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by Bamber Gascoigne

Léopold (Sédar) Senghor (1906-2001)


Senegalese poet and statesman, founder of the Senegalese Democratic Bloc. Léopold Sédar Senghor was elected president of Senegal in the 1960s. He retired from office in 1980. Senghor was one of the originators of the concept of Négritude, defined as the literary and artistic expression of the black African experience. In historical context the term has been seen as an ideological reaction against French colonialism and a defense of African culture. It has deeply influenced the strengthening of African identity in the French-speaking black world.

"Africans have kept a sense of brotherhood and dialogue, because they are inspired religions that preach love and, above all, because they live those religions, they can propose positive solutions for the construction of the international as well as the national community. The importance of love as essential energy, the stuff of life, is at the heart of Négritude, underlying the black man's ontology. Everywhere the couple—male-female—translates the integrality of the being. "
(On African Socialism by Léopold Sédar Senghor, translated and with an Introduction by Mercer Cook, Frederick A. Praeger, 1964, p. 148)

Léopold Sédar Senghor was born in Joal-la-Portugaise, a small fishing village about seventy miles south of Dakar. His father, a wealthy merchant, was of noble descent; he supported a family of some twenty children. Senghor's mother was a Peul, one of a pastoral and nomadic people. In defining his cultural background Senghor wrote, "I grew up in the heartland of Africa, at the crossroads / Of castes and races and roads" (Selected Poems of Léopold Sédar Senghor, edited by F. Abiola Irele, 1977, p. 11) The first seven years of his life Senghor spent in Djilor with his mother and maternal uncles and aunts. At the age of twelve, he attended the Catholic mission school of Ngazobil. He then continued his studied at the Libermann Seminary and Lycée Van Vollenhoven, finishing secondary-school education in 1928. Senghor had first intended to enter the priesthood, but abandoned clerical profession after being told that he lacked a religious vocation.

After winning a state scholarship, Senghor moved to Paris, where graduated from the Lycée Louis-le-grand in 1931. Despite preparatory classes, Senghor failed the École Normale Supérieure entrance examination twice. During these years he read African-American poets of the Harlem Renaissance and such French poets as Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Valéry. Among Senghor's s friends were Aimé Césaire, with whom he would developed the idea and term of Négritude, and Georges Pompidou, who later elected President of France. Césaire is usually credited with coining of the term.

Senghor studied French, Latin, and Greek at the Sorbonne. In 1932 Senghor received his diplôme d'études supérieurers, with a thesis on exoticism in Budelaire. Senghor was granted French citizenship in 1932. He did his military service in a regiment of colonial infantry, but was given a perimission to continue his studies at the Sorbonne during free afternoon hours. In 1935 Senghor became the first West African to obtain an agrégation (a competitive examination conducted by the French state for admission to teaching positions on the secondary level).

From 1935 Senghor worked as a teacher, notably at Lycée Descartes in Tours, and then in Paris at Lycée Marcelin Berthelot. At the outbreak of World War II, he joined the French army. After being captured by the Germans, he spent eighteen months in a camp as a prisoner of war. During this period he learned German and wrote poems, which were published in Hosties noires (1948). Senghor married in 1948 Ginette Eboué, the daughter of a prominent Guyanese colonial administrator Félix Eboué. They had two children; the marriage ended in divorce. Senghor's second wife, Colette Hubert, who had been his first wife's secretary, had her family roots in Normandy.

In 1944 Senghor was appointed professor of African languages at the École Nationale de la France d'Outre-Mer. Chants d'ombre (1945), Senghor's first collection of poems, was inspired by the philosopher Henri Bergson. This work dealt with the themes of exile and nostalgia. "Toko'Waly, my uncle, do you remember those distant nights when my head grew heavy against the patience of your back? / Or holding me by the hand, your hand led me through the shadows and signs? / The fields are flowers of glow worms; the stars come to rest on the grass, on the trees. / All around is silece." (Selected Poems by Léopold Sédar Senghor, translated and introduced by John Reed and Clive Wake, Oxford University Press, 1964, p. IX)  In 1945 and 1946 Senghor was elected to represent Senegal in the French Constituent Assemblies. With Senghor's help Alioune Diop, a Senegalese intellectual living in Paris, created in 1947 Présence Africaine, a cultural journal, which had on the advisory board André Gide, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. In 1948 Senghor became a professor of Agfrican languages and civilization at the Ecole Nationale de la France d'Outre-Mer. From 1946 to 1958 he was continuously reelected to the French National Assembly.

After breaking with Lamine Guèye, who was allied with the French socialist (SFIO), Senghor established his own independent political party, BDS (Bloc Démocratique Sénégalais), which identified itself with the African brand of Socialism. 

When Senegal joined with the Sudanese Republic to form the Federation of Mali, Senghor became president of the federal assembly. In August 1960 Senegal separated from the federation and Senghor was elected the first president of Senegal. Senghor held the position of Presidency for twenty years without interruption. His old friend and protégé, Prime Minister Mamadou Dia was imprisoned for life in 1962 during a political power struggle but released from jail in 1974. Senghor also survived attempted coups and an unsuccessful assassination. In 1968 the University of Dakar, which Senghor had helped to establish, was faced with student unrest and later in the same year he was the subject of hostile demonstrations in Frankfurt, where he went to receive the most prestigious German literary prize, the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. Demonstrators gave Nazi salutes to police and fire hoses were used to break up the crowds.

After leaving the presidency in 1980, Senghor shared his time between Paris, Normandy, and Dakar. In 1983 Senghor was elected to the Académie française. He died in France on December 20, 2001. Describing the sky of his native country, Senghor said in the poem 'Visit': "It is the same sun bedewed with illusions, / The same sky unnerved by hidden presences, / The same sky feared by those who have a reckoning with the dead, / And suddenly my dead draw near to me. . . . " (translated from the French by John Reed and Clive Wake, in Global Voices: Contempotrary Literature from the Non-Western World, edited by Arthur W. Biddle, A Blair Press Book, 1995, p. 174)

Senghor's poems, written in French, have been translated into several languages: Spanish, English, German, Russian, Swedish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, and others. He received several international awards as a writer and a major African political opinion leader, among others Dag Hammarskjöld Prize (1965), Peace Prize of German Book Trade, Haile Sellassie African Research Prize (1973, Apollinaire Prize for Poetry (1974). He was appointed in 1969 member of Inst. Français, Acad. des Sciences morales et politiques.

In his poetry, which often look back at the past, Senghor invites the reader to experience the nearly mystical world of Africa. Nostalgia brings to the fore the conflict between tradition and modernity: "I grew like a corn in the Springtime, I was drunk with verdure of water, with green rustiling in the gold of Time / Ah! no longer! I cannot bear your light, the light of your lamps, your atomic light breaking up all my being". (from 'Elegy of Midnight', Selected Poems, 1964, p. 89)  Senghor's non-fiction includes writings primarily in linguistics, politics and sociology. His philosophy and his ideas on Négritude have been a source of considerable debate. After WW II this term, which owes a great deal to its French intellectual origin, entered into general use.

Négritude puts together a number of different elements, the revolt against colonialist values, glorification of the African past, and nostalgia for the beauty and harmony of traditional African society. Originally, when the term was created in Paris in the 1930s, it served as an act of defiance against the view that black was inferior and challenged blacks to embrace, instead of reject, their African heritage.

Sartre's famous essay Orphée noir (Black Orpheus), the preface to Senghor's Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française (1948), declared the Negritude "an antiracist racism"– it is "the sole road which can lead to the abolition of the differences of race."(Black Orpheus by Jean-Paul Sartre, translated by S. W. Allen, Présence Africaine, 1976, p. 15) In Sartre's analysis the thesis is white racism, antithesis Negritude, and synthesis humanism. Senghor rejected this kind of dialectical thinking. He defined negritude in contradistinction to Europe; it is "the sum total of the values of the civilization of the African world" – not an antithesis but a fundamentally different culture. (The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms by Chris Baldick, third edition, 2008, p. 22)

Senghor's statement that the Negro is intuitive, whereas the European is more Cartesian, received a large amount of critique. African mode of experience is far from irrational, Senghor emphsized, the experience that proceeds from intuition is fuller and more comprehensive than that derived from a discursive approach.

Negritude was for Senghor a moral law and response to the modern humanism. He wanted to integrate African cultural values, especially religious values, into socialism. "Humanism, the philosophy of humanism, rather than economics, is the basic character of positive contribution of Marxian thiought." (Senghor, 1964, p. 34) According to Senghor, African socialism differed greatly from the scientific socialism of Karl Marx and Friederich Engels, and the Soviet Union's brand of "Marxist-Leninist" socialism. Moreover, Africa had already achieved socialism before the coming of the European. Referring to works such as La Philosophie bantoue by Placide Tempels, Dieu d'eau by Marcel Griaule, and Les Contes noirs de l'Ouest africain by Roland Colin, he said: "We would learn, that for the Negro Africain, the "vital forces" are the texture of the world, and that world is animated by a dialectical movement. We would learn that Negro-African society is collectivist or, more exactly, communal, because it is rather a communion of souls than an aggregate of individuals." (Senghor, 1964, p. 49) Senghor believed that there will be eventually one world civilization, a unique and universal one.

A central theme is Senghor's fiction and non-fiction is the opposition of Africa and Europe – the appeal of the humanist ideals of French civilization and his commitment to the African cause. His Négritude et civilisation de l'Universel (1977), inspired by the work of Teilhard de Chardin, was an attempt to advocate the fusion of spiritualism and materialism into a "humanism of the twentieth century."

In 'The Kaya-Magan (guimm for kora)', a poem of the legendary founder of the ancient empire of Ghana, Senghor wrote: "My empire is that of Love, for I am weak for you, woman / Foreigner with clear eyes, lips of cinnamon-apple / And a sex like a burning bush / For I am both sides of a double door, the binary rhythm of space / And the third beat, I am the movement of drums / The strenght of future Africa." (The Collected Poetry, translated and with an introduction by Melvin Dixon, University Press of Virginia, 1991, p. 79) The "I" of the poem is Kaya-Magan but Senghor has adopted his identity, sharing his vision as a ruler of the united peoples, "Prince of the Rising and Setting Sun".

For further reading: African Art as Philosophy: Senghor, Bergson, and the Idea of Negritude by Souleymane Bachir Diagne; translated from the French by Chike Jeffers (2023); Léopold Sédar Senghor by Elara Bertho (2023); Léopold Sédar Senghor by Jean-Pierre Langellier (2021); Comprendre Senghor by Waly Latsouck Faye (2019); The Negritude Movement: W.E.B. Du Bois, Leon Damas, Aime Cesaire, Leopold Senghor, Frantz Fanon, and the Evolution of an Insurgent Idea by Reiland Rabaka (2015); What We Say, Who We Are: Leopold Senghor, Zora Neale Hurston, and the Philosophy of Language by Parker English (2009); Léopold Sédar Senghor: chronique d’une époque by El Hadji Saloum Diakite´ (2009); Senghor philosophe: cinq études by Jacques Chatue (2009); Léopold Sédar Senghor: le maître de langue: biographie by Daniel Delas (2007); Léopold Sédar Senghor: le président humaniste by Christian Roche (2006); Léopold Sédar Senghor: lumière noire by Hervé Bourges (2006); In Senghor's Shadow: Art, Politics, and the Avant-Garde in Senegal, 1960–1995 by Elizabeth Harney (2004); African Philosophy in Search of Identity by D.A. Masolo (1994); 'Senghor' by F. Abiola Irele, in A Companion to the Philosophers, edited by Robert L. Arrington (1999); 'Negritude and Its Contribution to the Civilization of the Universal: Leopold Senghor and the Question of Ultimate Reality and Meaning' by Olusegun Gbadeges, in Ultimate Reality and Meaning, Volume 14 Issue 1, March (1991); Black, French, and African: A Life of Léopold Sédar Senghor by Janet G. Vaillant (1990); Léopold Sédar Senghor by Janice Spleth (1985); Léopold Sédar Senghor et la poésie de l'action by Mohamed Aziza (1980); The Poetry of Léopold Sédar Senghor by Okechukwu Mezu (1973); The Concept of Négritude in the Poetry of Léopold Sédar Senghor by Sylvia Washington Bâ (1973); Léopold Sedar Senghor: an Intellectual Biography by Jacques-Louis Hymans (1971); Léopold Sédar Senghor and the Politics of Negritude by Irving Leonard Markovitz (1969); Black Orpheus by Jean-Paul Sartre (1963) - Other writer/statesmen: Lennart Meri, Václav Havel - See also: Sembéne Ousmane

Selected books:

  • Les classes nominales en wolof et les substantifs à initiale nasale, 1944
  • La Communauté impériale française, 1945 (with Robert Lemaignen and Prince Sisowath Youtevang)
  • L'article conjoctif en wolof, 1945
  • L'harmonie vocalique en sérère, 1945
  • Chants d'ombre, 1945 - Shadow Songs (translated by Melvin Dixon, in The Collected Poetry, 1991)
  • Hosties Noires, 1948 - Black Hosts (translated by Melvin Dixon, in The Collected Poetry, 1991)
  • Commémoration du centenaire de l'abolition de l'esclavage, 1948 (with Gaston Monnerville and Aimé Césaire)
  • Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française, 1948 (preface by Jean-Paul Sartre)
  • Chants pour Naëtt, 1949
  • Pierre Teilhard de Chardin el la politique africaine, 1952
  • L'Apport de la poésie négre, 1953
  • La belle historie de Leuk-le-lièvre (with Abdoulaye Sadji), 1953
  • Langage et poésie négro-africaine, 1954
  • Esthéthique négro-africain, 1956
  • Éthiopiques, 1956 - Ethiopiques (translated by Melvin Dixon, in The Collected Poetry, 1991)
  • Future Role of Western European Union in the Political, Economic, Cultural and Legal Fields, 1957
  • Rapport sur la doctrine el le programme du parti, 1959 - Report on the Principles and Programme of the Party (in Présence africaine, 1959)
  • African Socialism, 1959 (abridged edition of Report on the Principles and Programme of the Party)
  • Rapport sur la politique générale, 1960 (?)
  • Nocturnes, 1961 - Nocturnes (translated by John Reed & Clive Wake, 1969)
  • La dialectique du nom-verbe en wolof, 1961
  • Rapport sur la dictrine el la politique générale; ou, Socialisme, unité africaine, construction nationale, 1962
  • Liberté I: Négritude et humanisme, 1964 - Freedom I: Negritude and Humanism (in The Africa Reader: Independent Africa, 1970)
  • Théorie et pratique du socialisme sénégalais, 1964
  • Selected Poems, 1964 (translated and introduced by John Reed and Clive Wake)
  • Poèmes, 1964
  • On African Socialism, 1964 (London: Presence Africaine; translated and with an Introduction by Mercer Cook)
  • Prose and Poetry, 1965 (edited and translated by John Reed and Clive Wake)
  • Latinité et négritude, 1966 (in Portuguese, French, and Spanish)
  • Négritude, arabisme, et francité: réflexions sur le problème de la culture / Les Fondements de l'Africanité; ou, Négritude et arabité, 1967 - The Foundations of "Africanité"; or, Négritude and "Arabité" (in  Présence africaine, 1971)
  • Exécution du deuxième plan quadriennal de développement économique et social, 1967 (?)
  • Politique, nation, et développement moderne, 1968
  • Elégie pour Alizés, 1969
  • Selected Poems, 1969 (translated by John Reed and Clive Wake)
  • Le Plan de décollage économique, 1970
  • Pourquoi une idéologie négro-africaine?, 1971
  • Liberté II: Nation et voies africaine du socialisme, 1971 - Nationhood and the African Road to Socialism (in Présence africaine, 1962) / On African Socialism (abridged edition, translated by Mercer Cook, 1964)
  • La Négritude est un humanisme du vingtième siècle: Senghor à Bruxelles, 1971
  • Lettres d'Hivernage, 1973 - Letters in the Season of Hivernage (translated by Melvin Dixon, in The Collected Poetry, 1991)
  • La Néo-Traite des négres, 1973
  • La Parole chez Paul Claudel et chez les négro-africains, 1973
  • Problèmes de développement dans les pays sous-développés, 1975(?)
  • Paroles, 1975
  • Pour une Société sénégalaise socialiste et démocratique, 1976
  • Le Problème de la faim: allocution, 1976
  • Africa, 1976
  • Pour une relecture africaine de Marx et d'Engels, 1976
  • Selected Poems = Poésies choisies, 1976 (translated by Craig Williamson)
  • Liberté III: Négritude et civilisation de l'universel, 1977
  • Selected Poems, 1977 (edited by Abiola Irele)
  • La Bibliothèque comme instrument du développement, 1977
  • L.S. Senghor, poète sénégalais, 1978
  • La Place des langues classiques dans les humanités sénégalaises, 1978
  • Élégies majeures: dialogue sur la poésie francophone, 1979 - Major Elegies (translated by Melvin Dixon, in The Collected Poetry, 1991)
  • La poésie de l'action, 1980 (with Mohamed Aziza)
  • Ndesse, 1981 (translated by William Oxley)
  • Poems of a Black Orpheus, 1981 (translated by William Oxley)
  • Pour une Lecture négro-africaine et réception à l'Académie Française, 1984 (with Edgar Fauré)
  • Liberté IV: Socialisme et planification, 1983
  • Discours de réception à l'Académie française, 1984
  • Poémes, 1984
  • African Sojourn, 1986 (photographs by Uwe Ommer)
  • Black Ladies, 1986 (photographs by Uwe Ommer)
  • She Chases me Relentlessly, 1986 (translated by William Oxley)
  • Chaka, 1986 (music by Akin Euba, prod. in London)
  • Ce que je crois: négritude, francite, et civilisation de l'universel, 1988
  • Espaces: à la recherche d'une écologie de l'esprit, 1989
  • Oeuvre poétique, 1990
  • The Collected Poetry, 1991 (translated by Melvin Dixon)
  • Liberte V: Le Dialogue des cultures, 1993
  • Poems of Léopold Sédar Senghor, 1996 (with silkscreen prints by Lois Mailou Jones; translation by John Reed and Clive Wake)
  • Poésie complète, 2007 (edited by Pierre Brunel)
  • Éducation et culture, 2014 (textes inédits réunis par A. Raphaël Ndiaye et Doudou Joseph Ndiaye; Fondation Léopold Sédar Senghor; préface de Felwine Sarr; postface de Souleymane Bachir Diagne)
  • Les textes spirituels de Léopold Sédar Senghor: correspondance L.S. Senghor-C. Bartels, 2020 (éditée par François Hubert Manga)

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