An African Writer Educated in French

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Senghor's poem "Prayer to the Masks" appeared in his first book, Chants d'Ombre (Shadow Songs), which collected his poems written during the 1930s and early 1940s. These poems reveal the influence of Senghor's original displacement from his homeland to study in France, and their tone oscillates between a melancholic view of Europe as it descended towards war and fascism and an often nostalgic conjuration of the Africa of Senghor's childhood. Yet Senghor's evocation of African traditions, customs, beliefs, and settings should not be seen merely as the nostalgic fantasy of an expatriate poet for his homeland. Behind Senghor's poetic Africa lies a much more comprehensive program for the cultural, educational, and political, the ideal of "negritude" that he would pursue with other black poets of the Caribbean and African colonies. Senghor's early poetry, "Prayer to the Masks" included, explore the predicament of the colonial intellectual trained in the language and culture of the colonizer, while seeking to turn his sense of cultural alienation into a perspective from which to look on his homeland with new eyes.

Within this broader cultural predicament, moreover, lies a more focused artistic problem for the French-African poet: how to relate his acquired artistic medium of expression, the poem written in the French language and European verse forms, to the African content he seeks to express. Senghor addresses this artistic challenge by referring his poem to the traditional African art form of the mask. The African masks, as the object of his "prayer" and the native corollary of his French poetry, serve as an ideal image in the poem, for they allow Senghor to claim that his poetry is not something foreign and artificial, a break with the traditions of Africa, but an extension of those traditions into new expressive media. In a sense, his poem claims to be another form of mask, a mask made wholly of words, but performing the same function as the more typical mask carved from wood or ivory. Senghor suggests that it is the spirit that occupies the art work and not the material that it is made of that invests it with its power. The test of the carved object and of the shaped words of a poem are their fidelity to the ancestors, the source of their sacred energies. Similarly, in his conclusion to the poem, Senghor rejects the colonialist's image of the black African as "men of cotton, of coffee, of oil." Just as with the traditional and modern works of art, for Senghor it is not the materials, but the spirit that dwells in the material that shows the true value of these men. The vital forces they manifest in the dance, their musical and rhythmic relation to their land, are the genuine measure of their worth, not the narrowly economic standard of profits and payments.

Although the image of the mask in the poem is comprehensible without any deeper knowledge of African thinking about masks, this background of belief, which Senghor could assume in at least his African readers, enriches the symbolism still further. Masks are utilized in a few specific contexts such as initiations, funerals, or the beginnings and endings of seasonal agricultural labor. They tend to be connected primarily with rural, agrarian peoples and places, such as Senghor's native village, Joal. Ceremonies involving masks are means by which these agrarian communities call up and display for themselves the events of the mythic past, like the founding of a family line, the settlement of an area, or the defeat of an enemy. By representing and repeating the mythic event in the framework...

(This entire section contains 1888 words.)

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of the present, the masks function to bind the community to its past and to allow its present representatives to draw strength and legitimacy from that past. Masks also serve to channel spiritual forces, coming out of the world of the ancestors and the mythic past into the work of daily life. In this function, they play a dual role, that of trapping energies from the spirit world and that of protecting living humans from the powers of the ghosts, spirits, and demons that surround them. The mask, as it is used in the ritual, allows the dancer to impersonate the spirit and be invested with the spirit's power, but also to trick the spiritual beings and be able to control and manipulate them. In sum, they play a crucial role in helping those societies that use masks to maintain a delicate equilibrium between the world of the living and the world of the ancestors, between present and past, between life and death. To fail to recall the ancestors and their glorious deeds would be to lose touch with the life-giving wellsprings of tradition; yet to grant the dead too much power over the living would be dangerous as well.

While in his poem Senghor generally celebrates the African traditions represented by the masks, this background helps the reader to understand better how this celebration is qualified and ambivalent in ways similar to the cautious attitude towards the dead expressed by the dual function of the mask. Senghor writes a poem about masks in which he claims an analogy between his poem and the traditional mask and a bond between himself and the mythic "lion-headed" ancestor of his father's family line. Clearly, in this respect, Senghor seeks to recall and reactivate the spiritual powers of the ancestors, the dead, the mythic and magical traditions of African ritual. More difficult to perceive, however, is the other, protective face of his poem-prayer. This aspect can be seen in Senghor's difference from the traditions and ritual art forms that he appears to be celebrating. His poem, one might say, is a mask that mimics the African past and its ritual forms rather than the undiminished presence and power of that traditional past. For after all, Senghor has chosen to write a poem (and a poem in French at that!) rather than actually carve a mask. His poem is printed on the two-dimensional flatness of paper rather than etched into the rugged graininess of the wood. And it is meant to be read aloud or even silently, so that its lines conjure up the feeling and sense of a ritual, not literally chanted on a ceremonial occasion such as a funeral or seeding of the ground. The drummed and danced rhythms to which his poem alludes are never physically sounded in the poem, however much its metrical accents allow a reader to imagine them. Senghor's poem thus calls upon the strength of the ancestral spirits for its inspiration, but it purposefully weakens the power of these spiritual forces over the poet by reducing them to paper, ink, and words.

Senghor's poetic mask, however, may be turned not only towards the African past, but also towards the French colonial present. In other words, in writing his poetry, Senghor not only mimics the traditional mask of African ceremony, seeking to tap and control its energies, but also adopts the prestigious mask of the French writer and intellectual. This act of masking allows him to show that the cultural power of the French intellectual is not a "natural" result of some essential Frenchness but rather a role for which they and he have been trained to perform. It also enables him to draw upon the formidable power of the colonizer's culture, while maintaining his separate identity intact and hidden behind the countenance his writing displays in public. In a manner of speaking, Senghor tricks the powerful French "spirit" (or its representatives in the university, the colonial administration, the government) into acting benevolently toward him.

In composing his poem-prayer, then, Senghor is metaphorically donning a kind of paper mask to mimic the carved and ornamented masks of traditional ritual. As a French-African poet, he captures something of the power of African tradition and of French cultural prestige, while not being totally absorbed into either. He needs the ancestral spirits to inspire him, and he fulfills his obligation to them in recalling them in the artistic place of his poem. Yet it is not from the village society and according to the standards of traditional African values that he, the French-educated poet living in Paris, is seeking recognition. Rather, those who will grant him recognition are urban, literate, French speakers, men and women reading him in large cities such as Paris, Dakar, Tangiers, and New York. To succeed as a poet, he must be "African, but not too African," "French, but French with a difference." He must manage the difficult act of expressing a local content and feeling, rooted in his rural Senegalese childhood, in a cosmopolitan form learned through his French education and residency in Paris.

This complex relation of resemblance and difference is captured most explicitly in the difficult eighth, ninth, and tenth lines: "Masks of unmasked faces, stripped of all dimples, all wrinkles, / Who have formed this image, my face bent over the altar of blank paper / In your image, hear me!" The simplified features of the masks are mirrored by the concentrated expression of the poet's own face as he performs his own form of artistic worship, the ritual of sitting down to write poetry. The poet's relation to the ancestral spirits of the mask is not, however, simply a reflection. It is rather a translation, a difficult and risky movement between artistic media, between the Serer and the French language, and between the cultural idiom of villages such as Joal and the European cosmopolitan dialect spoken by Parisian intellectuals.

Senghor's poem expresses the wish that this translation of the past into the present might be possible rather than fully convincing the poet or his readers that the wish can bring its promise to life. It is in this sense that it is properly titled a "prayer." Its attitude is prospective, seeking a better, brighter future, and pointing to itself as anticipating a time when African energies and French forms might work in cooperative concert. At present, however, Senghor acknowledges that Africa is suffering the loss of her traditions while the painful and traumatic process of rebirth, which will convulse both Africa and Europe, has not yet occurred. Africa remains bound by the umbilical cord of dependency to Europe, in a state of latency and infancy, unable to separate itself, speak, move, and grow.

Ultimately, Senghor offers his "Prayer to the Masks" as a token of hope, as a single example of all that might be brought to life out of the two cultures that have shaped his life, through their exchanges, cooperative efforts, and mutual translations. Yet he also recognizes that this wishful dream at present remains unfulfilled for both him and his people, and that, like other dreams deferred and opportunities lost, it might still founder on historical realities. It is thus not with complacent surety, but an urgency haunted by the presence of danger, that Senghor asks: "For who would teach rhythms to a world blasted by machines and guns? / Who would carry the joy-cry to waken the dead and the orphaned at dawn? / Say, who would bring life's memory back to the men of gutted hopes?" His poem uses all the power that Senghor can muster from both cultures to answer: it is our task to try.

Source: Tyrus Miller, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000.

The Locale of "Prayer to the Masks"

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Perhaps one of the first questions occurring to readers contemplating "Prayer to the Masks" by Leopold Sedar Senghor is where the poem occurs, more specifically, what is indicated by the sixth line's "this place." A possible answer is Senghor's apartment in Paris. This theory comes from "In Memoriam," the first poem in Senghor's first poetry collection, Shadow Songs (1945), the volume also containing "Prayer to the Masks." "In Memoriam" portrays the exiled black African Senghor anxiously considering venturing out of his Paris apartment on a Sunday that also happens to be All Saints Day, a doubly sacred occasion. The poet is in the process of summoning the courage necessary to walk down and into the Parisian streets, meet those "faces of stone" with "blue eyes," those people with "hard hands" who are at once brothers and historical enemies. Senghor writes that his "glass tower," (that is, his apartment building) is filled with "impatient Ancestors" and "Forefathers" whom the poet calls on. Throughout Africa, masks are multifunctional, one of their functions being to breathe life into myths that attempt to explain the origins of daily customs.

Guard my dreams as you did your thin-legged migrant sons! O Ancestors! Defend the roofs of Paris in this dominical fog, The roofs that protect my dead. Let me leave this tower so dangerously secure And descend to the streets, joining my brothers

"In Memoriam" is an earlier, and one might say, a more immature poem than "Prayer to the Masks" since "In Memoriam" shows the poet asking for personal help, entreating the Ancestors to guard his dreams and embolden him enough to join the Parisians outside. "Prayer to the Masks," on the other hand, has Senghor calling on the Masks/Ancestors to save the world, specifically from the incusions of Europe. As a result of this progress from self-centeredness toward altruism, a theory might be ventured: the longer Senghor remained apart from his homeland, the more religiously mature he became.

While "In Memoriam" shows the poet gazing down upon the roofs and streets of Paris, "Prayer to the Masks" allows readers—those pedestrians strolling along lines of words instead of boulevards of buildings—to look back and up into the poet's apartment, likely a small space, probably a room serving as both living space and study. Looking up, the pedestrian is able to see only the masks on the walls, but upon entering the building, the poet's room might look this way: on each of the four walls hangs a mask representing one of the four cardinal points. On a table or desk is the "Ancestor with the lion head," perhaps a statue or a mask like the others.

Throughout Africa, masks are multifunctional, one of their functions being to breathe life into myths that attempt to explain the origins of daily customs. According to Jean Laude, "masked" ceremonies are

cosmogonies enacted to reinvigorate time and space. By their means an attempt is made to restore humanity and the forces entrusted to mankind to the pristine which all things lose when subject to time. However, they are also truly cathartic displays, during which human beings take stock of their place in the universe and see life and death depicted in a collective drama which gives them a meaning (quoted in Chevalier 639-40).

Like the African cosmogonic ceremony described above, the poet calls upon the masks and the "Ancestor with the lion head" to reinvigorate the time and space of white-dominated Africa and restore the meaning of human existence—if not to its pristine state—to a state reinvigorated through imagining the pristine. When Senghor calls upon the "four cardinal points where the Spirit blows" to save a dying Africa and animate a "deadened" Europe, his invocation can be imagined as a call to hot African winds—ghibilis, samiels, and simooms—to warm a Europe grown chilly with civilization. But the appeal to the masks can also be interpreted as the private ritual of a writer-in-exile calling upon his four masks to inspire him with the spirit of homeland, to breathe inspiration into the ritual of (his) writing, a ceremony, by the way, often dear to exiles. The poet calls upon the African masks because in them ancestors and (home)land are fused. Ancestors buried in the land decay into and become part of the ancestral land from which the masks are presumably made (whether they be of wood, clay, or metal). The masks "exude the immortal air," "the breath of my Fathers," which the poet will inhale. For those less inclined to believing in spirits, the masks can be imagined as in possession of an odor rich with the remembered smell of ancestral land, an emanation the poet inhales as inspiration. In sum, the elaborate complex whereby resurrection of the buried dead into Ancestral masks inspires continuance of the living world can be seen as a poeticization blowing beyond the four borders of a page of poetry, advancing outward into the world's four cardinal points.

Senghor's invocation to the masks can also be seen in the light of African initiation ceremonies where the masked mystagogue incarnates a spirit with whom he initiates an inexperienced youth into adulthood. On the one hand, the poet, separate from the mask, can be said to be an initiate yearning for the ability to harness the magic of words, and, on the other hand, the poet is the masked mystagogue himself, initiating readers, especially Western readers, into the mystery of words and poetry. Senghor also depicts himself as either split between Africa and Europe or having a double identity as both African and European. In other words, Senghor might at times be torn between his African and French identities, and at other times, attempt to be part of both Africa and Europe, even to reconcile them. Indeed, such characterizations correspond with what is written about Senghor's life.

Masks are also apotropaics, charms to ward off evil, like a crucifix or bulb of garlic to protect against vampires. In terms of masks-as-apotropaics, the poet calls upon the masks (as protector Spirits or Ancestors) to guard his lodgings from laughter and his African brethren from the suffering caused by European invasions and colonizations. In addition, the poet calls upon the masks to transform his poem into an apotropaic to protect the "oppressed children" and the "sorrowful princess" of Africa from the harm caused by a Europe "tied to us at the navel" ("tied to us at the navel" could indicate Europe as Africa's parent, especially if the "oppressed children" are African, but it is more likely Europe is to be understood as Africa's child, Africa usually considered home to humanity's ancestors). Apotropaic masks, are in fact, often worn by dancers to harness invisible Spirits for the protection of society. Because such Spirits are powerful, laying hold of them can be dangerous. And so the mask must also protect its wearer from being overwhelmed when channeling the Spirits' power into the community. While Senghor does not specifically call upon his masks to protect him in the same way as he did in "In Memoriam," the masks, or at least, the "Ancestor with the lion head," are thought to be already protecting his room/study "from women's laughter / and any wry, profane smiles."

The meaning of the "Ancestor with the lion head," is multiple. Senghor's father's name is Basile Diogoye Senghor, Diogoye meaning "the lion" in Senghor's native Serer language (both people and language are known as Serer, pronounced "seer-ear"). In addition to this paternal connection to the lion-headed ancestor, there is the rich cultural symbology associated with lions, meanings differing little between Africa and Europe. For example, among the Bambara, a people dwelling in and just south of Senegal, the lion symbolizes divine knowledge and occupies a rank in the Bambara traditional social hierarchy only one step below that of priest-sage. The lion, then, can be viewed as a tight complex of identities: Ancestor, source of divine knowledge, protector against frivolousness, guardian of the sacredness of Senghor's study, and as inspiration. The characterization is of a serious parental God for whom divine knowledge is no laughing matter. These Masks/Ancestors/Gods "stripped of every dimple," are grounded, are serious chthonic Ancestors, not frivolous Olympian mischief-makers. And though grounded, these Ancestors are still idealized, are eternally unchanging Gods "stripped ... of every wrinkle." These are dead ancestors resurrected and elevated into Godlike Ancestors who in turn transform the poet into priest, his "face leaning / On an altar of blank paper," writing his prayer/poem, and chanting his prayer/song.

The origin of gods is thought by some to have been an apotheosis of dead ancestors conceived to live on and guard the living. Senghor builds on this apotheosis by symbolically elevating the status of his room/study into a sanctuary, his desk into an altar, himself (as poet) into priest, and the poem ("Prayer to the Masks") he is writing into a sacred document or prayer. Typical of prayer, Senghor's "Prayer to the Masks" is an entreaty to the Masks/ Ancestors/Gods to save Africa from Europe and grant Africa the role of leavening the "white flour" of Western civilization, inspiring it to rise to new heights by, paradoxically, bringing it back to earth, back to expressions of joy, rhythm, and dance, back to poem, psalm, and prayer. In the same way Senghor recognizes that "white flour" must be leavened by black African influence, "Prayer to the Masks" shows how empty white paper can be "leavened" into poem, prayer, psalm, and possibly into scripture by black ink.

Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Semansky is a widely published poet, fiction writer, and critic, Chris Semansky teaches literature and writing at Portland Community College.

The Artistic, Spiritual and Political Implications Held by the Traditional Piece of African Art, the Mask

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In "Prière aux Masques" Senghor, as poet of Negritude, shows his concern with the white world. The title suggests that the poem is a prayer to the gods and spirits who watch over his race. It is more than just a prayer, however, for it contains a basic statement of Senghor's poetic credo.

An obvious distinction of "Prière aux Masques" is that unlike "Femme noire" and "Masque nègre" not one but several masks are involved and their summons from the four cardinal points stresses the importance of the occasion:

Black mask, red mask, you black-and-white masks
I greet you in silence!
Masks of the four points from which the
Spirit breathes (PO)

Senghor scrupulously follows the alphabetic order in his salutation to the masks—"Black mask, red mask, you black-and-white masks''—as he paints them in black, red and white, the colours of traditional Africa. His greeting is a silent one of reverence in a place whose very air smacks of eternity in its isolation from all contact with the profane.

Although the primary intent of the invocation is a plea to the masks, something of their character is revealed in the last lines of the preliminary address which takes up half the poem:

You distill this air of eternity in which I breathe
the air of my Fathers.
Masks with faces without mask, free from all
dimples and wrinkles
You who have composed this portrait, this face of
mine bent over the altar of white paper
In your own image, hear me!

In these lines is something of the paradox inherent in the African mystique, at least from a Western standpoint. In African art the mask is a symbolic representation of the human face, which is, in Senghor's words, "the most faithful reflection of the soul." Far from hiding or disguising the identity beyond it, the sacred African mask reveals in its form and texture the character of the deity it represents. The sacred masks in this poem are therefore "without mask" because they illumine the presence of the very founders of the race. There is on the one hand an image-analogy between the face of the suppliant and the sacred mask-Fathers who have modelled his face, and on the other a contrast between his own face and the "altar of white paper," which is consecrated because it is used to record the prayer to the masks.

Following the appeal for the masks' kindly audience, Senghor proceeds to the prayer proper. The subsequent six lines of the poem present black Africa and white Europe as objective correlatives:

See the Africa of empires dying—it is the agony
of a pitiful princess
And Europe too to whom we are linked by
the navel.
Fix your immobile eyes on your children who
receive orders
Who give away their lives like the poor man his
last garment.
Let us answer "Present!" at the rebirth of
the world
As the leaven that the white flour needs. (PO).

The future of the two continents is inextricably linked because they have the same life line. Thus the death of Africa, the proud and pitiful princess, also spells doom for Europe. The African empires which held sway up to the nineteenth century have been disintegrating under European influence and the Second World War threatens the life of Europe torn by an inward struggle, a struggle in which the black man has been called upon to sacrifice his life for peace. But after this physical death, a new world will be born in which Africa will again have a key function, "[a]s the leaven that the white flour needs."

This last phrase suggests that the black man will be charged with the task of infusing a spiritual essence into a world that is for all practical purposes white—and sterile. There ensues an elaboration of the black man's role in a question and answer situation followed by an affirmation of that role:

For who will teach rhythm to the world laid low
by machines and cannons
Who will shout with joy to wake up the dead and
the orphans at the dawn?
Say, who will give back the memory of life to the
man with eviscerated hopes?
They call us cotton men, coffee men oily men
They call us men of death.
We are the men of the dance, whose feet regain
force by drumming on the hard earth.

The implication here is that only the black man who has maintained a constant connection with the world of nature and the world of spirits can fulfil this vital task, for the Caucasian, in his preoccupation with a machine civilization, has brought the world to ruin by this very machine. The Negro, who has up till the present been the downtrodden of the earth will then become the hero and the apostle of the dawn of tomorrow's world. He will make it rise, phoenix-like, from its own ashes.

The assertion of the black man's contribution is made with full awareness of his current existential position. He has many stereotypes, all of them revealing a bias above all against his colour, which forces on him a myth of inferiority. Ironically Senghor reverts to a European myth, that of the Greek Antaeus, to make his final postulate about the black man's identity as well as about his role: "We are the men of the dance, whose feet regain force by drumming on the hard earth."

The Messianic note of much poetry of Negritude is present in the questions that are posed in "Prière aux Masques." The apocalyptic day of destruction caused by the machines of white culture is to be followed by a day of resurrection achieved through the rhythmic flow of sap from a "civilisation sans machine." Inasmuch as rhythm is the correlative principle of death and life and similar dualities only beings endowed with it can infuse the vital sap into the deadened nerve centre of occidental civilization. According to Senghor, the Negro reigns supreme in the domain of rhythm; consequently, it will be his duty to teach the resuscitated world the rhythm of life and to announce the Good News in the impending dawn—an honour he has by virtue of his retention of the vital link with the cosmic forces ruling the universe as he dances the dance of the world.

What Senghor seems to have done in "Prière aux Masques" is to accept part of the Negro stereotype which he then modifies at the same time as he tacitly rejects the other half. The physical characteristics of the Negro ("cotton men coffee men oily men") which also refer to his humble or peasant status have been sublimated in "Femme noire" and "Masque nègre.'' What cannot be accepted here is that black is the colour of death; for Senghor, black is the colour of life, and the blackness of the Negro has this special significance for him in marked contrast with the Caucasian's identification of black with death. In any event death and life are twin aspects of the same reality. In particular, in Africa "there is no irreducible opposition between life and death." As "men of the dance," therefore, the black race engages in a dance celebrating the renewing cycle of life and death ...

Source: Jonathan Peters, in A Dance of Masks, Three Continents Press, 1978, pp. 28-31.


Critical Overview