Léopold Senghor Biography


ph_0111202812-Senghor.jpg Léopold Senghor Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Senghor, one of Africa’s leading poets and intellectuals, is best known for having helped create and having greatly contributed to the négritude movement begun in the 1930’s. A writer of rich, complex poems illuminating his love for his native Senegal as well as that for his beloved France, Senghor was also both a diplomat representing colonial Senegal in the French National Assembly and the President of Senegal after its independence in 1960. He has been a forceful, intelligent, influential pro-African leader respected throughout the world.

Early Life

Léopold Sédar Senghor was born in Joal, a Senegalese town on the Atlantic Coast of Africa to a well-to-do Christian merchant from a minority tribe. Much of his youth was spent at various schools, the first of which was a Roman Catholic mission school, where he was given the standard fare of French colonial education. In such schools, French rather than African culture was highlighted, and one learned about French geography, politics, and history. A devout Catholic, Senghor was a bright, avid pupil, though his teachers failed to comprehend how special were his talents.

Senghor spent four years at a seminary in Dakar, yet left after he found he had no calling to the priesthood. Thereafter, he was allowed to attend the Dakar lycée, a secondary school administered by French people, which he entered in 1928. There he studied the standard French course offerings. His command of the French language combined with scholarly prowess led to his being sent to Paris, first to the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and then to the famous École Normale Supérieure of the University of Paris. At the latter, he received the sought after agrégation designation, which made him the first West African to be so honored.

His Parisian studies were the most formative of his career, but simply being in Paris, and therefore in contact with brilliant thinkers from around the world, was just as important for Senghor. At the university were other colonial intellectuals who did much to encourage his mental restlessness and his burgeoning interest in African life and culture. To this young outsider, Paris was not only the center of the France that exploited Africans but also an alluring, often enchanting city. Senghor participated in the life of the city as teacher, writer, and seminal thinker whose ideas about African culture and black identity became part of the négritude movement that flourished in the 1930’s.

In Paris, Senghor, together with such fellow intellectuals as Aimé Césaire from Martinique, boldly postulated that black people the world over were not merely equal to whites but in some ways their superiors. In an influential review they helped establish, L’Étudiant noir, Senghor and Césaire came to believe that, in fact, blacks would offer the world an alternative to the destructive whites who, in Europe during World War I, created a truly fallen world of hatred and despair. Unlike the death-dealing, mechanical culture of whites, black culture was, in their estimation, happy, spontaneous, alive to possibilities, and invigorating—a true life force in a world ruled by death and destruction.

Life’s Work

The 1930’s was a decade of dissatisfaction for black members of the French intelligentsia like Senghor, a time when colonialism with its assumptions of European superiority over nonwhite cultures became increasingly resented and even hated by African, Caribbean, and American black people. Senghor’s feelings about France were pained and decidedly mixed: He appreciated the cultural offerings and opportunities in his adopted country, yet felt disparaged and belittled by French condescension toward anything African. To his despair, Senghor realized that white Europeans would continue to scorn African history and culture unless someone could boldly and graphically assert the power and beauty of African literature, art, and tribal existence.

Out of Senghor’s association with writers Césaire and Léon Dumas came the concept of négritude, which became a major force behind revolutionary worldwide developments such as the independence movement in Africa and the Caribbean and the Black Pride movement in the United States. Nevertheless, Senghor, for all of his bitterness toward France for its racism and despoilation of part of the African continent, still continued to have a profound respect for French civilization and the positive things that French civilization had wrought in Senegal.

It became Senghor’s passion to fuse his Senegalese experience with that of his French life into a meaningful synthesis wherein French themes and motifs were interwoven with those of Africa. In Senghor’s poetry of the 1930’s, African masks and ancestor worship make their appearance, especially in his first volume of poetry, Chants d’ ombre (1945), in which he contrasts his pastoral childhood village...

(The entire section is 2052 words.)