Léopold Sédar Senghor was born on October 9, 1906, in Joal, a small coastal village south of Dakar, in Senegal. The Serer tribe to which Senghor’s family belongs is a Roman Catholic enclave in a predominantly Muslim region; the name Léopold is Senghor’s Catholic name, while Sédar is his Serer name. Senghor’s father, Basile Diogoye Senghor, and mother, Nyilane Senghor, were a well-to-do couple. Until the age of seven, Senghor was allowed to grow up wild and free in lush nature, which he recalls fondly as the kingdom of childhood in Chants d’ombre. At seven, Senghor was plucked from his kingdom and—to the chagrin of his mother, who thought he was much too young—sent to a Catholic mission school at Ngazobil, a few miles north of Joal. There, Senghor was still close to the nature he loved, but for the first time, the future socialist and politician became aware of the poverty of many black Africans. In 1922, Senghor was sent to the Catholic seminary in Dakar, where he hesitated between becoming a priest and becoming a professor. Told that he lacked the dedication to be a priest, he prepared for a career as a professor. Upon graduation in 1928, he left Senegal for the first time and traveled to Paris, where he entered the Lycée Louis-le-Grand. There, he met such future French luminaries as Paul Guth and Georges Pompidou, as well as fellow black expatriates from Africa and the West Indies, including Césaire and Damas.
In Paris, a whole new world opened up for Senghor. For the black expatriates of the 1930’s, France was both an adopted mother and an enemy. Blacks living in France did not face the legalized discrimination that existed at that time in the United States; instead, they were the victims of a polite, unofficial policy of segregation. In response, the expatriates banded together to analyze their situation; one product of such analysis was the concept of negritude, a word coined by Césaire and adopted by Senghor.
It was during these years in Paris that Senghor began developing his talents as a poet, writing the poems that were later to be published in Chants d’ombre. In 1932, Senghor received his diplôme d’études supérieures (the equivalent of the master’s degree) with a thesis on exoticism in the works of Charles Baudelaire, and in 1935, he took French...
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