Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2052
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.
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.
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 life with the harsh, mechanized reality of Parisian life and the alienation he sometimes feels there. In trying to fuse Senegal and France into a coherent vision of life, Senghor deviated from what his black contemporaries were doing in their verse. Césaire and Dumas, for example, found little or nothing worth writing about in European culture and were unhappy with Senghor’s “colonialist” values.
After his student days ended, Senghor served in the French army during World War II, an experience that disturbed him greatly; yet, as always, he found his reactions mixed. On one hand, he felt vaguely hopeful that France’s taste of German occupation would lead to its freeing the African colonies, yet intuitively he realized that it would take more than the Occupation to free the Africans from their oppression. Senghor, horrified by the widespread destruction of the war, looked even more longingly to Africa and black people the world over for answers to European soul-sickness.
As négritude gathered momentum after the war and the desire of French colonies to free themselves from colonial rule became keen, Senghor became Senegal’s delegate in the French parliament, wherein he received considerable praise for giving graceful, powerful, authoritative speeches. This marked the beginning of a political career as distinguished as Senghor’s career as a writer. He found to his joy that he could not only influence people with his considerable literary gift but also exhort them in oratory to recognize black Africa’s need for recognition and freedom. Senghor’s demands for change were among the most eloquent heard in the National Assembly.
Increasingly in the years between 1945 and 1958, Senghor’s reputation as a forceful advocate of the rights of Senegalese grew to the point where he eclipsed such rivals as Lamine Guèye. Elected in 1951 and 1956, he also was appointed to Edgar Fauré’s cabinet in 1955. Out of this period of maturation, Senghor produced some of his more noted poems, including those in the collections entitled Hosties noires (1948), Chants pour Naëtt (1949), and Éthiopiques (1956). In Hosties noires, he contrasts his growing love for France with his fading memories of a Senegal only seen upon rare occasions, a problem of allegiance created by his having to live in France in order to serve as a delegate. Senghor, because he could not repudiate France, remained a man caught between worlds; his poetry reflects the tensions of his predicament.
After 1958, Senghor’s attentions turned toward Senegal. He returned home after a long absence and rediscovered his home and people. He gained political support, first becoming president of the legislative assembly in the Mali Federation of which Senegal was a part, then President of Senegal Republic when Senegal broke away from the federation in 1960. Always working for African unity, Senghor was popular within and without Senegal, particularly in many West African countries. He was reelected president in 1963, 1968, and 1973.
Beginning with his rivalry with Mamadou Dia, who, as the original cabinet minister of Senegal, shared power with Senghor, a rivalry that created a 1962 coup d’ état attempt, Senghor has not been universally admired: considerable countergovernment activity resulted from his concentrating all power in Progressive Union Party hands, and he had to worry constantly about being ousted from office. In 1967, his fears proved justified when there was an attempt on his life. Senghor’s best poetry was behind him at this point in his life. Perhaps the fecundity of his imagination had been diminished by the strain of political life as some critics maintain.
Léopold Senghor will continue to be remembered as the spokesman of the négritude movement who did some of his best, most moving work in the form of verse. His strong, sensual, vibrant early poetry is his best, and in it resonates the life of Senegal and, by extension, that of Africa itself. Without Senghor’s unique ability to deal with French people on their own soil, it is questionable whether Césaire and other intellectuals caught up in the notion of négritude would have been as successful in drawing attention to their beliefs. With Senghor as spokesman, the movement had a strong voice to proclaim the importance of the African experience and African culture and the need for Africans to pursue their own destinies.
Senghor’s verse, appreciated around the world, teems with African masks and the scents and sounds of African rivers and savannahs, bold African tribal women of powerful sexual presence, a paean to Africa, the mysterious mother and necessary restorer of the human race, the force for peace, justice, and harmony in the world. Yet his France, if not equally compelling as his Africa, is certainly a kind of homeland of the heart, a mother of culture and a teacher of the Christian religion to those lacking spiritual guidance. Thus Senghor will always be seen as one of the intermediaries between Europe and Africa, explaining each to each. In this role, Senghor records the creative tensions existing between these two worlds in a way no other French-speaking colonial poet has done. By not limiting his cultural horizon to Senegal, Senghor has served as a bridge connecting European writing with that of Africans and, as such, has interested the world outside Africa in its poetry.
Senghor did more for négritude than did most other writers, for he refused to address himself to an exclusively black audience but rather chose to write for all people interested in serious poetry. As a Senegalese politician of considerable presence and ability, he was able to lead his country into nationhood and out of colonialism, a complex and difficult process. His life story is one of remarkable achievement.
Allen, Samuel. “Négritude, Africa, and the Meaning of Literature: Two Writers, Senghor and Soyinka.” Negro Digest, June, 1967: 54-67. Allen offers readers one of the finest essays on the subject of how the ideas arising from the négritude movement influenced the writing of Senghor’s poetry. His discussion of theme is particularly useful.
Bâ, Sylvia Washington. The Concept of Négritude in the Poetry of Léopold Sédar Senghor. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973. Bâ’s account is an enriching, engaging study of the tensions within Senghor because of his divided allegiance. She delves into the origins of négritude and proves it to be a powerful influence upon Senghor’s poetry.
Cartey, Wilfred. Whispers from a Continent: The Literature of Contemporary Black Africa. New York: Random House, 1969. A classic study of African literature, this book deals with, among other things, the négritude movement as it pertains to the poetry of Senghor and others earmarked as key African writers.
Hymans, Jacques L. Léopold Sédar Senghor: An Intellectual Biography. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1971. Hyman’s superb study does give Senghor proper credit for being a leading poet who is also a fine statesman. Here Senghor is portrayed as a complex, often troubled human being who had a vision of what black Africa could become.
Peters, Jonathan A. A Dance of Masks: Senghor, Achebe, Soyinka. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1978. A West African himself, Peters offers a lively study (complete with useful bibliography) of Senghor’s development as an artist. His discussion of the négritude movement is enlightening and includes a discussion of Senghor’s cultural context.
Spleth, Janice. Léopold Sédar Senghor. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Part of the Twayne World Authors series, this book is a good introduction to Senghor’s life and works. Contains a fairly in-depth biographical essay, basic discussion of his major writings and influences, a selected bibliography, notes, and an index.
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