Léopold Sédar Senghor 1906–
(Has also written under pseudonyms of Silmang Diamano and Patrice Maguilene Kaymor) Senegalese poet, essayist, nonfiction writer, critic, and editor.
An influential statesman who served as President of the Republic of Senegal for twenty years following its independence from France in 1960, Senghor is also considered an important poet and essayist whose work affirms the rich traditions of his African heritage. He is perhaps best known as one of the most outspoken proponents of négritude, a literary ideology that urges black people worldwide to resist the cultural manifestations of European colonialism and to reclaim and embellish their African past. A recipient of many honors and literary prizes, Senghor became the first black member of the Académie Française upon his election in 1983.
Senghor was born in the predominantly Islamic province of Joal, French West Africa. Raised as a Roman Catholic, he attended French missionary schools in preparation for the priesthood but abandoned his religious studies in favor of the classics and modern literature. Upon graduation from the Lycée of Dakar in 1928, Senghor earned a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne. While in Paris, he met the West Indian writers Aimé Césaire and Léon Gontran Damas, who introduced him to the works of such Harlem Renaissance authors as Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes. In 1934, with Césaire and Damas, Senghor founded the literary and cultural journal L'etudiant noir, which helped delineate the principles of négritude and published the works of other francophone writers.
After serving in the French Colonial Army during World War II, Senghor became active in politics. In 1946 he began serving his first term as Senegale député in the French National Assembly in Paris, and in 1948, he formed the socialist party Bloc Démocratique Sénégalais in his own country. During the early 1950s, Senghor served as French delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. He was elected the first president of the new republic of Senegal on September 5, 1960. During his long rule, he continued to publish poetry and political essays, and won several international awards for his work. He resigned from the presidency in 1979 and four years later, he was the first black African elected to the Académie Française.
The poems in Senghor's first major collection, Chants d' ombre, were written during the 1930s. Although largely
traditional in structure and meter, these pieces also evoke the intricate rhythmic patterns of compositions by musicians in Senghor's native village. Published in 1948, Hosties noires reflects Senghor's growing interest in Pan-Africanism and contains some of his strongest attacks on French colonialism. The majority of the poems in this collection relate his experiences as a soldier and prisoner of war while serving in the French Colonial Army during World War II. Nocturnes contains a series of elegies discussing the nature of poetry and the role of the poet in contemporary society. During the 1970s, Senghor published Elégie des eaux and Lettres d'hivernage, which expanded on his earlier themes. In recent years, he has revised several early volumes of verse, including Poèmes, which features a cycle of elegies dedicated to his deceased son as well as other meditations on life and death.
Many commentators have noted elements of both European and African culture in Senghor's poetry, attributing this synthesis to his French education and his long service in the French government. He is often praised for his deft imagery, symbolism, and the rhythm of his language, which is often compared to the sounds of African drums. While some critics notice a lack of tension in his work, some appreciate its lush sensuality and positive message that attempts to celebrate African heritage and culture. In fact, critics agree that Senghor's poetry often serves to bridge the chasm between African and European literature.