he calls for so that he can once more be their emissary and Africa's mouthpiece. Yet for all this announcement of solidarity with the common people, he is still unrepentant in his use of excessively abstruse vocabulary. It is useless to search in Littré or Robert for words like maëstrichtien, gliricidias, l'alhiziazygia, as unfamiliar to the French reader as to the African, and he supplies no glossary to assist the Europeans' understanding of combassou or moutou-moutous. But these archaic or recondite terms, together with exotic proper names, imitative harmony of assonances, insistent drumming of alliterations—which do not disdain a quasi-punning interplay of appositions—all invest the verse with the enigmatic mystery of a hieratic incantation, as if we were participating in some arcane rite.

“Elégies des alizés” is both the septuagenarian poet's reaffirmation of his role as emissary of his people and an intensely personal pilgrimage into the intimate sensorial experience of his own bicontinental existence: he consciously and constantly attests his African roots while his diapasons vibrate with love for the woman who is not always at his side. The path from the personal to the universal is further affirmed in the “Elegy for Jean-Marie,” inspired by the premature death of a young friend. Like Victor Hugo in Contemplations, drawing from bereavement a strengthening of his resignation to God's will, Senghor too restates in this elegy his religious faith. In the next of the threnodies, the “Elegy for Martin Luther King,” he takes up the theme of hope for universal brotherhood to be born out of contemporary violence. He echoes Pastor King's own “I had a dream” with “Et je vis une vision” in which black men and white men are gathered at the feet of the “Being who is strength”—townsmen and peasants, those who cut cane and those who chop cotton, the “Just and the Good” from America's past and present who have devoted and often sacrificed their lives for liberty and racial justice. A visit to Tunis in 1975 is the occasion for the “Elegy of Carthage,” in which Senghor the scholar displays his erudition while Senghor the statesman pays tribute to his host, Habib Bourguiba, reviewing the history, peoples, and heroic figures of North Africa, with a discreet reference to the Algerian war of liberation.

The “Elegy for Georges Pompidou,” like the “Elegy of the Trade Winds,” is an intensely personal poem: a lament for a lifelong friend rather than for a public figure. Offering this poem, “like a libation,” he recalls his contemporary's long fight with illness, turning naturally then to a preoccupation with dying and the immortality of the soul of which his Catholic faith assures him. He questions his dead friend on the reality of the hereafter and expresses his own fears and weaknesses, asking for the prayers of his “more-than-brother” for strength, courage, and constancy in his task. He finishes again on an ecumenical note of universal love, asking for blessings on his black people, “all people with brown skin, beige skin / Suffering throughout the world … who were on their knees, who had too long eaten bitter bread, millet and rice of shame,” Negroes, Arabs, Jews, Indochinese, and even, while he is about it, the white superpowers with their superbombs, who also have need of love.

The last of the elegies, “For the Queen of Sheba,” brings Senghor's poetic composition full circle. Taking as its epigraph “I am black and I am fair” from the Song of Songs, it returns to the themes of his youth when he was forging the doctrines of Negritude. It is a more elaborate reworking of his famous “Femme noire” from Chants d'ombre of thirty years before, celebrating what Sartre had called “the Annunciation of quintessential blackness,” clothing in indigenous rhythms the dazzling imagery that seems fostered in African soil and ripened in tropical sunshine. Once more, with “desire suspended in the October of age,” the poet returns insistently to the memories of youth, and once more his verses are infused with impassioned eroticism. The poem is a love offering, a song of rapture, a dialogue between poet and muse, an inflammatory courtship dance, culminating in an orgasmic ecstasy.

If this collection of poems should prove to be Senghor's swan song, the best of them, particularly the “Elegy of the Trade Winds” and the “Elegy for the Queen of Sheba,” will prove to have exorcised death more surely than any possible prayers to his friend Georges Pompidou. The verses, which unite word, music, and movement to express the pulsating heart of Africa, will continue to vibrate with life, a testimony to his “Kingdom of Childhood” and his “N‚gritude debout.”

In the postface to this volume, Senghor elaborates upon that to the earlier Ethiopiques to define in detail his poetic theory and practice. He frankly admits both his “biological interbreeding” and his cultural métissage, tracing the influences of the great French poets—Hugo, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Claudel, Saint-John Perse—combined with the neologisms, wild images, and syncopated rhythms that Negro-African poets have introduced into Francophone verse. Rimbaud's example has been particularly valuable, with his genius for using symbols, rich in analogical imagery, more complex, ambivalent, multivalent than the classical, traditional symbol of the West. The final aim of the poet, he states, is to achieve a “symbiosis of soul and body, grafting the spoken word onto flesh and blood” (Elégies majeures).

This essay is more than a poetic manifesto, it is Senghor's profession of faith in which he admits that his poetry has always been the essential aspect of his life. But he makes it clear that he does not consider his poetic creativity distinct from his work as a statesman. The poet-master-of-language is for him the seer, the visionary, exteriorizing his “inspiration- intuition” to create a “total poetry” that is “at one and the same time, idea, vision, spoken word and action.” Thus, from his beginnings as a militant exponent of Negritude, he evolves his principle of a humanism of universal dimensions: poetry creating a new cultural world order. “I speak,” he says, “of a spoken word as a new vision of the universe and a pan-human creation at one and the same time: of the Fertile word, one last time, because it is the fruit of different civilizations, created by all the nations together, over the whole surface of the planet Earth.”

Janet G. Vaillant (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “Coming of Age,” in Black, French, and African: A Life of Léopold Sédar Senghor, Harvard University Press, 1990, pp. 117-46.

[In the following excerpt, Vaillant discusses the significance of Senghor's formative years in France and his early poetry.]

On the eve of World War II, Tours was a calm little town in the Loire Valley slightly to the south and west of Paris. The people of the region were known as bon vivants, lovers of good food and wine. They were sunny, like their rich and fertile countryside. Tours is, and was when Senghor arrived, a town typical of provincial France and the French heartland. Senghor particularly enjoyed the fact that it had been a Roman settlement, Cesarodunum, and remained rich in signs of its Roman and early Christian history. It encompassed, therefore, all he thought best in French culture.

In the fall of 1935, the forty-four children who arrived for their first day in sixth class met an unexpected sight. They knew they were getting a new teacher, an agrégé from the University of Paris, who was better educated than many of their other teachers. They expected him to be poised and well-prepared. When they entered their groundfloor classroom, the found a man who seemed confident and well-educated but who was black. They had never seen anyone like him before. Senghor sympathized with the awkward situation of the director of the school, who must have wondered how best to present the new teacher to the students' parents. As it turned out, Senghor quickly won the children's confidence as an excellent classics teacher. He set out to teach Latin as a living language and managed to avoid the monotonous declension of nouns and verbs that had characterized his own learning of the classical languages. …

The diversity of levels on which Senghor existed is most evident in the poems he wrote during his years in Tours. Most of them were not published until later, but it seems clear that it was during this often lonely period that Senghor first realized his vocation as a poet. His earliest published poems provide a revealing glimpse of the emotions and concerns that preoccupied him then and would continue to preoccupy him in the future. Senghor has emphasized that in 1935, the same year he moved to Tours, “I discovered myself such as I was.”

This coming of age was not an altogether happy one. It was accompanied by moments of doubt and even despair. Looking back, Senghor recalled it as a time of fervor and perpetual tension. He, Césaire, and a few other black friends with whom he met during his trips to Paris resisted taking the easy road of assimilation, becoming the educated black Frenchmen so dear to sentimental colonial bureaucrats. They accepted a call to live life honestly and dangerously, and saw themselves as New Negroes with a mission to spread the word. The struggle to express what they felt led, according to Senghor, to “literary work which was morally, how shall I put it, physically and metaphysically lived right up to the edge of madness.” Their inner turmoil was experienced as illness. Césaire actually had a nervous collapse in the fall of 1935. The breakdown was attributable partly to overwork in preparation for the Ecole Normale competition, but it also coincided with Césaire's attempt to absorb the shock of his encounter with Paris and, through Senghor, with Africa.

Senghor has written that Césaire and he suffered through this period together. To a point their anxiety stemmed from the same source. Césaire's attempt at cure mirrored Senghor's, though each was filtered through the prism of a different temperament and personality. There was the further difference that Senghor, unlike Césaire, had a personal memory of a real Africa. Césaire saw Senghor as the more fortunate of the two for this reason. Looking within, Césaire discovered emptiness, whereas Senghor discovered warm memories of another world. Nonetheless, as they came to know each other, each began to see that his individual dilemma was not simply a personal misfortune or the result of undue sensitivity, but the effect of a structure created by a historical relationship between black and white developed over hundreds of years. The Afro-French society of Senegal, the transplanted and mixed culture of the Antilles, as well as the promises and conditions of French education for blacks, had left a difficult legacy. Césaire and Senghor discovered that the educated black man trying to live in France suffered from this situation in the extreme.

The severity of this strain was illustrated dramatically for them by the suicide of a black French-speaking writer, the Malagasy poet Jean-Joseph Rabéarivelo. Rabéarivelo's death received considerable publicity in the Paris press. His last diary, published in the Mercure de France, revealed that in taking leave of life he had left “a kiss to the books of Baudelaire,” Senghor's favorite poet. This event shook Senghor and his circle, who identified Rabéarivelo's situation with their own. Both Senghor and Damas wrote about it. Damas observed that the suicide was partly the result of “despair brought about by a sense of the uselessness of all effort, by uprooting and exile in the very land of his ancestors [he was in Madagascar at the time of his suicide], … but also illustrated the drama of a man who has crossed very quickly, too quickly, the stages of civilization. Rabéarivelo aspired high, not just to be the equal of the white, but to be an intellectual. Yet he became a being apart, neither fish nor fowl, and suffered for it.” Senghor reflected on Rabéarivelo's suicide somewhat differently. He saw it as one possible outcome of the failure to make peace within one's own personality. When a man has become French by education, he feels himself an outcast in his own land. This makes Rabéarivelo's suicide understandable. Senghor was determined to integrate in himself the best of both worlds and to be comfortable in both. He understood that this would be impossible without the reevaluation and acceptance of the core values of the Africa of his childhood. This was a part of his basic identity, the remnants of childhood that must be preserved. It would require the creation of a new person with a new voice. The voice would be neither French nor African, for the man was neither French nor African. It would be that of a new historical personage, the French Negro. The whole quest, as Senghor put it, was “nothing but a quest for ourselves.” It was no idle or vain goal, but a vital necessity.

The examples provided by Césaire and Rabéarivelo suggest that Senghor was not being overly melodramatic when he spoke of his quest for a new identity as “a question of life and death.” The price of failing to achieve equilibrium, he wrote in his reflection on Rabéarivelo, is despair. And, elsewhere, discussing Rabéarivelo and suggesting that he himself was no stranger to this despair, “I would never commit suicide because I think it is giving up. It is the acceptance of defeat. For me, suicide is cowardice. And the fault I scorn the most is cowardice.” Despair is also one of the most deadly sins for the Christian, as suicide is considered a crime against God. Senghor's deep Christian belief and his long Christian education helped provide the framework for resisting Rabéarivelo's choice. They promised Senghor that an alternative was possible.

Poetry gave both Césaire and Senghor, and their friend Damas, a language and form in which to express the problem and to reach toward its solution. In Césaire's case, recovery from a psychological breakdown coincided with his sketching out the first draft of a long prose poem, Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Land of Birth). In Senghor's, it led to the discovery of a vocation for poetry that allowed him to recognize himself “such as he was” and to write the poems that make up his first published collection of poetry, Chants d'ombre (Songs of, or from, the Shadows). In both cases, it led, as it had for the heroes of Maurice Barrès who had so attracted Senghor in his student days, to a return to the traditions of their homeland.

Césaire's Cahier is transparently autobiographical. It presents in poetic form an account of a metaphoric return to his native land, a trip mirrored by Césaire's actual trip to Martinique in the summer of 1936. He looks open-eyed at his island and accepts the fact that this is his only home. Senghor has emphasized repeatedly how close in their thinking he and Césaire were at this time; thus Césaire's account is valuable for what it suggests about both men. Césaire sets out to assess his native island with an objective eye for the first time. He sees a people who are browbeaten, disease-ridden, and poor. He sees a land that is ugly, with a stench of poverty, “rotting under the sun.” He sees hunger and suffering, a place where the river of life has been blocked up and lies, torpid, in its bed. He accepts this as the reality of his home and of his personal past. He sees also that he is connected by virtue of his black skin to the experience of all black men, black men of Africa, Haiti, Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama. He accepts their history as his—the ugliness and ignorance, the poverty and disease, the slavery and cannibalism. This is a real and inescapable part of the black experience. Both the exotic Negro of French invention and the black Frenchman are myths created by white Europeans. To the rest of the world, he now hurls a challenge: “Adapt yourself to me. I do not adapt myself to you.” He will cheer for those who are nothing. They at least are not cynical or corrupted by the exploitation of others. This does not mean that he hates other races, only that he will exalt in his own. He accepts unconditionally his membership in a race with a grim and degraded past. In the future he will stand up, as he has not done in the past, and other Negroes will stand up with him. Exoticism and illusion are not fit food for a man. They cannot nourish his growth. Man must stand on what is real. No matter how unpleasant that reality is, only it can provide a steady foundation. For Césaire, in this poem, the progression is simple. First, he will recognize the location of his true homeland; second, he will look objectively at it; and third, he will accept it for what it is. Then, and only then, can he move forward. No more self-deception or seeing himself reflected in the eyes of others.

Senghor saw his task as somewhat different. If Césaire and the black population of Martinique had in fact lost all traces of their distant African heritage and been left only with poverty and slavery, he had not. Senghor argued that blacks had been taught for centuries that they had thought nothing, built nothing, painted nothing, sung nothing, and that they and their culture were nothing, the “tabula rasa” of French mythology. This was the stuff of his schooldays, when his French teachers had reminded him over and over again that they had driven barbarism and sickness from his country and had brought him the benefits of civilization. But while he was learning this from his French teachers, he had also known something else, something that he had for a time discounted. He had a direct experience of the African village, of Djilor and Joal. This knowledge contradicted the French doctrine that Africa was a blank page, totally without culture. What Senghor had now to do was to stop pretending either that the French teaching was correct or that it did not exist. He had to acknowledge that most Frenchmen considered blacks inferior men whose best hope was to become discolored Frenchmen. He finally realized that he could never achieve self-respect as long as he continued to pretend that he and the French saw no difference between him and them. Like Césaire, Senghor resolved to confront these attitudes and teachings with another reality. He, too, would make the metaphoric and symbolic trip home.

The poetry Senghor wrote in Tours reflects this resolve. It evokes and examines his childhood heritage and accepts it as an inextricable part of his own personality. The subjects of these poems, their shifting emphases and rich ambivalence, provide a glimpse of Senghor's inner self and the associations that rang through his memory at this time. While it is always dangerous to assume that the voice of a poem and the actual voice of a writer are identical, in Senghor's case the connection seems close indeed in these early poems.

The first theme Senghor takes up is that of exile. Its direct connection to his life as an African student in Paris is clear. He expresses feelings of isolation among strangers, of unease, and of a keen, almost unbearable love for the absent one, Africa. The theme of exile and return, providing opportunity for loving descriptions of home and immersion in memories of childhood, is an understandable one for any student far from home. For Senghor it had a special significance. Immersing himself in memories of childhood, sharing them with sympathetic West Indian friends, and writing about them provided Senghor a source of pleasure and companionship. It lent dignity and wider significance to what otherwise might have been solitary day-dreaming or a grim quest. C‚saire and others, hungry to learn about Africa, encouraged him to continue in this direction.

Senghor writes lyrically of his childhood home, Joal, and the nights of Sine:

Woman, lay on my forehead your perfumed hands, hands softer than
Above, the swaying palms rustle in the high night breeze
Listen to its song, listen to our dark blood beat, listen
To the deep pulse of Africa beating in the mist of forgotten villages.

Working on these poems in his room, Senghor could travel home in his mind's eye and give outlet to his nostalgia. He could write of his beloved uncle, Waly, his mythic and noble father, the dignity and riches of traditional kings, and the peace and calm of evenings in the still villages. Such was the inspiration for one of his most often quoted poems, a poem written in praise of the beauty of the black woman and of the Africa she embodies:

Naked woman, dark woman
Firm-fleshed ripe fruit, sombre raptures of black wine, making lyrical
my mouth
Savannah stretching to clear horizons, savannah shuddering beneath the
East Wind's eager caresses.
Carved tom-tom, taut tom-tom, muttering under the Conqueror's fingers
Your solemn contralto voice is the spiritual song of the Beloved.

Senghor celebrates the particular texture and physical presence of a concrete place and time, the Africa of his childhood. It is a pure and integrated world that is, to use his own phrase, innocent of Europe.

Into some of Senghor's evocations of Africa, however, creep signs of the European. Even as he remembers Joal with the beautiful women in the cool shade of verandahs, King Koumba Ndofene Diouf, and the rhapsodies of the griots, he also hears with pleasure pagan voices chanting the “tantum ergo,” and sees the Catholic religious processions that gather by his grandfather's house in Joal. They, too, are part of his remembered Africa. They appear in the poem as totally compatible with the rest. Both elements are part of a harmonious memory.

These poems are consistent, affectionate, and whole. The merging of Africa, paradise, and childhood is complete. If Baudelaire taught that all great poets are inspired by childhood, Senghor happily bears him out in finding in the kingdom of childhood his chief poetic inspiration. Such an imaginative return also offers the poet an opportunity to relive a period when his experience was integrated, before he felt the impact of the French in Africa or the adult experiences of dislocation and division. With a flash of insight, Senghor acknowledges that childhood and Africa are linked with Eden in his memory, there confused and inseparable. Like Eden, his childhood Africa offered him a place of perfect harmony between man and his surroundings. Perhaps even more important for Senghor, it was the time of emotional peace and internal harmony. In Eden man and God lived in accord. Man did not yet know sin, which cuts him off from an integrated communion with God. In Senghor's imagination Eden and the Africa of his childhood are one and the same, what he calls the kingdom of childhood, to which he can return at will for inspiration.

When Senghor writes of his present situation and feelings, however, the poet's attitude and mood become far more complex and varied. He finds no single consistent stance toward the French world, at least not in his early poems. Even the notion of exile becomes more complex. At times, the poet focuses on the physical exile that leads to solitude and isolation. But he finds that his solitude is deeper than mere physical absence from Africa. He is further isolated by specific qualities of French life. Even this, however, is not the full measure of his separation. He suffers most of all from “that other exile harder on my heart, the tearing of self from self / from the language of my mother, from the thinking of my ancestor, from the beat of my soul.” This wrenching of self from self leads to an almost overwhelming sense of being two.

The poet realizes that he has internalized both his African and his French upbringing, and finds the two sets of values and behaviors to be at odds. The colonial administrator and educator Georges Hardy had warned that French schooling could lead Africans to live in two separate worlds and that this could have dire results. For most African children, the French world was but an artificial and temporary existence, while their real world remained securely that of Africa. For Senghor, however, the balance was far more even. He loved France and French culture. He also loved his native Africa. If he was to find a new voice as a French Negro, he had to resolve this problem of twoness. For him, the French Negro could not be the black Frenchman of colonial policy, the Frenchman who happened to be black. That black Frenchman was doomed forever to second-class citizenship. Nor could the French Negro be the African innocent of Europe. Senghor would have to be a black man first, who then acquired French culture and put it to work for his own purposes. It was too late to reject his laboriously acquired French education, nor did he wish to. A linguistic solution of this dilemma, simply by fusing together two words, an adjective and a noun, “Negro” and “French,” and announcing oneself a “French Negro” or a “New Negro,” was a declaration of intent, but only a first step. What might seem but a small shift in emphasis required in fact a basic redefinition of the nature and possibilities of the black man.

This theme of separation, internal fracture, and the search for wholeness adds a more sombre dimension to the theme of exile. This is the note that dominates Senghor's first published collection of poetry, Chants d'ombre (Songs of, or from, the Shadow). So long as he felt these inner divisions, he could not rest. As he explored their nature and consequences, he was comforted by knowing that his painful experience was shared by men like Césaire and Maran, as well as by men who had lived before him and whom he knew only through their writings, such as the black American Dr. W. E. B. DuBois. Senghor was astonished, he later wrote, to discover such kinship in the writings of DuBois, a man living so removed from himself in both time and place. In expressing what he called his constant sense of twoness, DuBois had put the problem of the black man in a white man's world with stark clarity. His writings further convinced Senghor that all black men shared a common experience.

W. E. B. DuBois was born in Massachusetts in 1868, almost forty years before Senghor's birth. The worlds in which the two men grew up bore no resemblance. They did share, however, the experience of moving at a very young age into a world dominated by whites who had certain preconceptions about black people. DuBois grew up in the little New England town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and received a Ph.D. from Harvard University, an institution whose relative prestige among Americans rivals that of Louis-le-grand and the Sorbonne among the French. He, like Senghor, was able to excel according to the white man's standards. Yet though DuBois got a degree from Harvard and studied in Europe, when it came time for his adult career, race became the decisive factor. DuBois had to look for employment, as did another black Harvard graduate, Alain Locke, at a black institution such as Fisk, Howard, or Atlanta. Similarly, Senghor was constantly reminded in small ways that, despite his unusual success in the French system, he was not French and never could be. Biology and birth proved decisive in such matters. When DuBois published The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, three years before Senghor was born, he was in his mid-thirties, a gifted and successful young man who appeared to have a promising scholarly career ahead of him. In his book, DuBois describes the position of the black man in America. Living in the American world, he observes,

yields him [the Negro] no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

DuBois, like Senghor in his poetry, identifies several dimensions to the problem of “twoness,” and of the black man in the white man's culture. On the first and most obvious level, the black self seen through the eyes of whites is an inferior person in every way. He has invented nothing, has done nothing, and is nothing. He can be only an object of contempt, curiosity, or pity. As the dictionary Senghor used at school put it, Negroes are inhabitants of Africa who form a race “inferior in intelligence to the white race called Caucasian.” But there is a second part of the problem, both more subtle and more intractable. The educated black American not only is seen by others as inferior but also sees himself as inferior, for he sees with eyes shaped by white values and culture.

DuBois offers a precise description of Senghor's experience. Though African by birth, Senghor had become French by education. He was taught to see Africans as French people saw Africans. No allowance was made for the fact that he himself happened to be African. Nothing in his education encouraged or even allowed him to have a clear sense of himself as an educated black person. According to his French culture, to be black and educated was a contradiction in terms. There was no such person. Hence the sense of twoness. It was not simply a question of being buffeted by the insolence of others. The struggle was between two warring parts of the self. Under these circumstances, to become an integrated, single person with a clear voice was a difficult achievement, and yet to fail was to pay an enormous price. The suicide of Rabéarivelo illustrated just how high that price might be for a sensitive person. Given DuBois's powerful description of an experience Senghor felt to be his own, it is small wonder that Senghor later called DuBois one of the fathers of Negritude and firmly believed that the essential black experience was shared by black men everywhere.

Senghor explored this experience of twoness in his early poetry. The poet discovers first one and than another rift in his personality. At the most obvious there is a division between the outer self he presents to the world, that of the dutiful teacher who “smiles but never laughs,” and an inner self, brooding about his African roots. The outer self, carefully constructed to hide emotion, is calm and serene; the inner self is in turmoil. This dichotomy is the subject of Senghor's first extant reliably dated poem, “Jardin de France” (“French Garden”):

Calm Garden
Grave Garden
Garden with evening eyes
Lowered for the Night
White Hands
Delicate motions
Soothing gestures
But the tom-tom's call
over continents
and mountains
Who will quiet my heart
Leaping at the tom-tom's call

Here the calm, French surface is barely able to contain the African heart that stubbornly leaps to the beat of the drum. The stolid measured rhythms of being in the French world contrast stylistically with the flowing energy of the lines describing the inner African being, reinforcing the explicit content of the poem. It is a contrast parallel to that of the later poem “Portrait,” in which the poet expresses the discontinuity between his inner world and that of the French in which he lives, but also acknowledges the appeal of the French world. The spring of Touraine is sweet and makes advances, totally unaware of the poet's “imperious Negritude.” The poet makes no attempt at reconciliation of any kind. He is simply descriptive.

At times, the poet wishes only to bury his African side. When he first arrived in Paris, for example, Senghor shared the French view about Africans' lack of contribution to world culture: “Had our black skins allowed it, we would have blushed for our African birth … the [African] people made us secretly ashamed.” This is the attitude of his schoolboy verse written in imitation of the French romantic poets, an attitude that later made him so ashamed that, as he wrote to Maurice Martin du Gard, he destroyed this early work. It is an attitude he admitted openly only after he had cast it off. In a poem entitled “Totem,” he writes of being pursued by a heritage he cannot shake:

In my inmost vein I must hide him
My Ancestor with the skin storm-streaked with lightning and thunder
My guardian animal. I must hide him
Lest I burst the dam of scandal.

And, elsewhere, “it pursues me, my black blood, right into the solitary heart of the night.”

Even as he is trying to hide his ancestor, and so to escape his black blood, Senghor realizes that this is impossible. The advantage may be, as the poet suggests in “Totem,” that the ancestor protects him from his naked pride that might lead him to develop the “arrogance of the lucky races,” and from the weakness of civilized man. These arguments are not altogether convincing. The poet seems to be casting about for some consolation for his inescapable blackness. It is a great effort. Senghor had to “hypnotize himself,” he said later, to find all that belonged to white Europe, its reason, its art, and its women, ugly and insipid.

The arrangement of the individual poems in the Chants d'ombre collection reflects what Senghor calls the order of their general inspiration, if not the actual dates of composition. The progression from poem to poem therefore parallels his own evolution, at least as he later came to see it, and the stages he went through in his growing self-awareness.

The first poem in the collection, “In Memoriam,” finds the poet in Paris in his room, alone, apprehensive about the crowd of men “with faces of stone” who await him in the street below. To escape them, and to avoid going down into this world, he dreams of Africa, his race, and the dead ancestors. With images of African power, he builds a protective wall between himself and the world outside. At the end of the poem, he reluctantly gives up this secure fortress and goes out into the world, where he resolves to live with “his brothers with the blue eyes and hard hands.” Several short poems that convey similar attitudes are followed by the poems singled out above for their clear, unambivalent evocation of the nights of Sine, Joal, and Djilor, the beauty of the black woman and of Africa, and the comfort and strength of the ancestor. In one poem, however, entitled “Le message” (“The Message”), the ancestor accuses the poet of ignoring the family songs, of learning new languages, and of memorizing an alien history of other ancestors, the Gauls. The poet is accused of becoming a doctor at the Sorbonne, bedecking himself with diplomas and surrounding himself with piles of papers. The ancestor questions why he has done this, and whether it has led to happiness. Return to me, the voice urges.

At this point in the poetic cycle, the poet finds himself once more in Paris. But now his attitude is somewhat different. In “Neige sur Paris” (“Snow on Paris”), Senghor evokes the sterility and cold of the city. Whiteness and snow bring death, not purity or innocence. The poet is no longer content with seeking refuge in memory. Rather, he is ready to accuse the white hands “that whipped slaves / … that slapped me / … that delivered me to solitude and hatred / … that cut down the forest of palms which dominated Africa / … to build railroads / They pulled down the forests of Africa to save Civilization,” because they were weary with their own failures and shortcomings. The expression of anger and bitterness is new. The poet feels these emotions strongly and no longer needs to hide them. Nonetheless, Senghor pulls back from closing even this single poem in anger. He ends with a prayer to the Christian God, and with the resolve not to use up his hatred on “the diplomats who bare their long canine teeth and who, tomorrow, will barter black flesh.” He promises that he will achieve reconciliation in the warmth of God's sweetness and embrace his enemies as brothers. Even though he is angry with the Europeans' ravaging of Africa, he still recognizes their God as his God and accepts the Christian goal of reconciliation.

The poet now considers contributions that Africans can make to the European world. If the Africa of the empires has died an agonizing death, Europe, too, is suffering. Like the good Samaritan who gives up his last garment for another, the African will give life to the dying European world. He will provide the leaven for the white flour, the grease for the city's rusty steel, “For who would teach rhythm to a dead world of machines and cannons? / Who would shout the cry of joy to wake the dead and the orphans to the dawn? / … / We are the men of the dance, whose feet gain strength by striking the hard earth.”

This new stance is not firmly held. Triumph is followed by defeat. At times, as in “Totem,” he still wants to hide his ancestry. He writes of false starts, setbacks, frustration, and depression. In two poems that come at this point in the collection, “Ndéssé ou ‘Blues’” (“Ndéssé or Blues”) and “A la mort” (“To Death”), Senghor records a youthful surge of life and promise that is blighted, confused, left without outlet or direction: “My wings beat and bruise themselves on the bars of a low sky.” A child races gaily after a ripe fruit. It rolls under a palm tree, and the child is flattened abruptly to the ground. The poet is pressed down, stopped, smothered. He feels a vivid loss of well-being. Disappointment and the chilling winter rains, too, are the poet's inescapable companions.

In the next long poem, “Que m'accompagnent kôras et balafong” (Let Me Be Accompanied by Köras and Balafong), Senghor returns to the theme of Africa the unspoiled, where Africa, Eden, and childhood merge in an eternal present. In this realm, man is always whole. It is a wholeness that encompasses both Christian and African worlds and lies at the center of Senghor's being. In his original plan, this was to be the title poem of the collection. The poem recalls, in loving detail and long, hypnotic rhythms, the Africa of childhood. It states the poet's dilemma: Must he choose? It is no longer a question of rejecting the call of his ancestor for the inviting world of the French, or of forgetting Europe in the warm embrace of his native land. Either choice would diminish the poet. He finds that he is “deliciously torn between these two friendly hands / … these two antagonistic worlds / When mournfully—ah! I no longer know which is my sister and which my foster sister.” He feels deep love for both. Not to choose but to hold them simultaneously in his desire: “But if I must choose at the hour of the test / I have chosen my distressed people, my peasant people, the whole peasant race throughout the world / … To be your trumpet!” And with that choice, the poet heralds a new mission, listening to the new voices and the song of “seven thousand new negroes.” And yet it is still not really a choice, for he takes with him to this Africa a friend from the Breton mist. In Europe he will play the trumpet of Africa for European ears. In Africa he will introduce the good European. Senghor aspires to be like Maran, to whom the poem is dedicated. The poet will combine the strengths of both traditions to serve his people. What makes this poem extraordinarily successful is that it is in itself a tour de force of harmonized styles and symbolic references, an extraordinary blend of classical, French, and African allusions. It resounds with the music of the African instruments that are called for as accompaniment, as well as with classical echoes of Virgil and pious Aeneas, the Roman exemplar of filial piety. It also evokes the Christian Eden and God's promise of redemption to those who are worthy. The effect is a rich harmony, the enhancement of each by the other, for which Senghor yearned in his own life.

The next few poems speak of the difficulty of departure, of giving up the physical and emotional comfort of Africa to return, as he must, to Europe. The poet does not doubt that he must return. The collection closes with a poem that appears from internal evidence to have been written during World War II. It is called “Le retour de l'enfant prodigue” (“The Return of the Prodigal Son”), and is dedicated to Senghor's nephew, the son of Hélène Senghor, Jacques Maguilen Senghor. Here the theme of deserting the ancestors, of guilt and the need for forgiveness, is explored directly. Tired from years of wandering and exile, the prodigal son has returned home, to the herdsman who shared his childhood dreams, and to his ancestors who have withstood the passage of time unchanged. He seeks from them pure water to wash away the mud of civilization that clings to his feet. He seeks peace, guidance, and strength. In this search, the poet makes a pilgrimage to the ancestral tomb, the Elephant of Mbissel, the tomb Senghor had first visited as a child on his trip from Djilor to mission school and had recently revisited on his trip to Senegal, the tomb where his father now lay buried. Prostrating himself, the poet invokes the African idiom of praise, to the ancestor and his noble lineage, to the greatness and riches of the kings of Sine. He thanks his fathers, who have not allowed him to fall into hatred when faced with “the polite insults and discreet allusions” he has had to endure. To them he confesses his apparent disloyalty and friendship with the princes of form. He has eaten bread that was bought with the hunger of others and has dreamed of a world “in brotherhood with my blue eyed brothers.” It is true. Senghor did thirstily drink in French culture, enjoy European friends, and imagine a life of success and general acceptance in the European world. He did neglect his ancestor. He hid him. He pressed on to become an accomplished intellectual, one of the princes of form. For this, the poet now begs forgiveness from his family, the ancestors, and the land. He has recognized that, like the mythic Greek wrestler Antaeus who was invincible as long as his foot touched the earth, his strength depends on contact with his native soil.

Having thus humbled himself and praised his ancestors for their power and endurance, he invokes the most glorious of them and entreats them to hand on to him the knowledge of the great wise men of Timbuktu, the will of the conqueror Soni Ali, the wisdom of the Keita, kings of Mali, the courage of the guelowar, conquerors of Sine, and the strength of the tiedo, the fierce armed slaves. He offers to give up his life in battle if he must, but in return he asks that the forces of past heroes live on in him, that they make of him their “master of language … their ambassador.”

This prodigal son, unlike the son of the Biblical parable, does not wish simply to be forgiven by his father. He does want forgiveness, indeed the very title of the poem implies that he will be forgiven, but he also wants something more. He wants his father's blessing on his future life in a different world. Senghor wants to serve his people, not just as the trumpet that blares out his people's virtue and strength, as he had put it in “Que m'accompagnent kôras et balafong.” He wishes now to be an ambassador, the man who represents and explains his people to alien lands, a trumpet that will play a melody Europeans can understand. In closing the poem, the poet evokes both the emotions that pull him back and the sense of duty that propels him forward. First the familiar evocation of childhood, the security and refuge, “to sleep again in the cool bed of childhood,” and then the reluctant departure: “Tomorrow, I will take up again the road to Europe, the road of the ambassador / Longing for my black homeland.” This poem, meditative and reflective, calm and measured in tone, expresses a firm determination to take on a mission on behalf of his people. The poet sees his calling as one that requires not simply self-expression, the strident note of the trumpet, but interpretation, the diplomatic skill of the ambassador. He must express his experience and that of his people in a way that can be understood by people of another world and culture. He embraces the duty of becoming a spokesman whose message is intelligible, not simply a poet who allows himself the self-indulgence of beautiful words without regard for his audience.

It is noteworthy that the poet never suggests that his Christianity may be one of his sins against his ancestors. Why should they not be jealous of his worship of an alien God? Instead the poet blends traditional and Christian imagery so that each reinforces the other with grace and fluidity, proof in itself, it might seem, that the choice to serve his ancestor is in harmony with loyalty to his Christian self. Style and meaning are fully adapted to each other. The model for the African Prodigal Son is taken from the Christian Bible. This confident and successful synthesis would seem to reflect the deep level of Senghor's faith and the degree to which he felt it to be compatible with the values of Africa. Of all that he had learned from the French, the Christian belief was most deeply rooted in his personality. The sound of tantum ergos chanted in African rhythms blended with his earliest childhood memories. He found nothing discordant in this. He knew Christian belief to be an essential part of French culture as well, albeit one deserted by most intellectuals of his own generation. Nonetheless in Christianity Senghor found a system of values he felt to be acceptable in both his worlds. Perhaps this explains why it proved such an effective anchor for him throughout his life. It not only was the first formal intellectual discipline he met in his seminary education but also provided the music, catechism, and values of his earliest schooling. In a phrase to which he returned again and again, Africa-Eden-Childhood, he asserted the identity of Africa, the original Christian paradise, and his childhood self. To be a Christian was a way to be whole, to serve both African and European and to replenish the dogged strength which, to use DuBois's phrase, was necessary to hold warring selves together. Looking forward to the future, Senghor also found in Christianity the promise that reconciliation is not only favored by God but always possible in the world God created.

In the collection taken as a whole, Senghor traces an evolution that bears every mark of being his own. There are many shifts of mood along the way in the poems, as there undoubtedly were in his own life. Admiration for the French, love of their culture, fear of them, and the desire to hide his African ancestor alternate with their opposite, refuge in Africa, the paradise innocent of both Europe and the industrial world. The poet is angry at the French for what they have done to Africa. Elation at finding an apparent solution, the return to his African roots, is followed by despair at finding that it is not truly a solution at all, but only a momentary respite. The poet finally reaches a position he hopes to make his own, that of ambassador of his people to Europe, trumpet of his people to the French world, and a Christian. This persona need not feel the guilt of desertion because he will serve his people. At the same time he will also be free to continue the life of an intellectual in Paris.

This interpretation of Chants d'ombre is supported by a letter Senghor wrote to René Maran shortly after it was published. Thanking Maran for reading the collection, he continued, “no approval could be more precious than yours … By your double culture, French and African, you were more qualified than any other to judge these songs in which I wanted to express myself authentically and integrally, where I wished to express the ‘conciliating accord’ that I force myself to realize between my two cultures.” Elsewhere he wrote: “It is exactly because Eden-Africa-Childhood is absent that I am torn between Europe and Africa, between politics and poetry, between my white brother and myself … As for me, I think that to realize myself as a man, it is essential for me to overcome negation, to bridge the chasm.” To build these bridges and unite his disparate selves was the task Senghor had to take on in order to become whole. In the most basic way, he had no choice: he was the two. But the difficulty of achieving the integration and perspective from which to begin his adult work required all the strength and self-discipline he could muster. He still felt as if he teetered precariously over the chasm. His chosen self was not yet natural for him. It was a solution to which, as he put it, he “forced myself.”

In a letter he wrote during the war to Maurice Martin du Gard, Senghor explained how important language and poetry had been to him during this period. He had begun writing verse in the style of the French romantics while still at lycée. Later, while at the Sorbonne, he had been influenced by the Surrealists and also had begun to learn about Africa through the writings of ethnographers and “above all Negro-American poetry. I even met some Negro-American writers. These discoveries were true revelations for me which led me to seek myself and uncover myself as I was: a Negro [nègre], morally and intellectually interwoven with French. I then burned almost all my previous poems to start again at zero. It was about 1935.” By the gesture of destroying his previous work, so theatrical and uncharacteristic, Senghor dramatized his determination to break sharply with his past. “Since then, I have wanted to express something. It is this ‘New Negro,’ this French Negro that I had discovered in myself.” Here Senghor used a literal translation of Alain Locke's term, until then not used in French, choosing the pejorative nègre rather than noir.” Furthermore, Senghor continued, in order to express this new departure, he could not use the classic French verse form but had to create a new verse form to convey “the Negro rhythm while respecting the order and harmony of the French language.” As a poet, he would use a new style to express his new voice.

The words of the psychologist Erik Erikson, who studied what he called the identity crisis both among his young patients and in some historical figures, express what Senghor experienced during this time: “There is a moment in life when each youth must forge for himself some central perspective and direction, some working unity out of the effective remnants of his childhood and the hopes of his anticipated adulthood; he must detect some meaningful resemblance between what he has come to see in himself and what his sharpened awareness tells him others judge and expect him to be.” And historically great men, Erikson continues, “although suffering … through what appears to be a prolonged adolescence, eventually come to contribute an original bit to an emerging style of life: the very danger which they have sensed has forced them to mobilize capacities to see and say, to dream and plan, to design and construct in new ways.” Such young people then experience a “kind of second birth.” Sometimes the creative person will experience more intensely what is shared to a lesser degree by a number of his contemporaries. When this is true, and if he is able to find a solution that makes sense to others, and if he is sufficiently gifted to express this hard-won new perspective in words that resonate in his contemporaries, he may become a leader of his generation.

Senghor wrestled for several years with this question of his identity and his place in the world. He had tried to become what the French admired, a dutiful black Frenchman. Yet in Paris he realized that he was no Frenchman, and that the way French students approached life was, for him, “a perpetual subject of astonishment.” He also realized that most Frenchmen considered him first and foremost black, and that for them, to be black was to be inferior. In his first stage of self-discovery, Senghor and his West Indian friends met this French racism with a racism of their own. They accepted the racist premise that black men were basically different from whites, but rejected the way in which Europeans evaluated this difference. Yet even as he was pursuing this discovery of his Negritude, Senghor was confused by his continued attraction to the French, to their culture and their world. He felt at home among his French friends and did not want to give them up. He spent time both with them and in the company of the students of color. Each group welcomed him, but each saw only part of what Senghor felt himself to be. This put him off balance. His intellectual solution remained at odds with his emotional experience, and he suffered from a real depression.

Even his friends seemed not to sense that his surface equilibrium was not the natural expression of a man at ease with himself but rather the hard-won result of enormous self-control. Any doubts, hesitations, or self-revelations that might have allowed his friends to share his intimate experience remained strictly hidden, then and throughout the rest of his life. When he did describe his inner troubles, it was always from a distance, as something that had been felt in the past but since mastered and placed into its proper perspective. Only one of his contemporaries, Marc Sankalé, a Senegalese physician who knew him in Paris in the late 1930s and early 1940s, sensed this other side. Drawing perhaps on his powers as a clinician, Sankalé observed that Senghor domesticated his body with demanding daily exercises and a frugal regime and applied the same discipline to his mental life and his personal life. Every minute of his time was used for some necessary activity. Sankalé was intrigued that such a methodical, orderly person would write a poetry marked by reverie, escapism, and fantasy. He found Senghor contradictory, both eloquent and withdrawn, lively and solemn, and noted what he called a mystical fervor in his exaltation of Negro-African culture, a fervor that had something “pitiful about it.” Senghor wished himself to be heart, mouth, and trumpet of his people, Sankalé continued, but his was not a real Africa. Though Senghor, the poet, acknowledged that he had fused Africa-Eden-Child-hood in his imagination, Sankalé implied that this confusion was not simply a poetic convention but a basic and even desperate need. As a result of his strong will, Sankalé concluded with no small admiration, Senghor had become “the complete Man he wanted to be.”

The effort Senghor put into this enterprise was no secret to Senghor himself, even it if remained hidden to many of his admirers. Almost twenty years later, in 1950, he published a confident article in which he discussed the future of French Africa. He ended this article on a personal note, choosing one of the most powerful metaphors a Christian has at his command, that of rebirth:

May I be permitted to end by evoking a personal experience? I think of those years of youth, at that age of division at which I was not yet born, torn as I was between my Christian conscience and my Serer blood. But was I Serer, I who had a Malinké name—and that of my mother was Peul? Now I am no longer ashamed of my diversity, I find my joy, my assurance in embracing with a catholic eye all these complementary worlds.

Such was the confident integrity of the mature Senghor at his most assured. But the continuing strain of this achievement was a constant companion. A few years later, when he was in his mid-50s, Senghor wrote:

In fact my interior life was, very early, divided between the call of the Ancestors and the call of Europe, between the requirements of Negro-African culture and the requirements of modern life. These conflicts are often expressed in my poems. They are what binds them together.

Meanwhile, I have always forced myself to resolve them in a peaceful accord. Thanks to the confession and direction of my thinking in youth, thanks, later to the intellectual method which my French teacher taught us.

This equilibrium … is an unstable equilibrium, difficult to maintain. I must, each day, begin again at zero, when at 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning I get up to do my exercises. In effect, this equilibrium is constantly being broken. I must not only reestablish it but still perfect it. I do not complain about it. It is such divisions and efforts that make you advance by one step each day, and that make for man's greatness.

The achievement, maintenance, and expression of this balance became the task of Senghor's maturity. Above all, he wished to avoid sharp conflict or rupture with France, with Africa, with friends, and, most important, within himself. In his poetry, he often addressed the themes of wholeness and integrity and their connection to the preservation of vitality. In his scholarly life, he worked to analyze and describe African culture in order to increase African self-knowledge and French understanding. Later, in his political life, he took on an additional and enormous task: to persuade his countrymen and the French of the validity of his vision. He then threw his considerable energy into seeking first cooperation and then independence from France without rupture or total separation. And finally, after Senegal's independence, he tried to further the interests of independent Senegal in a close and special relationship with the former colonial power. His public goals represent his determination to create in the outside world a situation congruent with the balance he had had to create within himself.

Roger Shattuck and Samba Ka (review date 20 December 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7201

SOURCE: “Born Again African,” in New York Review of Books, December 20, 1990, pp. 11-2, 14, 16, 18, 20-1.

[In the following review, Shattuck and Ka provide an overview of Senghor's political and literary career along with commentary on Oeuvre poétique, Ce que je crois, and Janet G. Valliant's Black, French, and African: A Life of Leopold Sedar Senghor.]


On July 7, 1928, the graduation ceremonies of the new French lycée in Dakar, Senegal, were dignified by the presence of the governor general of West Africa. Primarily the children of white colonial administrators and businessmen, the school's hundred-odd students included about fifteen Africans, only one in the graduating class. They had been put through their paces for the baccalaureate by examiners sent from Bordeaux to maintain French standards. After the speeches, when the prizes were finally awarded, the same student walked forward time after time to receive the book prize in each academic subject and then one last time to receive the outstanding student award conferred by the governor general himself.

The student who thus swept the field was neither French nor a Creole with French citizenship from one of the four original colonial settlements, but a black Serer from the bush. The triumph of Léopold Sédar Senghor over all his more privileged classmates soon became a legend in West Africa. Ahead of him lay more than ten years of higher education in Paris. His ensuing sixty-year career as Francophone poet, promoter of Negritude, and elected president of Senegal comes close to realizing two different dreams: the Western dream of philosopher-king or poet-legislator, and the African dream of the sage celebrating his people in song and story under the palaver tree. Yet there is an unexpectedly tragic side to this life, a side we shall approach slowly.

Born in 1906, Senghor was nearly the youngest of some two dozen children by several concurrent wives of a successful Serer tradesman and church-going Catholic. Missionaries in West Africa tolerated very latitudinarian forms of Christianity. Senghor was brought up until the age of seven in a small riparian village by his mother and maternal uncle according to local pastoral traditions and without a word of French. Then his father sent him for six years to a French missionary school. He excelled in his studies, grew in piety, and moved on to a Catholic seminary in Dakar. After three years the white Father Director turned Senghor down for the priesthood. This first deep disappointment redirected Senghor's career into secular education without shattering his religious faith.

In 1945, seventeen years after his brilliant lycée graduation, Senghor brought out his first collection of poems, Chants d'ombre, with the estimable Seuil publishing house in Paris. At the same time, recently elected a representative from Senegal to the French Constituent Assembly, this Sorbonne-educated black man from Africa was chosen to oversee the grammar and style of the newly drafted Constitution of the Fourth Republic. By 1960 he had become known worldwide as a founding father of Negritude, the Black Consciousness movement of the Francophone world, and as an effective champion of independence for the French colonies. After the failure of the short-lived Mali Federation, the Republic of Senegal elected Senghor its first president. He was regularly and honestly reelected for the following twenty years and helped to establish a remarkably liberal democracy with continuing ties to France. Senghor is the first African head of state in modern times to have turned over power peacefully and voluntarily to his successor. In 1984 the French Academy elected him to membership on the basis of his accomplishments as poet, scholar, and statesman.

Resolute and remarkably gifted as a boy, Senghor benefited enormously from the French presence in his country and then was instrumental in transforming that presence. Every stage of his career throws light on the decline of the French colonial system and on the difficult birth of a postcolonial African polity. As he entered his thirties, this elegiac poet and seasoned veteran of the French university system decided that his skin color carried responsibilities beyond attaining success in the white man's system. The courage of that decision emerges clearly when one understands the itinerary by which a black Frenchman became a born-again African.

In a letter to a white friend he states explicitly that he was “born again” as “a New Negro,” a term he borrowed from black Americans he was reading in the Thirties. He had lived through a period of intense assimilation to French culture, to the point of choosing Proust as bedside reading. Then in the years before World War II, a combination of European anthropology about Africa, American authors like W. E. B. DuBois, and discussions with West Indian friends in Paris like the Martinique poet Aimé Césaire and the Guyanan poet Léon Damas reconverted Senghor to his earliest origins and his African culture. Behind his cosmopolitan exterior he remained very much a split identity and never tired of quoting DuBois on “double consciousness.” Out of this crisis of conscience came the influential but awkward notion of Negritude, developed with Césaire and Damas.

Senghor's forty years of public life also oblige us to consider anew what he referred to as “the Balkanization of Africa,” its self-confinement within frontiers arbitrarily imposed on it by the European colonialist powers at the Berlin Conference in 1885. Those fragile frontiers of national security are also fault lines of weakness and disunity within larger regions. Between 1958 and 1960 black leaders spoke excitedly of the United States of (West) Africa, but one hears little of this idea today.

And finally Senghor sets before us once again an old refrain in history and mythology: the solitude of the chief, the leader alone in his tent or his study. Africa may signify to some people another race, another set of cultures; but situations like that of the revered statesman losing touch with his people are universal and help us to understand that the truly important race is the human race.

The immense journalistic and scholarly attention paid to Africa in the past fifty years has produced no comprehensive biography of an important African leader. We may, for example, recognize the names of Nkrumah, Nyerere, Houphouet-Boigny, S‚kou Touré, and Senghor. But the best studies devoted to them remain partial in one or both senses. Two probing books on Senghor's political career and thinking make little attempt to deal with his poetry.

An Africanist and Sovietologist of long standing, Janet Vaillant has now brought out a biography of Senghor that overlooks no aspect of his life. She has drawn on many new sources in Senegal about his youth and organizes her thirteen chapters firmly around the stages and turning points in his complex international career. Vaillant's evident respect for Senghor sometimes leads her to avoid frank discussion of personal and social matters, even though there are few skeletons to hide in this dedicated life. Her political and intellectual judgments seem generally sound but unevenly documented. Of the several future third world leaders who resided in Paris during the Twenties and Thirties, including Ho Chi Minh and Chou En Lai, Senghor was the least seduced by Communist revolutionary ideology and traveled the furthest toward nonviolent democratic institutions and toward the reconciliation of racial and cultural differences. Today, when the fading of the cold war is forcing us to look at many local and often tribal conflicts, this exceptional life has much to suggest to us about the significance of early personal backgrounds and the depth of ideological conflict among leaders of emerging democracies.


Since antiquity the figure of the black has played far more than a walk-on part in Western culture. A cluster of recent books on the black in Western art has given us a cornucopia of particulars from that history. When did the black as Negro begin to raise his or her voice in the pandemonium of Western thought and literature? Unable to get an education in the United States during the middle of the nineteenth century, the West Indian black Edward W. Blyden moved on to Liberia to write his five remarkable books. This powerful missionary-educated mind occupies the place of Aristotle for African studies and Black Consciousness.

Blyden's isolation, even while he represented Liberia at the Court of St. James, was probably exceeded by that of W. E. B. DuBois, who, after taking a Harvard M. A., was denied a doctoral degree in Germany for not fulfilling the residence requirement. After 1900 DuBois devoted much of his energy to organizing congresses of the Pan-African movement, interracial in principle, pan-Negroist in practice, as the British historian Basil Davidson points out. However, in spite of the congresses, of the intellectual capacities of the leaders, and of the genuine circulation of black elites in the early part of the twentieth century, the voices of Blyden, DuBois, Martin Delaney, James Africanus Horton, and many other blacks were never able to gain the international hearing they deserved.

What happened in Paris in the 1930s and 1940s resembles the rapid forming of a critical mass, composed not only of black intellectuals from the West Indies, the United States, and West Africa but also of white artists, poets, and intellectuals already halfway to Africa because of their responses to primitive art, jazz, blues, and Josephine Baker. Gide, Camus, Emmanuel Mounier, and Sartre joined Senghor, Césaire, Damas, the Senegalese writer Alioune Diop, and Richard Wright as sponsors of the new review Présence Africaine (1947). Sartre contributed a lengthy manifesto-like introduction to Senghor's Anthologie de la poésie nègre et malagache (1948). Through such activities the black voices that represented Negritude laid claim to and were granted a new cultural prominence. The term Negritude represents a set of claims as significant and complex of those of Surrealism and Existentialism.

Senghor, Césaire, and Damas maintained in the 1930s that blacks throughout the world have a different psychological makeup from that of whites. Blacks, they said, have retained profound human values that whites have lost. Black artists share a characteristic style. Africa, the mother continent possesses a rich culture qualitatively different from that of Europe. Senghor and his friends set out to convince black intellectuals to take pride in the fact of being black and to inform the world about black character, black history, and black civilization.

It was a daring and ambitious goal, which soon faced charges of counter-racism. Today, anyone can amass references and quotations to prove that Africa and the Africans have a long history and that prejudice against color is a sign of intellectual backwardness. But in the early years of the twentieth century, blacks had been written out of history both by much evolutionary theory and by writers on culture. There is a debate today over whether ancient Greeks and Romans were racist. But about the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the evidence is overwhelming. “Enlightened” scholars were shaped by a reverence for science, progress, and the preeminence of European thought. The absence of these values they called “savagery,” as many statements of Voltaire, Hume, Hegel, and Darwin attest. The ideology of conquest in the nineteenth century became the next logical step. The American historian and political scientist Robert W. Tucker summarizes that continuity when he describes how Europeans judged colonization to be “both inevitable and just—inevitable because reciprocity could not necessarily be expected from those lacking in civilization, just because the primacy of the European states serves to confer upon the backward the benefits of civilization.”

One can imagine the distress of the brilliant black students in European universities sitting quietly and listening to charges brought against the color of their skin and against the African peoples from whom they had sprung. How could they respond? Their equality of opportunity was compromised by theories of race and culture that still went unanswered and by the incontrovertible color of their skin. Even those black students who mastered Greek and Latin were reminded by many true sons of Europe that they were illegitimate children of Western culture.

By the mid-1930s, Senghor and his friends had had enough. In essays and in poems they began to declare their version of “Black is Beautiful.” But they were not just writing slogans in public places. Vaillant's book traces their long voyage of cultural self-discovery and discusses several sources of the Negritude movement. A special place is accorded to Senghor's debt to the intellectual vigor of black American poets, writers, and academics such as Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, W. E. B. DuBois, Alain Locke, and Langston Hughes. The Nardals, a black American family established in Paris who held open house, provided the crucial link among black intellectuals of all shores living in or passing through Paris in the 1930s. Vaillant could have provided more information on the two Nardal sisters, particularly on Jane. We are not told that her unpublished article “For a Negro Humanism” launched many of the ideas that Senghor and Césaire would present to the world with such brilliance.

In these pages Vaillant should also have given some attention to Edward W. Blyden, the remarkable Liberian precursor of Negritude mentioned earlier. Between 1857 and 1903 his writings opened up the whole field of “the African personality.” A letter Blyden wrote to William Gladstone from Liberia makes “this little Republic, planted here in great weakness” sound like Plymouth Plantation.

The second debt of Negritude traced by Vaillant is not to other blacks but to European anthropologists and artists. Leo Frobenius, Maurice Delafosse, and Robert Delavignette were the first anthropologists to do archaeological work on African cultures. By revealing the antiquity and significance of African precolonial history and civilization, they outlined a new picture of black achievements. In the same period artists who “went native” in their spiritual quest, from Rimbaud to Gauguin to Picasso to Cendrars, left a deep mark on the Western psyche. They also provided a stimulus for Senghor in his rediscovery of Africa. In a few cases, like that of André Gide, Vaillant mentions a highly important name and passes on with no further discussion.

When young black intellectuals in Paris in the 1930s assembled all these resources to reach for a new way of looking at themselves, they did not use the word “Negritude.” Borrowing an expression from American blacks, they called themselves “new Negroes” after Alain Locke's anthology, The New Negro (1925). Only later did Césaire coin the term “Negritude.” It has remained an evolving concept whose definition varies from writer to writer and whose focus shifts, particularly in the case of Senghor.

At the start, Senghor defined Negritude as “the sum total of qualities possessed by all black men everywhere.” This definition comes very close to the way in which Blyden, in the previous century, described the “black personality movement”: “the sum of values of African civilization, the body of qualities which make up the distinctiveness of the people of Africa.”

Later on, during the struggle for independence of African colonies, Senghor presented Negritude as a political ideology designed to promote liberation and self-rule. In a third stage, after independence, Senghor expanded Negritude to emphasize blacks' contribution to a coming civilization of universal values. Themes of cultural exchange were always present in his notion of Negritude, and Vaillant gives a full account of métissage in Senghor's thinking.

Negritude or Black Consciousness has at least a 150-year history and has taken many forms, starting well before the name was invented in the 1930s. Senghor's contribution, whose evolution we have traced above in three stages, has lost influence since the late 1950s for a number of reasons. It was difficult for him to put aside “the racial premise,” as Vaillant phrases it, of his early declarations, the premise of a genetic distinctiveness. Even Richard Wright, Jacques Stephen Alexis, and many other black intellectuals insisted on the primacy of geographic, cultural, and economic factors—as opposed to genetic ones—in discussing the fate of black people. When generalized into communitarian African socialism for local consumption in Senegal, Negritude lost its edge and its appeal. When later grafted onto the cloudy thinking of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, it sank into a sea of universal spirituality. All along Senghor clung to a static, idealized notion of precolonial African history as essentially “traditional.” Historians can now demonstrate that Africa, including West Africa, has for centuries absorbed cultural and political shocks, including the arrival of Islam in the tenth century.

There will be more to say about Negritude.


After Senghor's retirement as president of Senegal in 1980, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris mounted a large exhibition in his honor. Senghor welcomed the event on the condition that the exhibition emphasize his intellectual and literary work rather than his political career. The Senegalese, however, remember Senghor the shrewd politician and charismatic leader better than Senghor the poet and essayist. Other African heads of state sometimes criticized Senghor's ideas but rarely his integrity and his skill. He learned early to navigate in a political system molded by three conflicting forces: precolonial political traditions, the Muslim Brotherhoods, and political institutions inherited from France.

Senegal borders on both the Sahara desert and the Atlantic ocean. Because of the early advent of Islam, most Senegalese are Muslims (83 percent), and Muslim leaders, called Marabouts, play an important role in the political process. Although the Marabouts do not make policy, and attempts to build an Islamic party have failed in Senegal, the support of the Marabouts is essential for the stability and even the viability of any government. The question then becomes how Léopold Senghor, a Catholic, managed to be accepted by the Islamic religious leaders.

Senegal has also had long and continuous contact with Europe by way of the Atlantic. A French colony from 1850 to 1960, Senegal was the only region in Black Africa where France fully implemented its assimilationist policies. As early as 1879, black residents of the major cities along the coast were granted French citizenship and were allowed to elect their own mayors, municipal council, and a representative to the French Chamber of Deputies in Paris.

This disparity in colonial status between citizens and subjects gave rise to two very different styles of political leadership. In the cities, the political leaders were the urban, Western-educated Senegalese beginning with Blaise Diagne. In the countryside leadership came from Islamic and traditional chiefs. In a colony so divided, it was very difficult for political thinking to evolve toward nationhood and unity. After World War II the Senegalese deputy in Paris, Lamine Guèye, obtained passage of a bill extending the vote and rights of free association to all Senegalese citizens, including women. He picked Senghor to seek election as deputy of the newly enfranchised citizens. By accepting, Senghor faced two political challenges. How was a Paris professor and poet born in a rural village to earn recognition as a leader from the black Senegalese political elite of the towns, a turbulent group with habits of unfettered political debate and considerable skills in party organization and campaigning? At the same time, how was a Catholic intellectual educated in Paris to establish a constituency in an essentially feudal system of local Islamic rulers whose power and prestige were determined by the number and the loyalty of their clients? The concept of one-man-one-vote was utterly alien to the rural parts of the country, where the majority of the population lived.

Comparing archival sources and her own interviews with participants, Vaillant traces Senghor's political career from winning that first election in 1945 to his resignation from the presidency in 1980. The story is marked by successes, serious mistakes, and resounding defeats. Against all odds, Senghor and his friends succeeded in dominating the old Senegalese urban elite, and early in his career he was able to win the support of the Muslim leaders by promising them a higher price for peanuts and by including them in the nascent political process. By the mid-1950s, his party, the Senegalese Democratic Bloc (BDS) was able to articulate the political demands of the majority and to represent them vigorously to the French colonial administration.

The growing demand if not for independence at least for greater autonomy pushed the Fourth Republic to issue the “loi cadre,” of 1956, which established partial self-government in the black African colonies. At the same time, the BDS turned left as it incorporated young radical intellectuals, and its name changed to the Senegalese People's Bloc or BPS. The BPS won again in 1957. Mamadou Dia, an able technocrat and Senghor's political alter ego, became the head of government while Senghor was conducting the battle for autonomy in Paris. A new situation was created by De Gaulle's return to power and the beginning of the Fifth Republic. De Gaulle held out two options to French African colonies: political autonomy within the framework of the French Federation or immediate independence. Senghor, the coalition builder, was obliged to make some tough choices.

Vaillant misses this dramatic juncture, in which a political defeat became one of the two most searing personal crises of Senghor's life. At the Cotonou Congress he convoked in 1958 to consider De Gaulle's offer, he declared in a fifty-page report that the French colonies were not yet ready for independence. The delegates to the congress, including those of Senghor's own party, rejected his report and voted unanimously for independence. Senghor retreated in humiliation to his wife's property in Normandy. His political career was saved by a small change in the constitution allowing an affirmative vote for association with France within the Community to lead eventually to independence.

In 1958 Senegal, like all other French colonies except Guinea, rejected immediate independence and stayed with the French Community. But not for long. Senegal and the former French Sudan became sovereign as the Mali Federation in 1960. The Federation represented an attempt by Senghor to avoid the fragmentation or, as he said, the “Balkanization” of Africa. The Federation, however, collapsed six months later when Senegal seceded from it. This happened because the increasingly radical Sudanese could not work with the conciliatory diplomacy of Senghor. In September 1960 he was proclaimed president of Senegal by the National Assembly and later elected.

Senghor dreamed of being president of a federated country extending from Dakar to Lake Chad, from Nouakchott to Cotonou. Instead, he ended up being president of a country the size of South Dakota with a population of three million in 1960, basically a peasant-dominated society overwhelmed by problems of poverty and illiteracy. Discouraged by the collapse of the Mali Federation but still confident, Senghor and Dia, his prime minister, launched a strategy to overcome economic problems by developing the agricultural sector while building schools and hospitals. But soon another grave political crisis erupted, a power struggle with Dia.

Vaillant describes this conflict carefully and vividly. The two men held diverging concepts of nation-building and of the way in which the peasants should participate in politics and the economy. For Dia, the purpose was to build a modern state without the Muslim Marabouts as middlemen between the government and the peasants. Dia's socialist and nationalist-minded programs also antagonized French interests. Senghor, on the other hand, wanted to maintain and enhance the connection with the Marabouts as intermediaries and to strengthen French interests in Senegal. He believed that a French economic presence was essential for the country's future and adopted a relaxed open-door approach. Dia remained a conscientious technocrat and tried to protect the country's limited resources. Senghor won the struggle with the support of the Marabouts. But he lost a close friend and his most valuable political ally.

Without Dia, Senghor ran a lax economy based on the peanut crop. When successive droughts decimated the harvest, he had to take strong measures to maintain the legitimacy of his government. In the mid-1970s Senghor decentralized the administration, brought young technocrats into the political process (including Abdou Diouf, the current president of Senegal), and made political institutions more democratic by instituting a controlled multiparty system. Among the many one-party governments in Africa since independence, this move by Senghor in 1975 represented the first U-turn from authoritarianism to a relatively open political life.

Scholars are still debating the significance of these developments in Senegalese politics. Vaillant thinks that Senghor, with his long experience of negotiation and compromise, was more at ease with an open political system than with a one-party system. “Senghor's final political wish was to commit Senegal firmly to representative democracy.” The trouble with this line of argument is that it reflects a “patrimonial” conception of politics: democracy is a gift from an enlightened leader or powerful elite to a powerless part of society. Vaillant's explanation overlooks the long fight by peasants, trade-union workers, and intellectuals for an open system, and omits Senghor's resistance to that change. As noted by Vaillant herself, beginning in 1962 Senghor advocated a new authoritarianism, whose basis he found in Negritude. When circumstances obliged him to make changes, Senghor helped bring democracy to Senegal. He was not its sole agent.


No published photograph shows Senghor wearing a boubou, the flowing costume of his region. His elegant single- breasted suits and tan gloves signified the degree to which he adopted the role of a Frenchman. After three years of special preparation for the Ecole Normale Supérieure, he had failed the oral examination in 1931, and switched to the Sorbonne. Continuing study of Latin and Greek and writing a thesis on Baudelaire did not interrupt his wide reading, including the arch- nationalist Maurice Barès along with Proust and Rimbaud. After obtaining French citizenship in 1933 he became the first African to attain the highly competitive agrégation.

But by this time, in 1935, Senghor knew that he was swimming in a river that flowed in two directions. While his formal studies were making him more and more French, or “Hellenic” as he liked to say, a strong countercurrent in French intellectual and artistic life was propelling him back toward “primitive” cultures. Senghor later proposed the name “Revolution of 1889” for the Bergsonian antirational tendencies in philosophy and anthropology that, before and after World War I, accompanied the African influences at work in Apollinaire and Cendrars, in Cubism and Surrealism. These currents received their official apotheosis in the Paris Colonial Exposition of 1931. That was exactly the moment when Senghor met the Nardal family and, through them, the militant group of West Indian poets living in Paris.

Amid these Parisian buffetings Senghor exhibited a double uniqueness compared with Césaire and Damas and the other West Indian writers. His jet-black color left no doubt about the purity of his African origins. He occasionally went so far as to refer impishly to an imaginary drop of Portuguese blood in his veins. At the same time his enduring Catholic faith, though several times profoundly shaken, set him apart from the others, some of whom were lapsed Catholics.

Here then is the turbulent confluence of cultures within which Senghor, entering his thirties, tried to establish a place for himself in France. One current carried him to a high plateau of French education and on to a position teaching Latin at a lycée in Tours, and then into the French army as World War II approached. The reverse current, issuing from different forces in French cultural life and from his West Indian friends, pushed him insistently back toward the country he had left behind. In a poem he wrote in 1940 while in a German prison camp, Senghor used a military metaphor to describe his moral turmoil:

Europe has crushed me like a warrior flattened under the elephantine
feet of tanks
My heart is more bruised than my body used to be coming back from distant
adventures along the enchanted shores of Spirits.


A French reader hears in these lines the long Biblical verses used by Claudel with sidelong glances at Rimbaud.

But Senghor also wrote in a very different mode:

Mbaye Dyôb! I wish to proclaim your name and your honor.
Dyôb! I wish to run your name up the flagpole of homecoming, to
ring your name like the victory bell
I wish to chant your name Dyôbène! You who called me your
master and
Warmed me with your fervor on winter evenings around the red-hot stove,
which made me cold.

(“Taga for Mbaye Dyôb”)

A Senegalese can hear the dithyrambs of a village singer improvising in formulaic patterns following a wrestling match. Senghor's poetry seems sometimes to combine the European and the African traditions, sometimes to alternate between them. “Springtime in Touraine,” an early poem, mixes lyricism echoing Apollinaire with an undercurrent of violence out of Rimbaud. Then it ends abruptly with the jokey, menacing line, “On ne badine pas avec le Nègre” (“Don't kid around with a black”), which rides piggyback on the title of a Musset play, On ne badine pas avec l'amour. Some of his best-known and most moving poems, like “Nuit de Sine” and “Femme noire,” are no more African than European in diction and form. As time went on, Senghor composed increasingly in a strong elegiac mode with a loose sweeping line that hovers among its sources—Lautréamont and the Surrealists, the guimm or ode of the Serer people of West Africa, Whitman, the blues. At his weakest, he took refuge in the travelogue style of a self-appointed United Nations poet, a first-person universal that does not reach the power of true incantation.

Like the Surrealist André Breton, Senghor maintained that all great poets write with the ear. He gave clues about how to recite his poems by printing directions on musical accompaniment: “For flutes and balafong,” “Ode for kôra.” “Elegy for the Trade Winds,” a powerful suite illustrated by Marc Chagall in a deluxe edition, cries out for declamation. The language swells through ten pages celebrating childhood, winds and tornadoes, and the alluring place names of West Africa. Out of the night and the rain, the poet performs ritual insistent gestures:

My negritude has nothing to do with racial lethargy but with
sunlight in the soul, my negritude is living and looking
My negritude goes trowel in hand, a lance clenched in its fist. … 
The smell of spring green white gold, smell of albizzias
I say lemon smell where one embalms hearts and passions have been embalmed.
And I salute their spurt into the joyous Tradewind
Let the old nigger die and long live the new Negro.

Senghor's militant affirmation of Negritude turns up in his most expansive poems. He strove neither for epic narrative nor for lyric intensity. His poems celebrate life as directly as songs can.


Senghor, a short, slender, courteous, public man, must sometimes become annoyed at how often he is expected to refine and redefine the notion of Negritude. Yet since the 1930s that term has helped black intellectuals gain confidence in their cultural and racial identity. Unfortunately, Duvalier in Haiti appropriated it to justify his tyranny. But Negritude also helped guide Senegal into independence with a pride and steadiness that blocked many of the evils to which other African countries fell prey.

As Senghor now enters his mid-eighties, two books have appeared in French to complete his career. Oeuvre poétique is a compact, four-hundred-page volume, sections of which have already been translated into a dozen languages. The poems express emotions and convictions familiar to readers throughout the third world and are fully accessible in their rolling rhythms and vivid figures to all of us.

In Ce que je crois Senghor collects five essays that swing in gradually expanding orbits around the original kernel of Negritude. After drawing ambitious conclusions about the significance of African prehistory and the elements of a native African philosophy, he delivers both subjects into the arms of what he hopes the future will bring: “La Civilisation de l'Universel.” This naive and undefined ideal seems to designate a kind of apolitical multiculturalism on a global scale.

Senghor cannot write many pages without evoking the word métis. He means primarily cultural intermixture, as in his own career he crossed passionate Negritude with passionate Frenchness. But he also makes much of the special gifts of Maurice Béjart, the dancer-choreographer of mixed white and African birth. And Senghor himself, after observing an early vow to marry a black wife, later married a white Frenchwoman and had a son by her.

One half-hidden suggestion in Ce que je crois should interest those concerned with the relation between primitivism and modernism. First implicitly in discussing the syntax of Wolof poetry, and later explicitly in commenting on the influence of Negro arts on Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism, Senghor identifies the common terms, the essential exchange, as the style of “parataxis”—placing words in sequences without explicit connection or transition. Precisely. We have really known it all along. But it takes a grammarian of European and African languages to go to the heart of that great cultural intersection at the opening of the twentieth century and find the precise word.

Behind the beautifully dressed public man, a private individual had disciplined himself all his life, through regular physical exercise and a demanding work schedule, to remarkable habits of concentration and punctuality. How then, considering his many accomplishments, could we have spoken in our opening paragraph of a tragic note in Senghor's life? In her biography Vaillant refers frequently to challenges and difficult decisions, less often to any lasting defeats. To what degree has Vaillant the biographer found her way not only through the swarm of events around Senghor but also into the mind of this dedicated man? What is the tone, the inner sound of his life?

The younger of Senghor's two sons by his first wife and the one son by his second wife both died before their father, one by suicide and the other in an automobile accident. The fate of his sons has brought great sorrow into Senghor's later years. Vaillant tells us virtually nothing about his family life, or about how a good Catholic living in France was able to “dissolve” his first marriage and marry again.

For thirty years, from his early twenties to his early fifties, before he became president, Senghor lived with few interruptions in Paris and, along with the Nardal sisters, served as the great agent of exchange among West Indian, American, and African blacks. Every West African intellectual in Paris accepted his hospitality and sought his friendship. Yet today Senghor, once again living primarily in France, has few close Senegalese friends. After retirement, when he built a house in a suburb of Dakar, he asked the city council to rename the adjoining streets for Aimé Césaire and Léon Damas. His closest friends are still West Indians whom he met early in Paris. When Mamadou Dia broke with him two years after independence, he lost his most valued Senegalese friend. The extroverted African intellectual now finds himself thrown back on his French connections.

In Senghor's early political career even his enemies marveled at his ability to find a way to speak directly to any group, however remote, however destitute, even if he barely knew their language (in a country of six national languages). A Catholic from a trader's family in an Islamic nation intensely aware of noble lineage, Senghor made his way not by violence and military coups but by essentially democratic means of persuasion, compromise, and free elections. What rewards has he reaped?

A few years ago the Senegalese government decided to rename the University of Dakar, the most respected university in French-speaking Africa. Thirty years earlier Senghor had been the moving force behind the university project and its principal fund raiser. The government finally chose the name of Université Cheikh Anta Diop after Senghor's chief political and intellectual rival. In Dakar, where everything in sight carries the name of a colonial administrator or a national hero, people are wondering what is left to name for the country's great leader.

Fifty years after its launching the term Negritude has by no means disappeared. Every black African intellectual and politician has had to find a satisfactory response both to “subjective Negritude”—the way an individual black wears his or her color—and to “objective Negritude”—“patterns of culture” genetically or geographically correlated with the black race and now carried all over the world. Leaders of the Black Consciousness movement in South Africa hold many of Senghor's writings in high regard. Some of the racial tensions that originally provoked subjective Negritude in Europe have surfaced anew in the events leading up to the current military confrontation along the Senegal-Mauritania border between white North Africans, or Moors, and black Africans.

But Negritude has been plagued with ironies and contradictions. Soon after its birth Sartre appropriated many of its advocates (including Césaire) and much of its intellectual capital for revolutionary Marxism. Today one hardly hears any reference to Negritude among ordinary people in Senegal, where it was for twenty years official government doctrine. When Senghor came to draw up policy for Senegalese schools, he modeled the curriculum so closely on the French system that his opponents accused him of forgetting Africa and favoring Europe. Almost no informed and reflective member of either race would today accept a sentence in one of Senghor's earliest writings that has come back often to haunt him: “Emotion is Negro, as reason is Hellenic.”

Senghor has spent a long career promoting a Negritude to which he was born again in his late twenties and from whose early racist associations he has had to keep distancing himself. His personal encounter with Nazism as a war prisoner in World War II cured him of any taint of “antiracist racism,” as Sartre defensively called it.

Will Senghor's poetry assure him a major place in the world of literature? In the current enthusiasm for African studies his work will undoubtedly receive much attention among scholars. Translators are at work on his poetry in many parts of the world. A complete English version of Oeuvre poétique by Melvin Dixon will appear next year in the enterprising CARAF (Caribbean and African literatures translated from the French) series from the University Press of Virginia. As time goes by Senghor's poems will, we are confident, be seen increasingly as an integral part of his political and intellectual career rather than as a free-standing accomplishment demanding separate literary treatment. Not that Senghor's poems are all didactic or discursive. But as he nears the end of his life we can see them more clearly as occasional compositions in the best sense, works attached to the moods of his career rather than creations that leap beyond the vagaries and contingencies of his life. The same might be said of Rimbaud.


A century ago the impatient Liberian voice of Edward Blyden asked in a letter “whether black men, under favorable circumstances, can manage their own affairs.” They had been doing so, of course, for ages: Blyden was referring to the special situation being created in Africa by European colonization. Of the many answers to that question now presented by newly independent states, Senegal offers one of the most courageous. This small country beset by the encroaching desert and dependent on a woefully unreliable rainfall, was able to produce a founding father not intent on leaving behind a reigning dynasty or a new capital city bearing his name. In a Muslim country Senghor saw to it that the constitution established complete freedom of religion and that the Code de la famille recognized both monogamous and polygamous marriages. For a black people Senghor founded republican institutions and an educational system that combine European and African precedents. These are the true creations of métissage, the principle of synthesis to which Senghor subscribed with increasing fervor.

One of the great problems for Africa today, at least among the elite, lies in the fact that each of its fifty-odd resolutely independent states wishes to have its own founding parent and its own separate history. For a few years between 1958 and 1960 Senghor came as close as any leader to uniting the splintered factions of French West Africa. But the goal of federation failed everywhere. When Senghor resigned the presidency in 1981, he left a country that had been brought close to economic coma by drought, population increase, rising oil prices, and poor management. But, he never stooped to malfeasance for personal gain of the kind practiced by some other African leaders. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank had to help the new president to undertake painful measures of economic austerity and reform.

The true monument to Senghor will be found in no economic miracle, in no structure of steel and stone, but in the conviction with which ordinary Senegalese citizens affirm that their country stands for tolerance. That tolerance now faces two serious challenges. A dynamic renewal of a militant Islam, fed by many former Marxist intellectuals, seeks to increase its political power and to reduce the voice of secularism and nonsectarianism. And dealing with a rebellion in the southern breadbasket province of Casamance reinforces the Jacobin, centralist tendencies of the government. But most of the people, encouraged by Senghor's example, continue to believe in tolerance.

Almost on the last page of her summation Vaillant tells us about a dream Senghor described to her in a letter:

He began as the intellectual who would understand and speak for his toiling black people. Then he became their ambassador to the assembled nations, and finally, their president. This vocation was synonymous with the person Senghor had become. He seemed to sense this, for he once wrote that he had awakened from a dream in panic. He had dreamed that he had become white. The panic derived, he wrote, from the knowledge that if he were white there would be no reason for his suffering. He could no longer be the leader of his black people. Under such circumstances, he would have no choice but suicide. Questioned further why this dream held such terror for him, he answered more prosaically that if he were white, he would have no defense against his pride.

This is the most revealing and moving moment in a biography that elsewhere maintains a respectful distance from its subject. For the first time the word “suffering” appears, and properly. Why did Senghor experience such intense panic over the dream? We understand that waking up white, while lifting from him the black's burden of suffering in a white-dominated world, would also deprive him of his mission as leader of his people. But the second response, if accurately recorded and translated, is more difficult to fathom: “He would have no defense against his pride.”

We find these words enigmatic, even Delphic, rather than prosaic. The passage taken as a whole suggests that Negritude has provided Senghor with the source of his primary pride in a mission and also, out in the white world, with an acute awareness of an inescapable condition that protects him from a more dangerous pride of individual achievement and fame. Senghor seems to have glimpsed through his dream a deeper level of DuBois's “double consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others.” As in some of his early poems, Senghor acknowledges the suffering that double consciousness brings. Here lies the tragic side of an often admirable life.

K. Anthony Appiah (review date 5 July 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 950

SOURCE: “Poet Laureate of Africa,” in Washington Post Book World, July 5, 1992, p. 2.

[In the following review, Appiah offers praise for The Collected Poetry.]

Sometime in the late '60s, one summer holiday at home in Ghana, I took down the collected poems that Leopold Sedar Senghor had sent my parents, and began to translate them from the French. My father was an African politician and diplomat of Senghor's generation, a generation whose leaders knew each other across national and linguistic divides. Senghor had sent him this elegant red volume, “the definitive version,” he wrote in his brief introduction, “of my poems.” I started at the beginning with “In Memoriam,” the opening poem from Chants d'Ombre (“Shadow Songs”), published in 1945.

C'est Dimanche
J'ai peur de la foule de mes semblables au visage de pierre.
(Today is Sunday
I fear the crowd of my fellows with such faces of stone.)

That second rolling line, with what struck my ear as a strong, propulsive beat, is typical of Senghor's poetry. The line is long, the rhythm emphatic, the imagery striking; the language has a rigorous lucidity. And much else about this poem seems exemplary of Senghor's extraordinary oeuvre.

Take the title. Latin, it is a mark of a Sunday reflection on the day after All Saints', the great Catholic feast.

Yet almost immediately—in the third line—we also meet the “impatient Ancestors,” who have followed Senghor to Paris from the Sine, a river in Senegal. Senghor in these poems hovers exactly where he always lived, at the crossroads of Africa and Europe. And when we reach the last lines, which speak of going down to the street—“joining my brothers / who have blue eyes and hard hands”—we have a final emblematic moment: the outstretched hand of friendship to his French “brothers.”

My energy soon ran out. I finished only the first five poems, ending with “All Day Long,” whose last line echoed through my own life later, when I returned home to Ghana from university in Europe: “Here I am,” the poet writes, “trying to forget Europe in the heartland of the Sine.” The line is true only within the poem. In the real world, Western-educated Africans live in Africa without needing to forget Europe and Senghor himself is the ultimate exemplar.

Born in 1906, Senghor began his life fully immersed in the traditions of the Serer, the ethnic group among whom he grew up. At age 7, however, he was dispatched to a Catholic mission school. Thereafter he was educated in French, going on to secondary education in Dakar, and then winning a scholarship to study in Paris, enrolling in the Lycee Louis-le-Grand, opposite the Sorbonne, where his classmates included another future president, Georges Pompidou. In 1935 he took the highly competitive French national exam, the agregation, and, in passing, became the first African to qualify to teach in the French school and university system.

In the early '30s in Paris, Senghor met blacks from the French Caribbean and was also introduced to African-American poetry and the literature of the Harlem Renaissance. It was within this milieu that Senghor and Aime Cesaire, from Martinique, articulated the ideas of Negritude, the most important modern literary movement in Africa and its diaspora. Under these influences he developed into a major French—and at the same time a major African—poet.

By now a French citizen, Senghor was drafted into the French army (in a regiment of colonial infantry) and taken prisoner by the Germans. After the war, he became increasingly involved in politics; in 1949, he was elected to the European Assembly in Strasbourg. He continued, however, to be deeply committed to literary life, publishing poems, and editing in 1948 the Anthology of the New Black and Malagasy Poetry in the French Language. Despite its clumsy title, this book (with a controversial introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre) remains one of the models of African and Afro-Caribbean literary achievement.

But Senghor's political interests increasingly absorbed him, and his involvement in the movement for independence left him, in 1960, the first president of the new nation of Senegal. When he stepped down on New Year's Day 1981, it was after two decades as the respected Catholic leader of a largely Moslem country.

It was an exciting experience struggling, as a youth in the '60s, with these fine poems. But, as I say, the task defeated me. And so I am particularly grateful (as we should all be) to Melvin Dixon, the African-American poet, novelist and literary scholar: Unlike me he persevered, and we now have his graceful translations of Senghor's complete works.

“Poetry,” Robert Frost once wrote, “is what gets lost in translation.” But where the translator is as skillful and intelligent a poet as Dixon, the resulting work offers us in a new language a point of entry to the original. Wisely, the editors have published the originals along with the translations; those whose French is not quite up to the task should be able, with Dixon's aid, to appreciate much of the flavor of the originals.

By themselves these poems would justify giving Senghor a place in the history of our times. But they were written by the co-founder of the Negritude movement; by the first black member elected to the French Academy, the highest cultural honor in a country that honors culture highly; by a man who was for 20 years the democratically elected president of Senegal, and who retired and handed over power constitutionally at the end of 1980. Each of these three considerable achievements would also warrant him more than a footnote in any history of our century and it should astonish us that these accomplishments are the work of a single man … and a splendid poet.

Isaac I. Elimimian (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “Negritude and African Poetry,” in Critical Theory and African Literature Today: A Review, edited by Eldred Durosimi Jones, James Currey, 1994, pp. 22-43.

[In the following excerpt, Elimimian examines Senghor's contribution to the negritude movement, particularly his evocation of deceased African ancestry, black beauty, Western exploitation, and the possibility of reconciliation in his poetry.]

The word, ‘Negritude’, which connotes ‘blackness’, has been employed in literary discourse for decades. Charles Lamb used the word in 1822 in his essay, ‘The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers’. Aimé Césaire employed it in 1938 in his poem Return to my Native Land: ‘my negritude is not a stone / nor deafness flung out against the clamour of the day’. In African literary criticism, Eldred Jones avers that Soyinka has little or no basis for attacking the Negritude writers since ‘his work exhibits all that negritude was essentially about, bar the shouting’.

My objective in this article is not only to highlight the use or the emergence of the word Negritude in literary criticism, but to discuss, as much as time and space permit, the theoretical background of the Negritude movement and its impact on African poetry, particularly as it applies to the works of Léopold Sédar Senghor, David Diop, and Birago Diop, Africa's best known Negritude poets.

Negritude, as a literary and cultural movement, was founded in the thirties by three black intellectuals: Léopold Sédar Senghor from Senegal, Aimé Césaire from Martinique, and Leon Damas from French Guyana. The fundamental objective of the movement and its founders was the need to define black aesthetics and black consciousness against a background of racial injustice and discrimination around the world.

Several external and internal factors contributed in various ways to the rise and development of the Negritude movement. With the abolition of the slave trade some individuals felt the need to explore avenues through which the unique contributions of the black man could be better documented or appreciated. For instance, in 1897 Alexander Crummel founded the American Negro Academy whose mission was to promote black cultural values. In 1900, Sylvester Williams, a Trinidadian lawyer, collaborated with Bishop Alexander Walters of the African Episcopal Zion Church to organise in London the first pan-African Congress. And in 1910, W. E. B. DuBois, in response to Booker T. Washington's writings and other activities, founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). There were also during this period the ‘Back to Africa Movement’ led by Marcus Garvey, as well as the surrealist movement inspired by André Breton which accorded pride of place to ‘primitive’ culture and civilisation. The desire to promote black consciousness and African cultural heritage was fuelled by the spate of discrimination and other injustices unleashed on the black man after the First World War and symbolised, for example, in the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.

Of the internal factors that inspired the rise of the Negritude movement, one can cite the following: the French policy of assimilation which attempted to propagate French civilisation at the expense of the indigenous culture; the discriminatory policies of French education to which people of African descent, particularly Aimé Césaire, Leon Damas, and Senghor, were subjected in France; and the fact that all three intellectuals were witnesses to the inadequacies of the Western civilisation which not only championed the philosophy that Africa had no history, no culture, but maintained that its people were created to be permanent hewers of wood and drawers of water. Aimé Césaire is credited with having first coined the word ‘negritude’ among the trio.

In African literature the critical debate regarding the objective and mission of the Negritude movement, as a worthwhile aesthetic endeavour, has raged on for decades. For instance while the francophone writers have generally emphasised the significance of Negritude as a major literary development, the anglophone authors, on the other hand, have generally dismissed it as irrelevant. Of the anglophone authors who have had a negative view of Negritude, one can cite the examples of Ezekiel Mphahlele, Christopher Okigbo, and Wole Soyinka. Mphahlele believed that the Negritude agenda was too romantic; Okigbo not only disliked the Negritude movement, but even turned down the 1966 Dakar Negro Festival of Arts Prize partly because he felt it developed from the Negritude concept which emphasised ‘color’; while Soyinka, who coined the phrase ‘a tiger does not proclaim its tigritude’, thought that Negritude was based on too much noise rather than action.

The francophone African authors who have been Negritude's chief advocates—especially as demonstrated in their works—are Léopold Sédar Senghor, David Diop and Birago Diop, all three being poets and from Senegal. But why were these writers from the same country so deeply affected by the Negritude ethos on the continent? Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier offer the following explanation:

Senegal is the only part of the African mainland which really witnessed assimilation in practice. Elsewhere it was not even attempted until after 1946 and was abandoned altogether as official policy some ten years later.

Apart from having the same ancestral origin and going through the same assimilationist educational mill, all three men were motivated by their love of the fatherland and the ideals which inspired Negritude's orientation in the first place. It is for these reasons, perhaps more than anything else, that one finds in their work a complete glorification of Africa's cultural values.

Having discussed the genesis of the Negritude movement, the intellectual debate it has stimulated in African literature and the general impact it has had on Senghor, David Diop and Birago Diop, we shall now examine in more detail the way in which these poets have employed the Negritude philosophy to advance their poetry.

Léopold Sédar Senghor is undoubtedly the most prominent of the three. Born in 1906 in Joal, Senegal, of Christian parents, he was educated at the famous Lycée in Dakar and later at the Sorbonne in France. A man of many parts, poet, philosopher, critic, statesman—the first Senegalese indigenous president—he has to his credit several works through which he articulates his philosophy of Negritude. These include Chants d'ombre (1945), Ethiopiques (1956), Hosties noires (1958), and Nocturnes (1961).

Senghor defines Negritude as ‘the awareness, defence, and development of African cultural values’. It is this principle that underlies much of his poetry. But beyond this general principle, one can easily identify certain specific characteristics which distinguish his verse. For example, Senghor invokes and celebrates the dead ancestors, and he believes in the concept of the unity between the physical and the spiritual, that is, the dead and the living working together for the ultimate good of mankind. He also celebrates black beauty and African womanhood. And he believes that the ideals of both Western civilisation and African culture can and should be promoted for the benefit of the human race.

There are, of course, some critics who attack Senghor's Negritude for what they consider to be the inadequacies of its credo. Others believe that Negritude is patently discriminatory and thus itself falls a victim of racism by celebrating African culture at the expense of other civilisations. And there are those who heavily chide Senghor because they believe he has betrayed the Negritude cause by divorcing his African wife and marrying a white woman.

A theme which features prominently in Senghor's poetry is the celebration of the dead ancestors. In his treatment of this theme he reveals many things about traditional African culture, for example, that the dead ancestors are revered by the living for their ability to ward off evil or offer protection to the living; that in any human endeavour, little or nothing can be achieved without the active support and cooperation of the dead ancestors. Consequently, either in action or mood or feeling the dead are usually solicited—and sometimes prayers and sacrifices offered to them—especially in situations of need and danger.

In the poem ‘In Memoriam’, Senghor, apparently feeling lonely and insecure in Paris, the poem's setting, makes a fervent supplication to the dead ancestors:

Ah, dead ones who have always refused to die, who have known
how to fight death
By Seine or Sine, and in my fragile veins pushed the invincible blood,
Protect my dreams as you have made your sons, wanderers on delicate

Here in the above lines, another important belief is suggested about traditional African culture: that the dead ancestors, in a way, are not really dead, and that their exit from this world really provides them with the opportunity to look after the welfare of the living. In short, the dead constitute part of the universal cosmos.

Senghor similarly acknowledges the dead ancestors in ‘Totem’:

I must hide him in my innermost veins
The Ancestors whose stormy hide is shot
with lightning and thunder
My animal protector, I must hide him
That I may not break the barriers of scandal:
He is my faithful blood that demands fidelity
Protecting my naked pride against
Myself and the scorn of luckier races.

The phrase ‘luckier races’ alludes to the non-blacks, while the word ‘scorn’ connotes the prejudice and derision in which the coloured peoples are generally held in their encounter with them. Senghor knows that the source of his power and safety derives from the dead ancestors. But he is prudent, as custom demands, to be covert about it. He must not disclose it. Such a disclosure, he warns, borders on ‘scandal’.

In ‘Visit’, Senghor salutes the memory of the dead ancestors where through a dream he encounters certain departed souls: ‘I dream in the semi-darkness of an afternoon / I am visited by the fatigues of the day / The deceased of the year …’; and in ‘What Tempestuous Night’ where he reminisces about some rituals which are pertinent in mollifying the dead ancestors: ‘And what sacrifice will pacify the white masks of the goddess / Perhaps the blood of chickens or goats, or the worthless blood of veins’.

However, there are poems in which the celebrated dead are not necessarily the benevolent parents, but those who, being victims of disease, or war, or other human machinations, met their untimely death. Senghor also praises their courage and heroism. In ‘The Dead’, for instance, a piece apparently composed during the aftermath of World War Two, Senghor opines that, although the dead soldiers are victims of the evils of this world, they should rest content that they have served humanity well. Besides, he argues, they should feel satisfied that they died for the cause they believed in:

They are lying out there beside the captured roads, all along
the roads of disaster
Elegant poplars, statues of sombre golds draped in their long cloaks
of gold
The great song of your blood will vanquish machines and cannons
Your throbbing speech evasions and lies
No hate in your soul void of hatred, no cunning in your soul void of
O Black Martyrs immortal race, let me speak words of pardon.

Senghor's second most important literary theme is the celebration of black beauty, which he articulates from several points of view. Sometimes it involves his praise of African womanhood. At other times it is one which acknowledges and celebrates the beauty of the African continent in its interrelationships with nature. And at still other times it is one which affords him the opportunity to reminisce on Western civilisation vis-à-vis the indigenous culture, but leaving the reader to draw positive conclusions about his affinity for the latter. The basis of Senghor's celebration of black beauty has a historical connection fuelled by the early Western misleading belief that blackness is symptomatic of evil. Consequently, because of this widespread belief, the black man was discriminated against politically, socially and economically by other races who associated blackness with ill-luck and negative human traits. Colonialism and the slave trade, which exploited and dehumanised the black man, only aggravated matters since he was not only maltreated but conceived of as sub-human. It is partly to correct this misleading impression of the black man, as well as restore his own dignity, that Senghor in his poetry continually attributes greatness and beauty to blackness.

In ‘Night of Sine’, Senghor praises the beauty of black womanhood. The African woman's ‘hands’ are ‘gentler than fur’, her ‘breast glowing, like a Kuskus ball smoking out of the fire’. Her sprightly gait and the dignity with which she carries herself are suggested by the expression, ‘The tall palmtrees swinging in the nightwind / Hardly rustle’. Perhaps no poem of Senghor's better describes the physical attributes of the African woman, and the poet's excitement about it, than ‘I Will Pronounce Your Name’:

Naett, your name is mild like cinnamon, it is the fragrance in
which the lemon grove sleeps,
Naett your name is the sugared clarity of blooming coffee trees
And it resembles the savannah, that blossoms forth under the masculine
ardour of the midday sun.
Name of dew, fresher than the shadows of tamarind,
Fresher even than the short dusk, when the heat of the day is silenced.
Naett that is the dry tornado, the hard clap of lightning
Naett, coin of gold, shining coal, you my night, my sun! … 

But the African woman is more than just physically beautiful. She is equally morally virtuous—faithful, devoted and loving. As a manifestation of her love, she would, as in ‘Be Not Amazed’, ‘weep in the twilight for the glowing voice that sang … black beauty’. Senghor further highlights the African woman's moral attributes in ‘Night of Sine’: she can ‘light the lamp of clear oil, and let the children / in bed talk about their ancestors, like their parents’. In short, the African woman is the embodiment of hope, one upon whom the suffering youth can depend for nourishment and growth.

In discussing the beauty of Africa, Senghor praises the excellent qualities of its animate and inanimate objects, both living and dead. In ‘Night of Sine’, for instance, the poet speaks of ‘cradlesongs’, the ‘rhythmic silence’ which ‘rocks us’; he also talks of the ‘ancients of Elissa’ and the ‘shadowy visits of propitious souls’. More than that, the scenery of the African landscape is celestial:

This is the hour of the stars and of the night that dreams
And reclines on this hill of clouds, draped in her long gown of milk
The roofs of the houses gleam gently. What are they telling so confidently
to the stars?
Inside the hearth is extinguished in the intimacy of bitter and sweet

And where the poet contrasts the beauty of the indigenous culture with the foreign landscape as in ‘New York’, the reader is left in no doubt that the beauty of the former has a special place for him:

New York! At first I was confused by your beauty, by those great
golden long-legged girls
So shy at first before your blue metallic eyes, your frosted smile
So shy.
New York! I say to you: New York let black blood flow into your
That it may rub the rust from your steel joints, like an oil of life,
That it may give to your bridges the bend of buttocks and the suppleness
of creepers.

In the poems in which he treats the theme of Western exploitation of Africa, without attacking the Western ways, he documents his aversion to the ravages of colonialism, the slave trade, and neo-colonialism in their various ramifications. The basis of Senghor's abhorrence of colonial exploitation can be found in his wide educational background and his sense of justice. As Abiola Irele observes, ‘Senghor rejects the idea that the black man is inferior in his human quality to the white man.’

True, Senghor believes in a just society, a society in which everyone can develop his potentialities to the fullest. But he knows that the black man has not been able to do this because of the coloniser's conquest of his innate will through technology. In ‘New York’ Senghor remonstrates: ‘Listen New York! Oh listen to your male voice of brass / vibrating with oboes, the anguish choked with tears / falling in great clots of blood’. In ‘Luxembourgh 1939’, he laments: ‘Europe is burying the yeast of nations and the hope of / newer races’.

In ‘Paris in the Snow’, Senghor highlights the devastating effects of colonialism. He recalls:

The white hands that loaded the guns that destroyed the kingdoms,
The hands that whipped the slaves and that whipped you
The dusty hands that slapped you, the white powdered hands that slapped
The sure hands that pushed me into solitude and hatred
The white hands that felled the high forest that dominated Africa.
That felled the Saras, erect and firm in the heart of Africa,
beautiful like the first men that were created by your brown hands.
They felled the virgin forest to turn into railway sleepers.
They felled Africa's forest in order to save civilization that
was lacking in men.
Lord, I can still not abandon this last hate,
I know it, the hatred of diplomats who show their long teeth
And who will barter with black flesh tomorrow.

The above lines are crucial in appreciating the black man's past and present. They also underscore the colonialist's operative mechanism. For example, while the past for the black man is symbolised by ‘Kingdoms’ and ‘virgin forest’, the present is suggested by ‘slavery’, ‘solitude and hatred’. ‘Guns’ symbolises the colonialist's instrument of dehumanisation suggested by the verbs ‘destroyed’, ‘whipped’, ‘slapped’, ‘pushed’, and ‘fell’. Interestingly Senghor does not employ invective in dealing with the theme of colonialism; rather he is content to be ironical in documenting grave human situations. Thus, events, when viewed carefully and closely, suggest a negative sequence of Western colonialism: exploitation, hypocrisy, stasis.

Coming now to Senghor's final theme, which centres on the spirit of reconciliation, it is important to say that two possible reasons can be adduced for the presence of this theme in Senghor's verse. First, as the foremost African writer who has suffered most severely from the evil effects of colonialism and from World War Two—he was held captive by the German forces between 1940 and 1943—he is in a better position to appreciate the adage which says that two wrongs cannot make a right by practising revenge. Second, having risen to the presidency of his country he not only had the unique opportunity to practise the ideals of statesmanship, which include tolerance and forbearance, but was better exposed to the problems posed by diverse elements from diverse cultural backgrounds and thus would rather encourage the spirit of cooperation and unity among them for the ultimate good of mankind.

Among Senghor's poems which focus on the theme of reconciliation are ‘In Memoriam’, ‘Paris in the Snow’ and ‘Prayer to Masks’. In ‘Paris in the Snow’, Senghor draws the reader's attention to the national motto displayed in the capital city and captioned, ‘Peace to all men of goodwill’, apparently to underscore the hypocrisy of such public displays but more importantly to suggest his own personal belief in such an ideal. At the end of the poem he adds that his life's principle is anchored on being ‘kind to my enemies, my brothers with the snowless / white hands’. The interesting thing here is the corresponding equation of ‘enemies’ with ‘brothers’. By implication the colonialists are not to be seen simply as ‘enemies’, but ‘brothers’ as well, who deserve kind consideration and forgiveness.

‘In Memoriam’ also speaks of ‘my brothers with stony faces’ and of the persona's eagerness ‘To join my brothers with blue eyes / With hard hands’. The irony here is predicated on the fact that one would have thought that the poet would be scared by those who misuse others through their own cruelty. On the contrary he prays to understand them as a phenomenon and, apparently, to appreciate their universe. As a poetic metaphor for reconciliation, ‘join’ indicates the degree to which the poet is ready to spread the gospel of reconciliation and brotherly love among people.

‘Prayer to Masks’ is a projection of the diverse racial groups which, due to certain ineluctable forces, converge in France: ‘Black mask, red mask, you black and white masks, / Rectangular masks through whom the spirit breathes’. The poem's symbolism is clear enough: all human beings come from the same source and will ultimately retire to the grave. Paris is here only the melting pot. The allusion recalls Donne's epithet of ‘Nature's Nest of Boxes’.

Appropriately the employment of the plural form ‘Masks’ vis-à-vis ‘Prayer’ in the poem's title, suggests the poet's reverence for the past sages of all nationalities who have traversed this earth. Senghor emphasises his belief in the brotherhood of all races: ‘Europe’ and ‘Africa’ are ‘connected through the navel’. These two continents symbolise the world's diverse racial elements, while ‘navel’ suggests the link between the complex of life and death through which all human beings must pass. Thus there is the need, the poet seems to say, for all men to be united, to be reconciled to one another even in the face of discord and hate.

What can we now conclude about Senghor's contribution to Negritude and to African poetry in general? Firstly, he pioneered the founding of a socio-cultural and literary movement which championed the promotion of Africa's cultural values. Secondly he was, through his writing and inspiration, a fighter for black rights and human freedom and dignity. And finally, Senghor's poems and the themes they articulate—the dead ancestors, black beauty and African womanhood, colonialism, and of course reconciliation—are not only basic topics of interest in African poetics, but also they offer the reader an opportunity to visualise how Senghor's practical humanity as poet corresponds with his practical humanity as philosopher-statesman. …

Two questions arise. The first is, what unique contributions distinguish these poets [Senghor, David Diop, and Birago Diop] as Negritudists? The second is, what impact has Negritude, as a literary movement, had on African literature, particularly poetry?

My answer to the first question is: Whereas Senghor believes strongly in the spirit of reconciliation and the celebration of the dead ancestors, and while David Diop acidly attacks European colonialism for exploiting Africa, Birago Diop can be said to be a via media between these extreme positions of his contemporaries, in that while not preaching reconciliation nor openly condemning Western civilisation, at the same time he demonstrates his sensitivity to the evils of European colonialism while glorifying African cultural values.

My response to the second question is: Negritude is important in African aesthetics, for, apart from adding to the African literary vocabulary, it is one of the very few formalised literary movements in African literature. Finally, Negritude has provided Senghor, David Diop, and Birago Diop—the three greatest African Negritude poets—with the literary resource or tool with which to fashion their poetry, and has fostered a healthy critical debate among critics of African literature.

Koffi Anyinefa (essay date Summer 1996)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5005

SOURCE: “Hello and Goodbye to Négritude: Senghor, Dadié, Dongala, and America,” translated by Grace E. An, in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 51-69.

[In the following excerpt, Anyinefa examines Senghor's contribution to negritude ideology and his portrayal of African-Americans in “To the Black American Troops,” “Elegy for Martin Luther King,” and “To New York.”]

And I told myself of … New York and San Francisco
not a bit of this earth not smudged by my fingerprint,
and my calcaneum dug into the backs of the skyscrapers and my dirt
in the glory of jewels!
Who can boast of having more than I?
Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama.
Monstrous putrefaction of ineffective revolts,
swamps of rotten blood
trumpets, absurdly stoppered
red, blood-red lands of one blood.

Aimé Césaire, Return to my Native Land

Le fait est donc là: il n'y a pas
de négritude de demain. Ce
matin, levé avant les coqs,
Caliban, l'homme des bonnes tempêtes
de l'espérance, a vu l'Orphée noir de sa jeunesse
remonter des enfers avec une
fée sans vie dans ses bras.

René Depestre, Bonjour et adieu à la Négritude

The facts are there. There will be no
négritude of tomorrow. This
morning, having risen before the rooster,
Caliban, man of many stormy hopes,
saw the Black Orpheus of his youth
come back up from Hell with a
lifeless fairy in his arms.

The representations of other countries and their peoples and cultures constitutes undoubtedly not only one of the oldest and most popular literary topics but also one with the most fearsome ideological and socio-political effects. Is there still a need to remind ourselves that the invasion and colonization of Africa were more or less direct consequences of the ways in which she was represented by the West? Western discourse has most often been—and still is—a hegemonic, racial, and racist one. Emerging about half a century ago, one of the primary objectives of African literature in European languages was precisely to correct the rather negative image of Africa provided by Western literatures, to counter the derogatory hetero-image with a positive self-image. This literature thus immediately presented itself as a counterdiscourse against a certain type of Western discourse. Given that all discussion about the Self is simultaneously a discussion about the Other and vice-versa, this literature turns toward the Other as well, which in this case is the West. It is in light of the construction of identity of the Self through the apprehension of the Other that this study addresses the representation of the United States of America (referred to here as “America,” according to a well- established custom), by Léopold Sédar Senghor, Bernard B. Dadié, and Emmanuel B. Dongala, three authors from francophone sub-Saharan Africa.

To see or to apprehend the Other always implies a relationship based on real or symbolic power, as Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out in “Black Orpheus,” his celebrated introduction to the first anthology of Black francophone poetry edited by L. S. Senghor:

When you removed the gag that was keeping these black mouths shut, what were you hoping for? That they would sing your praises? Did you think that when they raised themselves up again, you would read adoration in the eyes of these heads that our fathers had forced to bend down to the very ground? Here are black men standing, looking at us, and I hope that you—like me—will feel the shock of being seen. For three thousand years, the white man has enjoyed the privilege of seeing without being seen.

Ever since the works of Michel Foucault—in this particular case I have in mind Discipline and Punish and The Archeology of Knowledge—we recognize that any discursive formation aims to appropriate for itself a space of power. African discourse on the West does not seek—and cannot seek—to have the same type of hegemonic power as its Western counterpart because of the peripheral position from which it elaborates itself and because of its deeply reflexive character: directed toward the Other, this discourse has no other target than its own source. The point, actually, through the apprehension of the Other, is to constitute one's own identity, to free one's self in face of the Other's discourse on the Self. It is in this idea that the power of the African discourse on the Other resides.

Aside from the perspective that our three authors have on America, it is to be noted that the concept of “race” determines to a great extent its representation, especially since the image of America developed by Senghor, Dadié, and Dongala is based on racial notions. I will attempt to show how the texts discussed in this article reproduce the most common myths of America, and yet illustrate in particular the relationships that Black African intellectuals have maintained with this country. In general, there are two positions that structure these relationships. For Senghor and Dadié, America is the Other, but an Other that is at the same time the Self due to the Black community of African descent. In contrast, for Dongala, any link in identity with America is flatly rejected: she is simply the Other. Essentially, as we will see, emerging beyond this representation of America will be a debate about Négritude between its partisans and its opponents. My discussion will thus embrace this dual aspect of the representation of America. First of all, I address texts that subscribe to the theories of Négritude through their portrayal of America, and then those that do not. To finish off, I will open my discussion to the current debate around the concept of “race”: if it is epistemologically problematic, it does not remain any less operational, politically, psychologically, and culturally, and must be, as Paul Gilroy wrote, “retained as an analytical category not because it corresponds to any biological or epistemological absolutes, but because it refers investigation to the power that collective identities acquire by means of their roots in tradition” (There Ain't No Black).

Without retracting the genesis of Négritude, a philosophical-literary movement whose kinship is commonly attributed to the troika formed by Aimé Césaire, Léon Gontrand Damas, and Léopold Sédar Senghor—to which many studies have been devoted—let us keep in mind that Négritude seeks to defend and bring recognition to Black civilization. It claims that all Black people, regardless of their historical or geographical situation, would share the same cultural values, defined in opposition to and distinct from those of the West. Furthermore, Négritude would aim at a civilisation de l'universel where the divergences between African and Western cultures would be reconciled—in short, it would envision a cultural métissage.

Certainly, one of the most characteristic aspects of Négritude is the homage that its writers pay to the great figures of African history. Senghor above all stood out in this kind of panegyric. With regard to America, Senghor composed two poems devoted to African-Americans: “To the Black American Troops” and “Elegy for Martin Luther King.”

On many occasions the Senegalese poet had to stress the theoretical influence exerted on the founders of the Négritude movement by the African-American authors of the Harlem Renaissance (see, e.g., Senghor, Ce que je crois). Yet beyond the acknowledgment of this intellectual debt, there also remains the fact that Black America plays a strategic role in the development of the concept of Négritude as suggested by Abiola Irele: without her, the all-inclusive racial project of Négritude would be impossible: “African cultural survivals in the New World have frequently been adduced as evidence of the persistence of an African nature in the New World Negro and this argument served black nationalists on both sides of the Atlantic as the emotional level of their reaction against the West.” This observation explains the African- American presence in Senghor's oeuvre, not only in his theoretical essays but also in his poetry. “To the Black American Troops” and “Elegy for Martin Luther King” eloquently illustrate the racial and historical link between Africans and African-Americans; they celebrate the pride of the race and highlight its contribution to the universal civilization as it is understood by their author.

In “To the Black American Troops” (Black Hosts [Hosties noires]), Senghor addresses the Second World War and the role that African-American soldiers played in this conflict. The poems in this collection are above all dedicated to the famous Senegalese soldiers of the French colonial army, soldiers whom Senghor presents as sacrificial victims, offered in redemption for the sins of the West. This idea is at least suggested by the unexpected and oxymoronic title of the collection. By putting the predicate “Black” next to “Hosts,” Senghor uses a reversal technique unique to the Négritude writers, which privileges the color black at the expense of the white, to emphasize the spirit of sacrifice of Black people, their altruism, and humanism, as well as to inscribe their place in History.

“To the Black American Troops” is divided into three narrative sections. At first, the poet fails to recognize the African-Americans because of their “prison of sad-colored uniforms” and because of the “calabash helmet without plumes,” the “tremulous whinny of [their] iron horses / That drink but do not eat.” For the poet, the war is responsible for this state of non-recognition. It came to distort, so to speak, the image of Blacks in his eyes. But then, through physical contact, he recognizes his brothers and in them the African continent and its essence: “I just touched your warm brown hand and said my name, ‘Afrika!’ / And I found once again the lost laughter, I greeted the ancient voices / And heard the roar of Congo waterfalls.”

By confronting the terms of non-recognition and recognition, the author elaborates upon a series of opposing images. In the first section of the poem (non-recognition), not only are the war and its attributes full of negative connotations, but “I did not recognize you,” the formulated expression of unfamiliarity becomes a refrain. The second part (recognition), however, is exempt from all adverbs of negation in the construction of the image of Africa, which presents itself here as an ideal human and natural setting. The second part of the poem is therefore linked as an antithesis to the first. The mode of representation is manichean: the poet establishes a contrast between the sad, violent, and unnatural world of war and the natural and warm world of Africa. The syntagm that sums up this recognition is obviously “Afrika,” used in a metonymical manner. Alone by itself, it symbolizes the origin, the ties of blood. In this process of non-recognition/recognition, there is definitely criticism of Western civilization and its war-like, quarrelsome, and violent qualities. Often, the celebration of the Black race and Africa goes hand in hand with a critique of Western values.

Once his Négritude is rediscovered—or rather, “felt”—in the African-Americans, the narrator will be confronted by the harsh reality of war, and thus their factual otherness. It will be necessary for him to resolve the apparent conflict of the identification of the Self in Otherness. First of all, he will question the responsibility of his brothers in the atrocities of the war: “Brothers, I don't know if it was you who bombed the cathedrals, / The pride of Europe, / If you were the lightning of God's hand burning Sodom and Gomorrah.” This doubt is purely rhetorical. The poet is conscious of the violence committed by his brothers, but how can he ideologically reconcile this with the nature of the “Black” (warmth, joy of life, the natural)? In the third line, there is already a shift in guilt: African-Americans, actors turning into instruments in the hands of God, a suggestion itself subject to doubt. In the following line, the poet absolves them across the board: “No, you were the messengers of his mercy, / The breath of spring after winter.”

The allusion to Sodom and Gomorrah suggests that violence was generated by Europe herself: God would have punished her for her sins. Thus the real violence of the African-American soldiers is ignored in order to focus only on its end: the liberation of the French. If there is in this poem an intention to criticize violence and aggressiveness, it seems to address Europe rather than the African-American soldiers who would not be engaged in the war except in altruism, a spirit of sacrifice and a desire for peace: “To those who have forgotten how to laugh … / Who know nothing more than the salt taste of tears / And the irritating stench of blood / You bring the springtime of Peace and hope at the end of waiting … / Black brothers, fighters whose mouths are singing flowers, /—O, the delight of life after Winter—I salute you / As messengers of Peace.”

At the end, the narrator has a positive image of the African-American soldiers, and commends their contribution to the institution of peace in Europe. Like their Senegalese brothers, they sacrificed their life for world peace: together, they contributed to the redemption of Europe. If this poem celebrates anonymous African-American figures, in another poem Senghor praises the glory of a particular person in his “Elegy for Martin Luther King” (Major Elegies). This elegy is comprised of five stanzas. In the first, the poet-politician expresses first of all his powerlessness with regard to the international political climate characterized by the antagonism between the Americans and the Soviets, the constant ghostly reminder of the atomic war, and the specter of drought that ravages the Sahel. It is only in the last line that one falls upon King's death:

Who said I was stable in my mastery … / Who said, who said in this century of hate and the atom bomb / When all power is dust and all force a weakness that the Super Powers / Tremble in the night on their deep bomb silos and tombs, / When at the season's horizon, I peer into the fever of sterile / Tornadoes of civil disorder? … / … but the words like a herd of stumbling buffaloes / Bump against my teeth and my voice opens on the void … / I lost my lips, threw up my hands, and trembled harshly. / And you speak of happiness when I am mourning Martin Luther King!

Thus, the death of King comes back at a particularly critical moment in the life of the poet-politician. His happiness and his assurance are only appearances, and the death of King will serve to express his fragility. The death will also recover a symbolic aspect that the poet will let unfold in the rest of the poem.

In the second stanza, the coincidence of the death of King and the national holiday of Senegal gives Senghor an opportunity to develop the theme of seeming happiness and that of personal unrest. We are in the year 1969, and the poet remembers the commemoration of the eighth anniversary of the national holiday in his country. This joyful memory does not fail to evoke the memory of King's death: “I saw laughter stop and teeth become veiled with blue-black lips, / I saw Martin Luther King again, lying with a red rose at his neck.” The poet then recalls the deportation, the subjugation into slavery, and the discrimination against his Black brothers. He then sees the death of King as a heavy loss in the struggle for civil rights. Pain is deeply felt by the poet, who has become the confidant of the utter disarray of all African-Americans. His compassion for and identification with the African-Americans is all the more comfortable since the date of April 4 marks a double history: the victory of Senegal over colonialism—hence its death—and the death of King: “And I felt in the marrow of my bones voices and tears come down, / Ha! A blood deposit of four hundred years, four hundred million eyes, / Two hundred million hearts, two hundred million mouths, two hundred million useless deaths / Today, my People, I felt that April fourth, you are vanquished, / Twice dead in Martin Luther King.” The poet then crowns King as the king of peace and exhorts his people to mourn him, to pray to God, to double the prayers for King and for the end of the drought.

In the third part, three years after the death of King, the poet describes the scope of the drought and its economic and ecological consequences, then evokes the wars of Vietnam and Biafra, which he interprets as divine punishment. The poet deplores the death of King, the intercessor of God for Man: “Lord, last year you were never so angry as during the great Famine / And Martin Luther King was no longer here to sing of your wrath / And appease it. …” At the end of the third part, the poet himself pleads for the mercy of God and wishes that the message of non-violence of King will be heard: “Lord let the voice of Martin Luther King fall on Nigeria and on Negritia.”

In these first three sections, it is thus the national and international context, in which the poet marks King's death, that seems important. Yet the punctual return to King himself, especially at the end of these sections, refreshes our memory of him and allows the poet to stress the impact King has had on the history of his time. The poet presents him simultaneously as the apostle of peace, the hope of all African-Americans, and the Christ of modern times. And lastly, the date of King's assassination ties his destiny more than ever to that of the Senegalese.

The fourth part of the poem describes the assassination itself. The Biblical inspiration of the poet is at its paroxysm here. The assassin is compared to the messenger Judas, and King implicitly to Christ. It is the month of April, and the calendar undoubtedly lends itself to this parallel. In a dramatization of the scene, the poet describes in minute detail the gestures of the assassin while he has King dream his famous dream of a non-racist America: “He [King] sees curly, blond heads, dark, / Kinky heads full of dreams like mysterious orchids, and the blue lips / And the roses sing in a chorus like a harmonious organ. / The white man looks hard and precise as steel. James Earl aims / And hits the mark, shoots Martin, who withers like a fragrant flower / And falls.”

In the last part of the poem, the poet has a vision. Martin Luther King is resuscitated, and the drought has ended in Africa. In heaven, the chosen whites and blacks, coming from all levels of society, are seated around God the Father to whom the poet pleads: “Mix them so, Lord, / Beneath your eyes and white beard.” The poet then draws up a long list of White and Black American heroes, among whom we find, of course, Martin Luther King. For the poet, they are the milestones along the road toward racial peace. America appears to him as a paradise where Whites and Blacks live peacefully side by side. King's dream is confused, though, with the poet's vision, which praises the coming of a harmonious American society: “I sing with my brother, Rise Up Negritude, a white hand / In his living hand, I sing of transparent America where light / Is a polyphony of colors, I sing a paradise of peace.” The elegy then finishes with a positive vision transcending the drought and the discrimination against African-Americans. As Janice Spleth noted, death is the principal theme of Senghor's elegies. Yet, it is never experienced as an end in itself, but rather as the possibility of regeneration, the possibility of better tomorrows. If Spleth attributes this positive note of the Senghorian elegy to an influence of African values, it is clear that in this case the influence is rather biblical. It is in this sense that King, whose departure is mourned by Senghor, becomes the redeemer of the evils conjured up in the poem.

Senghor often said that his movement was about affirming the values of Negro-African culture, letting the value of Blacks flow into the universal culture, while establishing a fruitful dialogue between the culture of Black people and the cultures of other people in the world. The poems presented here are a poetic illustration of this agenda. The poet puts his art in the service of his ideology in his representation of African-Americans.

Senghor's desire to account for the American Blacks in his elaboration of the concept of Négritude and its illustration is found again in the poem titled “To New York” (Ethiopiques, 1956). In the beginning of the poem, the poet finds himself in Manhattan. The fascination aroused by the beauty of the city and his confusion in face of the height of the buildings are doubled by feelings of total displacement and spiritual discomfort provoked by the not-so-friendly setting:

New York! At first I was bewildered by your beauty, / Those huge, long-legged, golden girls. / So shy, at first, before your metallic eyes and icy smile, / … And full of despair at the end of skyscraper streets / Raising my own eyes at the eclipse of the sun / Your light is sulfurous against the pale towers / Whose heads strike lightning into the sky, / Skyscrapers defying storms with their steel shoulders / And weathered skin of stone.

Manhattan is a cold place. It can fascinate the visitor but is devoid of any human or spiritual dimension. The poet is exasperated at the end of a couple of weeks: “But two weeks on the naked sidewalks of Manhattan—Two weeks without well water or pasture … / No laugh from a growing child … / No mother's breast, but nylon legs. Legs and breasts / Without smell or sweat. No tender word, and no lips, / Only artificial hearts paid for in cold cash.” What is lacking in Manhattan is Nature and the emotional and natural presence of Mankind, both sacrificed on the altar of materialism. Everything here seems artificial; even love is distorted and impersonal. Manhattan is a dehumanized place, ruled by stress, noise, and a total absence of emotions.

In the second part of the poem, the poet finds himself in Harlem where he discovers a completely different world, full of colors and smells, sensuality and love, and a joie de vivre. Harlem is the temple of music and dance, the ruler of the night. Yet the poet finds that Blacks suffer there as well. At the end of the second part of the poem, he calls upon the city of New York to hear the rhythm of its African-American area. The beginning of the third part reiterates this calling but in a much more urgent and imperative manner: “New York! I say New York, let black blood flow into your blood. / Let it wash the rust from your steel joints, like an oil of life / Let it give your bridges the curve of hips and supple vines.” In this appeal, the poet not only pleads for a cultural métissage and the recognition of the Black culture of Harlem, but also insists on the regenerating role that the latter could play in the highly modern and technical American culture. The image of New York that Senghor presents is rather a kind of face of Janus, a city with two quite distinct features: on one side, the white city, on the other, the black city. The poet faces two contradictory realities that seem to define New York, and he seeks to transcend them in his appeal. He wishes to go beyond the differences in a dialogue, in an interpenetration of different cultures, in a bringing together of the Self and the Other. This poem, apparently inspired by a visit to New York, illustrates better than any other the ideology of N‚gritude according to Senghor. …

The texts of Dadié and Senghor, aside from their critique of American civilization, attempt mainly to underline the importance of African-Americans in global history to forge links between Black Africans and Americans. …

The image of America for these three authors [Senghor, Dadié, and Dongala], beyond its content, depends largely on the discussion of Négritude, notably whether Black America should be included and accounted for in the construction of (Black) African identity. The concept of “race” thus remains operational in taking into account certain aspects of cultural expression in Africa. In fact, it comes as no surprise that it seems to determine African-American literary relations—at least from the standpoint of francophone literature. Not only has the latter incurred a debt to the authors of the Harlem Negro-Renaissance, but, in addition, the African imagination, precisely in this case, can neither undo itself nor escape the determinism of the abominable memory of the slave trade, a racial and racist phenomenon par excellence.

As such, the near total of the other texts on America, as I have been able to know them, show more or less a particular interest in the condition of African-Americans (slavery, fight for civil rights, discriminations, etc.) in the name of racial solidarity. Interestingly enough, all of these writers are Senegalese. The influence exerted by their elder, Léopold Sédar Senghor, is evident in the archeology of the representation of America. Thus, the racial question counts as one of the most prominent aspects of this representation of America.

Compared to the image of Europe that is offered by Black African francophone literature, and the image of France in particular, I believe that the image of America does not show many great differences: the content of the images and their functions are generally the same, but the criticism of American society definitely stings more: it seems that America is this “super- European monstrosity” that Sartre speaks about in his introduction to The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon. Consequently, one understands the rarity, if not the non-existence, of an image of America as an Eldorado. This is explained not solely by the profoundly tragic nature of the images tied to this country, but also by the fact that the historical bond and the cultural exchange that have contributed to the forging of the image of paradise in the case of France, for instance, are absent in this case. Moreover, the human contact generating this type of image is limited.

Finally, we must note that the texts cited, with very few exceptions, are written prior to 1960. How can one explain the absence of the theme of America in francophone literature in the last three decades? This phenomenon, in my opinion, is not foreign to the history of Négritude. The Pan-Negro discourses having lost their vigor in Africa, the need to identify oneself with the Blacks of the Diaspora and to take interest in their problems becomes less and less felt. The period of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and George Jackson seems to have passed. Since their deaths, would Black America have no longer produced any political and cultural figures of the same caliber of these heroes to raise the recognition, the respect, and the pride of the Black race? The preoccupations of African writers seem simply to be elsewhere.

In effect, since the end of the '60s, they concentrate instead on the socio-political conditions of postcolonial Africa, as Dongala does in Un fusil dans la main. Yet if it is true that this novel is critical of the theories of Négritude, it tends at the same time to formulate an “authentic” discourse on Africa, and in this sense aims toward an ideological end similar to that of Négritude. However, the epistemological and philosophical approach underlying this identity project is different.

The writers of Négritude locked (Black) African identity into a racial essentialism, which presents itself in opposition to a Western discourse on Africa, yet partakes of the dualistic structure and the same discourse it seeks to negate. Different critiques of Négritude have insisted on the mimetic character of the movement (see, e.g., Mudimbe and Diawara) and have reproached, from a Marxist perspective (see, e.g., Adotévi and Boukman) its racist and conservative character, its lack of historical perspective. As for Dongala, he places his novel completely in the context of the contemporary history of Africa in a struggle against Western imperialism. It must be emphasized, however, that the discourse in Un fusil dans la main does not escape a certain racial determination. …

The thematization, the celebration of the race is no longer common practice today in Black African francophone literature, but the problem of difference is not, for all that, over. It is posed in a different way, no longer in essentialist terms, but in cultural terms. The cultural and the racial intersect, as Walter Ben Michaels proved in a study on cultural identity in the United States: “Our sense of culture is characteristically meant to displace race … but culture has turned out to be a way of continuing rather than repudiating racial thought. It is only that appeal to race that makes culture an object of affect and that gives notions like losing our culture, preserving it, stealing someone else's culture, restoring people's culture to them, and so on, their pathos.” Besides, how would this difference be able to disappear from a literary tradition that is expressed in the language of the former colonizer, this Other in the first place? Even the linguistic frame of this literature betrays this difference forever, as is suggested by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:

Black writing … served not to obliterate the difference of race; rather, the inscription of the black voice in Western literatures has preserved those very cultural differences to be repeated, imitated, and revised in a separate Western literary tradition, a tradition of black difference.

We black people tried to write ourselves out of slavery, a slavery even more profound than mere physical bondage. Accepting the challenge of the great white Western tradition, black writers wrote as if their lives depended on it—and, in a curious sense, their lives did, the “life of the race” in Western discourse.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 225


Grant, Stephen H. “Léopold Sédar Senghor, Former President of Senegal.” Africa Report 28, No. 6 (November-December 1983): 61-4.

Senghor discusses his political career, world art and literature, and his advocacy of multicultural “crossbreeding.”

Pappageorge, Julia Di Stefano. “Senghor Re-evaluated.” In African Literature Today: A Review, No. 6, edited by Eldred Durosimi Jones, pp. 54-67. London: Heinemann, 1973.

Provides an overview of Senghor's poetry, discusses his impact on African thought and literature, and English translations of his work.

Peters, Jonathan. “Chants d'ombre: Negritude, the Ancestors, the Princes, and the Gods.” In A Dance of Masks: Senghor, Achebe, Soyinka, pp. 15-39. Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1978.

Provides analysis of Senghor's major themes, poetic style, and artistic development in Chants d'ombre.

Skurnik, Walter A. E. “Léopold Sédar Senghor and African Socialism.” Journal of Modern African Studies 3, No. 3 (1965): 349-69.

>Examines Senghor's interpretation of negritude, his political perspective, and theory of history.

Vaillant, Janet G. “Perspectives on Leopold Senghor and the Changing Face of Negritude.” ASA Review of Books 2 (1976): 154-62.

Examines Senghor's contribution to the concept of negritude as presented in critical studies of his work.

Additional coverage of Senghor's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Black Literature Criticism; Black Writers, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 116, 125; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 47; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural and Poets; and Major 20th-Century Writers.


Senghor, Léopold Sédar (Poetry Criticism)