Themes

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Relation to the Ancestors
The figure of the mask is Senghor's central image in the poem of the traditional past and the ancestors for whom it was a living reality. He uses the word "mask" as a kind of incantation to call up the ancestral spirits who in the present, implicitly, are hidden and hard to hear. The "silence" to which the poet refers suggests the need to greet the ancestors with attention and respectful awe. He also notes that the masks are the way that he can access the "breath of my fathers," that is, the living spirit of the ancestors who will inspire the poet to his song. His own face, he writes, resembles the face of the masks, because the masks bear the idealized features of the real faces of the poet's ancestors. The latter part of the poem admits that the ancestral past is in danger of being lost to the forces of modernity, which have come to Africa in the form of the colonial conquests of the French, British, Dutch, and Belgians. The "princess" of line 12 refers to the aristocratic past of the African empires, and in line 14 the "immutable eyes" of the masks suggest both the god-like tranquillity of the ancestors and their inability to do more than witness the sufferings of the present. The poem as a whole wrestles with the question of whether the appeal to the ancestral spirits will be able to help the African overcome the present state of subjugation and hopelessness.

Connection to the Land
Senghor refers to the protected ground of the lion-headed ancestor, a sacred space in which the poet can link himself to the line of "fathers" leading all the way back to the mythic first ancestor, the lion. In the last line, it is the soil itself that transmits its power to the feet of the dancer and by implication, too, to the metrical feet of the poet in writing his poem.

Contrast of Africa and Europe
Africa appears in the poem in a dual light. It is the suffering victim of oppression, economic exploitation, and violence, wrenched from its traditional beliefs and ways of life and forced to serve a foreign master. And it is an irrepressible source of life, creativity, and positive relation to the natural world. Europe, too, is ambivalently presented. It is a kind of cruel mother, on which modern Africa is dependent, yet whose embrace is crushing rather than sustaining. In the questions that make up lines 16-18, the world of Europe appears to be the bleak ground of mechanized industry and war, a space of death, hopelessness, and oblivion. Presently, Africa depends on Europe, while Europe exploits the labor and natural riches of Africa. Yet what Europeans see disdainfully as the African's closeness to nature and the land, seemingly a lack of higher spirituality, the African knows to be a profound spirituality and artistic creativity as symbolized in the final line by the dance.

The Synthesis of African and European Culture
Senghor projects a future overcoming of Africa's subordinate position, through which not only the colonized people of Africa but also the European colonizer stands to benefit. The central image in which this theme is developed is that of bringing the brown yeast of African culture to the white flour of European civilization to make a bread that is higher and more nourishing than either element taken separately. Similarly, lines 16-18 suggest that Africa can become a revitalizing force for European societies that have grown cold, weary, and decadent. It is by embracing the life-affirming aspects of African culture that European culture can refresh itself.

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Critical Essays