World Literature

Leopold Sedar Senghor

 

BORN: 1906, Joal, Senegal (French West Africa)

DIED: 2001, Normandy, France

NATIONALITY: Senegalese, French

GENRE: Poetry, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Songs of Shadow (1945)

Black Hosts (1948)

Ethiopiques (1956)

Nocturnes (1961)

 

 

Leopold Senghor. Senghor, Leopold, photograph. The Library of Congress.

 

Overview

Leopold Sedar Senghor served as president of the Republic of Senegal for twenty years following its independence from France in 1960. This popular statesman was also an accomplished poet and essayist whose work, written in French, affirms the rich traditions of his African heritage. Along with Aime Cesaire, he is best known for developing ‘‘negritude,’’ a wide-ranging movement that influenced black culture worldwide. As the chief proponent of negritude, Senghor is credited with contributing to Africa’s progress toward independence from colonial rule, and he is considered one of the most important African thinkers of the twentieth century. His career represents the successful fusion of apparent opposites: politics and poetics, intellectual and folk traditions, and African and European culture.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Education and Negritude. Senghor was born October 9, 1906, in the predominantly Islamic province of Joal, in what was then French West Africa. Raised as a Roman Catholic, he attended French missionary schools in preparation for the priesthood. At the age of twenty, he abandoned religious studies for a European education at a French secondary school in Dakar. Upon his graduation in 1928, he earned a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne in France.

Senghor received an elite education amid the intellectual scene of Paris. He met the West Indian writers Aime Cesaire and Leon Gontran Damas, who introduced him to African American literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Senghor came to recognize the impact of African expression on modern European art, especially in music and the visual arts. With Cesaire and Damas, Senghor launched The Black Student, a cultural journal.

In the early 1930s, Senghor, Cesaire, and Damas began to speak of ‘‘negritude,’’ a term coined by Cesaire to give a positive connotation to a word often used as a racial slur. Senghor credits Jamaican poet and novelist Claude McKay with having supplied the values promoted by the new movement: to seek out the roots of the black experience and to rehabilitate black culture in the eyes of the world. For Senghor, negritude exalted the intuitive and artistic nature of the African psyche, qualities that white Europeans masked with reason and intellect.

Senghor became the first black African to graduate from the Sorbonne with a grammar aggregation, the highest degree granted in French education, and he began teaching in Parisian schools. As fascism and racial prejudice swept through Europe in the 1930s, Senghor angrily rejected European culture, but he soon softened his position.

Poetry in Wartime. The poems Senghor wrote in the late 1930s were published after World War II in the collection Songs of Shadow. Although largely traditional in structure and meter, these pieces evoke the intricate rhythmic patterns of songs from Senghor’s native village. These poems express Senghor’s nostalgia for Africa, his feelings of exile and cultural alienation, and his native culture’s sense of dignity. The poems also lament the destruction of African culture under colonial rule.

When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Senghor was immediately drafted to protect France as an infantryman at the German border. France fell to the German assault in June 1940, the same month Senghor was captured and taken prisoner. He spent two years in the Nazi camps and wrote some of his finest poems during that time. These poems later formed the core of Senghor’s second published collection, Black Hosts.

Black Hosts explores the poet’s sense of unity with blacks as an exploited race, and especially with other blacks fighting for Europe, such as those from the United States and the West Indies. The poems ‘‘Prayer for the Tirailleurs of Senegal’’ and ‘‘Despair of a Free Volunteer’’ celebrate the humility and endurance of Senegalese soldiers, whose battlefield experiences Senghor equates with the sufferings of their ancestors under colonialism.

Overlapping Political and Literary Careers. After his release in 1942, Senghor resumed teaching in suburban Paris and joined the Resistance movement. He became dean of linguistics at the National School of Overseas France. After the war, he was elected as a Senegalese representative in the French National Assembly. He founded the Senegalese Democratic Bloc (BDS) in 1948. With a socialist platform and a strong base among the peasants, this party rose to dominance in Senegalese politics. Senghor was reelected to the assembly in 1951, and again in 1956. That year, he became the mayor of the Senegalese city of Thies.

During this time, Senghor continued his literary pursuits as well. In 1947, he cofounded the literary journal African Presence, which became a powerful vehicle for black writing worldwide. The following year, he edited a book with a powerful introduction by French intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre that became a manifesto of the negritude movement: an anthology of French-language poetry from the black diaspora—a scattering of people with a common origin or background.

A collection of poems Senghor had been working on since 1948 was published as Ethiopiques in 1956. These poems reflect Senghor’s growing political involvement and his struggle to reconcile European and African allegiances. One long poem in Ethiopiques, ‘‘Chaka,’’ is a dramatic adaptation of Thomas Mofolo’s historical novel about a Zulu warrior king of the nineteenth century. In reality, Chaka was a ruthless killer and a tyrant; Senghor, however, is less interested in the leader’s exploits than in his state of mind.

The Poet-President. As Algeria battled French forces for independence in the late 1950s, the colonies of French West Africa also pressed for freedom from their colonial rulers. Senghor advocated a path toward national or federal governments for African states. Although he helped bring several territories together into the Mali Federation in 1959, this structure did not last long. Senegal became an independent republic in 1960, and Senghor was elected its first president.

During Senghor’s years in power, Senegal enjoyed relative political stability. Senghor survived an attempted coup d’etat staged in 1962 by his rival, prime minister Mamador Dia, and afterward Senegal rewrote its constitution to give the president more power. He was reelected in 1968 and 1973, and resigned in 1980, before the end of his fifth term. No previous African president had voluntarily left office.

After 1960 Senghor mainly wrote political prose, especially that promoting African democratic socialism. He wrote a series of five books on political theory under the omnibus title Liberty. Poems Senghor wrote before his election as president of Senegal were published in 1961 as Nocturnes. This collection discusses the nature of poetry and the role of the poet in contemporary society. Nocturnes also reprints in its entirety Senghor’s previously published volume Songs for Naett, a series of lyrical love poems written to a woman who represents the African landscape. In 1964, Senghor’s most significant verse became available in English translation.

Later Career. After retiring from Senegalese politics, Senghor divided his time between Paris, Normandy, and Dakar. He continued writing poetry, and he penned a memoir, What I Believe: Negritude, Frenchness, and Universal Civilization (1988). He died in Normandy in 2001.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Senghor's famous contemporaries include:

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980): A French author and philosopher known for his existentialist works.

Albert Camus (1913-1960): A French-Algerian existentialist author and philosopher. Camus was the first African-born winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973): Chilean poet and diplomat who won a Nobel Prize for Literature.

Richard Wright (1908-1960): African American novelist and essayist who immigrated to Paris.

James Baldwin (1924-1987): African American novelist, essayist, and activist who immigrated to Paris.

Julius Nyerere (1922-1999): The first president of Tanzania (1964-1985).

Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970): A French military leader during World War II, de Gaulle served as president of France from 1959 to 1969.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Senghor's most well known book is probably the Anthology of the New Black and Malagasy Poetry in French, which became a touchstone of the negritude phenomenon. Here are other landmark literary anthologies that brought attention to emerging social movements:

The New Negro (1925), an anthology edited by Alain Locke. Known as the Harlem Renaissance, the flowering of African American art and literature in the 1920s is brilliantly displayed in this collection.

Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro American Writing (1968), an anthology edited by Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal. This anthology of essays, poems, and short stories captures the aesthetic component of the Black Power movement of the 1960s.

Sisterhood Is Powerful (1970), an anthology edited by Robin Morgan. This anthology is one of the first widely available publications from the Second Wave of the women's movement.

This Bridge Called My Back (1981), an anthology edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua. Moraga and Anzaldua have selected an influential collection of writing ''by radical women of color.''

 

Works in Literary Context

During his years as a student, first in French West Africa and later in Paris, Senghor read widely in the canon of French literature. Some authors whose influence is apparent in Senghor’s poetry include Arthur Rimbaud, the surrealist Andre Breton, the Catholic poet Paul Claudel, and Saint-John Perse, winner of the 1960 Nobel Prize for Literature. Not coincidentally, both Claudel and Perse were professional diplomats whose work reflects an immersion in the social currents of the world beyond European shores.

However, it was Senghor’s exposure to the African American writers of the Harlem Renaissance—writers such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, W. E. B. DuBois, and Zora Neale Hurston—that helped him find his voice as a modern African. In Paris, Senghor was exposed to political movements such as socialism and humanism, ideologies that are apparent throughout his literary and political work.

Voice of His People. Senghor has said that his poetry bears a kinship to folk poetry, yet his work is also very clearly the result of a modern, cosmopolitan sensibility. No tradition of modernist African poetry—certainly not in French—existed when Senghor began his career. He drew on his African heritage and European education to forge something new. Under the French colonial policy of assimilation, Senghor’s advanced French education placed him in a position of potential leadership among his people. Senghor’s poetry and his development of the theory of negritude represent cultural and intellectual leadership, which led to his political achievements.

Other men of letters have entered the political arena, such as the Czech playwright Vaclav Havel and the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. Senghor’s career is exceptional in that the poet and the politician are nearly impossible to separate. Even in his early work, there is little distinction between the personal and public aspects of his expression. Poems that explore the tension between the Africa of his youth and his later experience in the colonial center reveal a deep awareness of the broader forces involved. Quite easily, a reader can discern that the poet aspires to speak for his people as a whole. This type of representation, even in work with no explicitly political content, became more palpable in Senghor’s poetry as his political profile grew.

Negritude and Black Consciousness. Aside from his achievements as president of Senegal, Senghor’s most enduring contribution is probably the theory of negritude with which he is associated. Launched as a creative response to French colonialism, negritude provided a basis for proclaiming a cultural commonality throughout the African diaspora. Under the mantle of negritude, new generations of black artists in Africa, Europe, and the Americas transcended the limitations that European traditions and norms had placed on their expression. Influenced itself by the creative fervor of the Harlem Renaissance, negritude is an important precursor to Afro- centricity and other movements in black culture.

 

Works in Critical Context

For all its influence, the theory of negritude, as articulated by Senghor, has attracted considerable criticism. Some intellectuals have condemned its emphasis on skin color as the single basis of cultural distinctions. Many take issue with its simplistic, somewhat stereotypical formulations, such as the claim that European reasoning is analytical and African reasoning is intuitive. Examining Senghor’s theoretical prose, some critics detect an unspoken acceptance of certain assumptions of European superiority.

Biographers and commentators on Senghor, such as Sebastian Okechuwu Mezu, have noted the close connection of his poetic and political identities, often assessing the former through the lens of the latter. As for Senghor’s literary style, it has been characterized as serenely and resonantly rhetorical. While the lush sensuality of his verse has many admirers, there are those who view his efforts to reconcile African and Western cultural idioms as only partly successful. Some scholars detect a lack of dramatic tension in Senghor’s poetry. Instead of conforming to European styles of narrative verse, his is a poetry of affirmation rather than explanation, declaration rather than argumentation, and celebration rather than observation.

Many critics, such as his principal English translators, John Reed and Clive Wake, compare Senghor to the nineteenth-century American poet Walt Whitman. Using intensely rhythmic free verse, each of these writers looked deep within themselves to capture and communicate the experience of a people giving birth to a new nation.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Research the French colonial policy of assimilation, in which colonial subjects were encouraged to abandon their native languages and adopt French culture and customs. How does the life of Senghor represent the impact of this policy?

2. Reading Songs of Shadow and Black Hosts, what hints and evidence do you find that their author would assume a position of political leadership?

3. Compare and contrast the poetry of Leopold Sedar Senghor and Walt Whitman.

4. Read the essay ‘‘Black Orpheus’’ written by Jean- Paul Sartre to introduce Anthology of the New Black and Malagasy Poetry in French, the book of black poetry that Senghor edited. Citing Sartre’s essay, explain the relationship between postwar French intellectual culture and the negritude movement.

5. Assessing Senghor’s controversial poem “Chaka’’ from Ethiopiques, determine how the poem reflects its author’s attitudes toward the acquisition and use of political power. Keep in mind that the real Chaka was a ruthless killer and tyrant. To what extent do you think Senghor depended on Thomas Mofolo’s historical novel about a Zulu warrior king of the nineteenth century?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Blair, Dorothy S. African Literature in French. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Collins, Grace. Man of Destiny: Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal. Mt. Airty, Md.: Sights, 1997.

Crowder, Michael. Senegal: A Study in French Assimilation Policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Hymans, Jacques Louis. Leopold Sedar Senghor: An Intellectual Biography. Edinburgh, U.K.: Edinburgh University Press, 1971.

Kluback, William. Leopold Sedar Senghor: From Politics to Poetry. New York: Peter Lang, 1997.

Mezu, Sebastian Okechuwu. The Poetry of Leopold Sedar Senghor. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1973.

Spleth, Janice, ed. Critical Perspectives on Leopold Sedar Senghor. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents, 1991.

Vaillant, Janet G., and Brenda Randolph. A Trumpet for His People: Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal. Mt. Airty, Md.: Sights, 1996.