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David Diop (1927-1960)


David Diop was one of the most promising French West African young poets in the 1950s. His short career ended in an air-crash off Dakar in 1960. Diop lived an uprooted life, moving frequently between France and West Africa. While in Paris, Diop joinded the négritude literary movement, which championed and celebrated the uniqueness of black experience and heritage. Diop's work reflects his hatred of colonial rulers and his hope for an independent Africa.

"Africa tell me Africa
Is this you this back that is bent
This back that breaks under the weight of humiliation
This back trembling with red scars
And saying yes to the whip under the midday sun"

(from 'Africa,' in Modern Poetry from Africa, edited by Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier, 1963, p. 58)

David Léon Mandéssi Diop was born in Bordeaux, France, of a Senegalese father and a Cameroonian mother. Diop was the third of five children. After his father died, he was raised by his mother. Diop had his primary education in Senegal, and then he attended the Lycée Marcelin Berthelot in Paris during World War II. At home Diop read the works of Aimé Césaire and debuted as a poet while still at school. Several of his poems were published in Léopold Senghor's famous Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache (1948), which became an important landmark of modern black writing in French.

Most of his life Diop lived in France, but he often expressed his longing to Africa in his poems: "Let these words of anguish keep time with your restless step – / Oh I am lonely so lonely here." ('The Renegade,' in Growing Up with Poetry: An Anthology for Secondary Schools, edited by David Rubadiri, 1989, p. 53)  Due to his poor health - he was a semi-invalid for most of his life after contracting tuberculosis - Diop changed his career plans from medicine to the liberal arts. He obtained two baccalauréats and a licence-ès-lettres. In 1950 he married Virginia Kamara, who was the center of many of his poems. "When you pass / The loveliest girl envies / The warm rhythm of your hips," Diop wrote in 'Rama Kam'. (The Negritude Poets: An Anthology of Translations from the  French, edited by Ellen Conroy Kennedy, 1975, p. 187) However, the marriage ended in divorce.

Despite his French upbringing and education, Diop empathized with the African plight against French colonialism. After returning to Africa in the 1950s Diop took part in the rebuilding of Senegal. He published several poems in Présence Africaine, and advocated independence struggle. His first book of poems, Coups de pillon (1956), called for revolution and attacked the domination of European culture in Africa. The title of the book can be translated as "hammer blows" or "pounding".

An advocate of mother-tongue literature in Africa, Diop argued in his bitter essay 'A Contribution to the debate on National Poetry' (1956) that a poet "deprived of the use of his language and cut off from his people, might turn out to be only the representative of a literary trend (and that not necessarily the least gratuitous) of the conquering nation. His words, having become a perfect illustration of the assimilationist policy through imagination and style, will doubtless rouse the warm applause of a certain group of critics." ('David Mandessi Diop' by Ode S. Ogede, in Postcolonial African Writers, edited Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne, 1998, p. 130)

Diop worked as a teacher in Dakar and a principal of a secondary school in Kindia, Guinea. The country had gained independence in 1958 and as a result French administration was rapidly withdrawn. The republic was left without civil servants and a number of Africans volunteered to work for Ahmed Sekou Touré's regime, among them Diop. Toure governed from 1958 to 1984. Diop died on a journey over the Atlantic with his second wife on August 25, 1960; their plane crashed on returning to France from Dakar. Most of his work was destroyed with him, among them the manuscript of his second volume of poems. Only the 22 poems that were published before his death.

From the beginning of his literary career, Diop was connected with the Negritude school of writing, especially with his themes of the harmful effects of inferiority complex. As a tool of protest, he employed a colloquial style. Diop criticized Western values and colonialism, encouraged for self-sacrifices for the collective good, and praised the strength of African women. Like many writers and intellectuals, such as Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Wole Soyinka, and Mongo Beti, he rejected the religion of the colonizers, the "rhythm of the paternoster". To gain the attention of his audience, Diop employed the techniques of oral expression, rhythmic repetition, oratorical tone and assertion. Especially in his political poems, as in 'The Vultures,' the last lines are optimistic: "In spite of your songs and pride / In spite of the desolate villages of torn Africa / Hope was preserved in us as in a fortress / And from the mines of Swaziland to the factories of Europe / Spring will reborn under our bright steps." (Poems from Black Africa, edited by Langston Hughes, translated by Ulli Beier, 1967, p. 145) In 'The Vultures' the belief in revolution is the bond that unites oppressed in Africa and elsewhere: 'Listen comrades of the struggling centuries / To the keen clamor of the Negro from Africa to the Americans / It is the sign of the dawn / The sign of brotherhood which comes to nourish the dreams of men." (Modern Poetry from Africa, edited by Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier, 1963, pp. 56-57)  In the 1960s, Diop work created a response among the younger generation of poets, including Amadou Wade and Assane Diallo. His style prefigured that of the Black Conscious poets.

Négritude: The term was coined in the 1930s by Aimé Césaire and L-S. Senghor, and was much used after World War II by French-speaking intellectuals in Africa and the Caribbean. It referred to the sense of a common Negro inheritance, revolt against colonialist values, and nostalgia for the beauty and glory of the African heritage. The advocates of négritude movement - in particular Senghor, Césaire, and Leon-Gontran Damas - were later criticized by their belief in intrinsic cultural blackness, neglecting contemporary political realities, and failing to achieve its revolutionary aims. However, the ideas of négritude influenced also the black social and political movement in the U.S. during the 1960s. The major early works expressing the spirit of the movement are Damas Pigments (1937), Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (1939), and Senghor's Anthologie de la poésie... Sartre's essay 'Orphée noir' in the anthology is perhaps the most famous attempt to analyze the movement from an Existentialist point of view.

For further reading: 'Representation, Nostalgia, Protest: A Reading of Selected Poetry of Diop' by Ayurshi Mishra, in Research Journal of English (RJOE), Volume 6, Issue 1 (2021); 'David Mandessi Diop' by Ode S. Ogede, in Postcolonial African Writers, edited Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne (1998); European-Language Writing in Sub-Saharan Africa, Vol. 1, edited Albert S. Gérard (1986); Tasks and Masks by Lewis Nkosi (1981); Biographie de David Lâeon Mandessi Diop by Maria Diop (1980); Modern African Poetry and the African Predicament by R.N. Egudu (1978); Whispers from a Continent by Wilfred Cartey (1969); The Black Mind by O.R. Dathorne (1969)

Selected works:

  • Coups de pilon, 1956
  • Hammer Blows and Other Writings, 1973 (translated and edited by Simon Mpondo and Frank Jones)
  • David Diop: 1927-1960: témoignages, études, 1983

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