Historical Context

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French Colonialism in Africa
French colonial settlement in Africa dates back to the seventeenth century, when the French were involved in the slave trade both on the African side and in the Caribbean. The trade reached its heights in the middle decades of the eighteenth century and then fell off rapidly with the French Revolution, the wars that rocked Europe in the late eighteenth century, the successful slave revolts in Haiti and elsewhere, and the efforts of humanitarians and enlightenment intellectuals to abolish this ugly denial of human freedom.

A second wave of colonization occurred in the latter half of the nineteenth century, with the scramble of the European powers to conquer the territories of Africa, Asia, and Latin America for European colonial empires seen as sources of cheap raw materials, cut-rate labor, and new markets for expanding industrial societies. At the same time, new ideologies began to emerge that "scientifically" justified imperial conquest on grounds of natural and immutable differences of intelligence between the races. French colonialism oscillated between two contradictory sets of values. Convinced of the universal value and legitimacy of French civilization, based on the enlightenment principles that animated the French Revolution, France aggressively sought to "assimilate" the native populations of the colonies. The French language, culture, and history were taught, and the rights and institutions of French politics were extended to the colonized peoples. Yet at the same time, both "scientific" racism and modern ethnography, with its emphasis on the specificity and organic unity of individual cultures, tended to undermine the universalist outlook.

Senghor's personal experience in many ways exemplifies the rather contradictory ways in which these two opposed ideas of how French and native African cultures were related. On the one hand, he was allowed access to the French educational system, in which he excelled, gaining a measure of prestige and respect even within the ordinary channels of French society. He mastered the French language and academic curriculum and eventually earned the equivalent of a Ph.D. in Classics and Literature, going on to teach for a time in a high school outside of Paris. Yet at the same time, as an African born outside the "French" enclaves of Senegal, he had to argue several times for special exceptions to be made to allow him to continue on to higher stages of his education. The more recent ideas about what level and what kind of education was right for the African had led to obstacles to an African's "assimilation" through education in the French system.

Vichy France and World War II
With the outbreak of World War II, men from all over the French empire, including black Africans such as Senghor, were called up or volunteered to fight for France against the threat posed by Hitler's German army. The French army, however, was quickly defeated, and on July 14, 1940, the Nazis entered Paris. The government fled south to the resort of Vichy; and on the 17th of July, the World War I war hero Marshall Pétain called an armistice that split France between the northern two-thirds under German occupation and a southern piece under the nominally French but collaborationist Vichy regime. Following the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942, the Nazis moved in to occupy the rest of France, ending even the thin premise that the Vichy government was anything but an instrument of the occupiers. With the D-Day invasion and the pushing back of the German army towards the Rhine and across, the liberation of France became the true turning point of the war. Paris was liberated on August 25, 1944, and...

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the leader of the free French forces, General Charles de Gaulle, began the task of rebuilding France's government at home and in the colonies.

Decolonization and Independence
Following World War II, there were broad stirrings throughout the colonized world for independence. Several factors contributed to this movement. The wartime demonstration of the vulnerability of the colonial powers during the German and Japanese occupations and postwar attempts to revive the old colonial hierarchy despite the courageous sacrifices of many natives during the war played a key role. Similarly, the partisan struggle, in which the Communist parties had gained great prestige, and the victory of Mao Zedong's revolutionary army in China helped inspire similar guerrilla movements. The successful struggle for independence from British colonialism in India, led by Ghandi and Nehru, further fueled the sense of colonized peoples that their long-suppressed hopes for self-rule might soon come to fruition. Outright warfare broke out in Vietnam shortly after the war, leading to the defeat of the French army at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954. Anti-French riots occurred in Madagascar, Tunisia, and Morocco, and most decisively, in November of 1954 the insurrection in Algeria broke out, a conflict that would lead to the engagement of half a million French soldiers and nearly provoke civil war in France itself. In 1958, in order to stave off a coup attempt by the French army in Algeria, General de Gaulle returned to power and introduced a new constitution. Among the features of the constitution was a referendum of the colonial member states of the French empire allowing them to ratify the constitution or to vote "no" and effectively choose immediate independence. Of the African states, only Guinea chose to vote against the constitution and paid a high price when the French immediately withdrew its resources, expertise, and administrative structure from the newly founded country. The other states sought to form an African federation that would move towards independence, but on friendly terms with France. The Federation failed to take shape, but Senghor's skillful political work and his efforts in finding a third, more moderate road to decolonization allowed Senegal to become independent, with French support, in 1961. Senghor was elected as the first president and governed for the next two decades.

Literary Style

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Senghor often uses the figure of "apostrophe," a term in rhetoric referring to a direct address to an object, a place, an abstraction or ideal, or an immaterial entity such as a god or spirit. In "Prayer to the Masks," he addresses his poem to the masks, which in turn are figures of the ancestors and repositories of mythic powers. Apostrophe characteristically is used to imply the power of the poet's word or voice to wake hidden powers in nature or to bring the dead to life. Thus, in the latter half of "Prayer to the Masks," Senghor implores the masks to join with him in pushing forward the rebirth of Africa, but at the same time implying that it is his poetic "cry" that can compel the cooperation of the masks.

Rhythmic Repetition and Musicality
Senghor uses a strongly cadenced verse, with the rhythm marked by frequent and strongly accented repetitions. Indeed, several of his later poems carry subtitles indicating musical accompaniment by "jazz orchestra with trumpet solo"; by such traditional African instruments as the khalam, tama, gorong, talmblatt, and mbalakh; or by such combinations as flutes and balafong or organs and a tomtom. The opening lines of "Prayer to the Masks," in which the word "mask" is repeated six times, is typical of Senghor's chant-like use of rhythm. The final line, with its evocation of dancing feet beating the ground, is another image of the rhythmic character of the poem itself, a dance of the words across the page.

Use of Analogy
Through his use of analogy, the poet sets in resonance the human and natural worlds, and the historical present with the mythic past. Thus, in the third line, the mask becomes a map that in turn relates to the territory across which the wind blows. The figure of the lion refers at the same time to the father's name, to the mythic lion who was said to be the first ancestor of the family line, to the mask that represents the ancestor's spirit, and to the noble qualities that have communicated themselves through the blood. The image of flour, yeast, and bread in line 16 refer both to the colors associated with Europeans and Africans (white flour and brown yeast) and suggest a future cooperation that will be beneficially "nourishing" to everyone. The image of the "men of cotton, of coffee, of oil" in line 20 brings together the features of the hair and skin of the African with the typical products of his labor.

Contrasts and Oppositions
A steady alternation of opposed lines is a key device in "Prayer to the Masks" and many other poems by Senghor. In the first half of "Prayer to the Masks," for example, Senghor contrasts the ephemeral or frivolous sphere that he associates with women to the serious, eternal ground connected with the lion, the spirit of the fathers. The latter half contrasts Africa as the dying princess with Europe as the mother from which a new Africa will have to separate itself. Similarly, the vitality and life-giving creativity of a future Africa is opposed to the mechanical, death-seeking hopelessness of Europe. The final lines reverse the valuations of the black man by the European. If the European sees the African as an exploitable extension of material goods such as cotton, coffee, and oil, the African knows himself to stand in a creative, joyful, artistic, and religious relationship to the natural riches of Africa.

Literary Heritage
Senegal's literary and artistic traditions are connected to the rich heritage of the great African empires of the pre-colonial past, to Islamic culture, and to the oral cultures of the several peoples that occupy its different regions. In his poetry, Senghor refers to the rituals and beliefs associated with masks and other forms of traditional art, to the dance, and to troubadour storytelling accompanied by a wide variety of instruments and drums. Yet the legacy of colonialism also strongly marked this native heritage with the influence of French language and culture. The French colonial administrations placed a particular emphasis on the educational system as a way of spreading the French language and civilization into its colonial territories. Thus, when Senghor entered the French schools, he would have found himself taught the history of a country which he had not even visited, while learning that Africans were inferior and had no proper culture of their own. This division of his cultural heritage between the native land and language of his childhood and the adopted language and learning of his manhood would become a central issue for Senghor in his poetry, politics, and thought. While a student of French and classical literature in Paris in the early thirties, he sought to regain contact with the African culture from which he had been cut off and he took up the study of ethnography and African languages. His entry into political life, which would eventually lead him to the presidency of independent Senegal, was as an investigator and speaker on educational policy, especially about the problem of how best to balance French and native culture in the education of French-African colonial subjects.

Compare and Contrast

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1903: W. E. B. Du Bois publishes The Souls of Black Folk, declaring that the problem of our epoch is the problem of the "color line."

1928: Claude McKay publishes his novel Banjo, which champions Caribbean "folk" cultures and raises important issues about tensions between blacks in the Caribbean and Africans. The novel was intensely discussed among the African and Caribbean students in Paris, including the founders of the "Negritude" movement.

1934: Parisian poet-students Senghor, Césaire, and Damas found the journal L'Etudiant Noir (The Black Student), widely seen as the first important landmark in the Negritude cultural movement.

1916: Marcus Garvey arrives in Harlem from his native Jamaica and declares that the future of the black people of the world lies in rejecting the barriers to greatness set down by white society and entreats them to return to Africa. His Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) has a membership ranging from 2 to 4 million people.

1933: Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party come to power in Germany. Hitler propagates a viciously racist ideology that views the white, Nordic "Aryan" race as superior and those Jewish, Slavic, and black descent as inferior, subhuman races, worthy of enslavement and extermination. These views become the official policy of the German state, which begins preparations for war and conquest.

1955: Rosa Parks refuses to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, beginning a year-long bus boycott and launching the movement to desegregate all public facilities in the southern United States.

1968: Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King is assassinated.

1990: Nelson Mandela, leader of the anti-apartheid African National Congress in South Africa, is released from prison after twenty-seven years of incarceration. Four years later he is elected the first president of South Africa following the fall of apartheid, and serves for five years.

1919: British soldiers in India massacre large numbers of unarmed protesters at the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar.

1931: Nine young black men are arrested in Scottsboro, Alabama for the alleged rape of two white girls, one of whom later withdraws her accusation. Eight are sentenced to death and the ninth, a thirteen-year-old, to life in prison. The case, thought by many to be fabricated and a shameful expression of white racism, drags on for years, leading to several mistrials and the eventual dropping of charges or paroling of the defendants.

1945: The Nazi concentration camps are liberated by the Allies, revealing to the world the military-industrial system in which six million Jews and hundreds of thousands of other peoples considered racially or politically "inferior" were exterminated.

1960: Police kill sixty-seven young black protesters and wound 186 in Sharpesville, South Africa.

1994: Between April and July 1994, more than 800,000 mostly Tutsi civilians in Rwanda are massacred by their Hutu neighbors. Despite extensive media reporting, the international response is slow and does little to stop the killing.

1961: Senegal gains independence, with Léopold Sédar Senghor as its first president.

1975: Mozambique and Angola gain independence from Portugal.

1980: Senghor retires from the presidency of Senegal.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Bâ, Sylvia Washington, The Concept of Negritude in the Poetry of Léopold Sédar Senghor, Princeton University Press, 1973.

Hymans, Jacques Louis, Léopold Sédar Senghor: An Intellectual Biography, Edinburgh University Press, 1971.

Sartre, Jean-Paul, "Orphée Noir," in his Situations III, Gallimard, 1949, pp. 229-86.

Senghor, Léopold Sédar, The Foundations of "Africanite" or "Négritude" and "Arabité," translated by Mercer Cook, Presence Africaine, 1971.

----, Selected Poems / Poésies Choisies, translated by Craig Williamson, Rex Collings, 1976.

Spleth, Janice, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Twayne Publishers, 1985.

Further Reading
Bâ, Sylvia Washington, The Concept of Negritude in the Poetry of Léopold Sédar Senghor, Princeton University Press, 1973. Bâ discusses Senghor's poetry using the concept of negritude and the background of African philosophy as her focus.

Hymans, Jacques Louis, Léopold Sédar Senghor: An Intellectual Biography, Edinburgh University Press, 1971. Very good historical and biographical study that discusses Senghor's work and thought within the broader tendencies of African and negritude philosophy.

Sartre, Jean-Paul, "Orphée Noir," in his Situations III, Gallimard, 1949, pp. 229-86. This essay was Sartre's controversial introduction to Senghor's 1948 anthology of negritude poets.

Senghor, Léopold Sédar, Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française, Presses universitaires de France, 1948. Senghor's celebrated and influential anthology of negritude poets.

----, The Collected Poetry, translated by Melvin Dixon, University Press of Virginia, 1991. A full edition of Senghor's poetry in English translation.

----, The Foundations of "Africanite" or "Negritude" and "Arabite," translated by Mercer Cook, Presence Africaine, 1971. A lecture given by Senghor in Cairo in 1967 in which he discusses the shared roots of North and Sub-Saharan Africa and the potential cooperation between Arab and Black Africans.

----, Selected Poems, edited by Abiola Irele, Cambridge University Press, 1977. An edition of the poems in the original French, with an informative introduction and annotations to the poems.

----, Selected Poems / Poésies Choisies, translated by Craig Williamson, Rex Collings, 1976. A bilingual facing-page selection of Senghor's poem, with a helpful introduction.

Spleth, Janice, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Twayne Publishers, 1985. A basic survey of all the poetry and the personal and intellectual context of Senghor's writing.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide