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Born Again African

Œuvre poétique

by Léopold Sédar Senghor
Editions du Seuil, 439 pp., fr 18.95

Ce que je crois

by Léopold Sédar Senghor
Bernard Grasset, 254 pp., fr 33.75


On July 7, 1928, the graduation ceremonies of the new French lycée in Dakar, Senegal, were dignified by the presence of the governor general of West Africa Primarily the children of white colonial administrators and businessmen, the school’s hundred-odd students included about fifteen Africans, only one in the graduating class. They had been put through their paces for the baccalaureate by examiners sent from Bordeaux to maintain French standards. After the speeches, when the prizes were finally awarded, the same student walked forward time after time to receive the book prize in each academic subject and then one last time to receive the outstanding student award conferred by the governor general himself.

The student who thus swept the field was neither French nor a Creole with French citizenship from one of the four original colonial settlements, but a black Serer from the bush. The triumph of Léopold Sédar Senghor over all his more privileged classmates soon became a legend in West Africa. Ahead of him lay more than ten years of higher education in Paris. His ensuing sixty-year career as Francophone poet, promoter of Negritude, and elected president of Senegal comes close to realizing two different dreams: the Western dream of philosopher-king or poet-legislator, and the African dream of the sage celebrating his people in song and story under the palaver tree. Yet there is an unexpectedly tragic side to this life, a side we shall approach slowly.

Born in 1906, Senghor was nearly the youngest of some two dozen children by several concurrent wives of a successful Serer tradesman and church-going Catholic. Missionaries in West Africa tolerated very latitudinarian forms of Christianity. Senghor was brought up until the age of seven in a small riparian village by his mother and maternal uncle according to local pastoral traditions and without a word of French. Then his father sent him for six years to a French missionary school. He excelled in his studies, grew in piety, and moved on to a Catholic seminary in Dakar. After three years the white Father Director turned Senghor down for the priesthood. This first deep disappointment redirected Senghor’s career into secular education without shattering his religious faith.

In 1945, seventeen years after his brilliant lycée graduation, Senghor brought out his first collection of poems, Chants d’ombre, with the estimable Seuil publishing house in Paris. At the same time, recently elected a representative from Senegal to the French Constituent Assembly, this Sorbonne-educated black man from Africa was chosen to oversee the grammar and style of the newly drafted Constitution of the Fourth Republic. By 1960 he had become known worldwide as a founding father of Negritude, the Black Consciousness movement of the Francophone world, and as an effective champion of independence for the French colonies. After the failure of the short-lived Mali Federation, the Republic of Senegal elected Senghor its first president. He was regularly and honestly reelected for the following twenty years and helped to establish a remarkably liberal democracy with continuing ties to France. Senghor is the first African head of state in modern times to have turned over power peacefully and voluntarily to his successor. In 1984 the French Academy elected him to membership on the basis of his accomplishments as poet, scholar, and statesman.

Resolute and remarkably gifted as a boy, Senghor benefited enormously from the French presence in his country and then was instrumental in transforming that presence. Every stage of his career throws light on the decline of the French colonial system and on the difficult birth of a postcolonial African polity. As he entered his thirties, this elegiac poet and seasoned veteran of the French university system decided that his skin color carried responsibilities beyond attaining success in the white man’s system. The courage of that decision emerges clearly when one understands the itinerary by which a black Frenchman became a born-again African.

In a letter to a white friend he states explicitly that he was “born again” as “a New Negro,” a term he borrowed from black Americans he was reading in the Thirties. He had lived through a period of intense assimilation to French culture, to the point of choosing Proust as bedside reading. Then in the years before World War II, a combination of European anthropology about Africa, American authors like W.E.B. DuBois, and discussions with West Indian friends in Paris like the Martinique poet Aimé Césaire and the Guyanan poet Léon Damas reconverted Senghor to his earliest origins and his African culture. Behind his cosmopolitan exterior he remained very much a split identity and never tired of quoting DuBois on “double consciousness.” Out of this crisis of conscience came the influential but awkward notion of Negritude, developed with Césaire and Damas.

Senghor’s forty years of public life also oblige us to consider anew what he referred to as “the Balkanization of Africa,” its self-confinement within frontiers arbitrarily imposed on it by the European colonialist powers at the Berlin Conference in 1885. Those fragile frontiers of national security are also fault lines of weakness and disunity within larger regions. Between 1958 and 1960 black leaders spoke excitedly of the United States of (West) Africa, but one hears little of this idea today.

And finally Senghor sets before us once again an old refrain in history and mythology: the solitude of the chief, the leader alone in his tent or his study. Africa may signify to some people another race, another set of cultures; but situations like that of the revered statesman losing touch with his people are universal and help us to understand that the truly important race is the human race.

The immense journalistic and scholarly attention paid to Africa in the past fifty years has produced no comprehensive biography of an important African leader. We may, for example, recognize the names of Nkrumah, Nyerere, Houphouet-Boigny, Sékou Touré, and Senghor. But the best studies devoted to them remain partial in one or both senses. Two probing books on Senghor’s political career and thinking make little attempt to deal with his poetry.1

An Africanist and Sovietologist of long standing, Janet Vaillant has now brought out a biography of Senghor that overlooks no aspect of his life. She has drawn on many new sources in Senegal about his youth and organizes her thirteen chapters firmly around the stages and turning points in his complex international career. Vaillant’s evident respect for Senghor sometimes leads her to avoid frank discussion of personal and social matters, even though there are few skeletons to hide in this dedicated life. Her political and intellectual judgments seem generally sound but unevenly documented.2 Of the several future third world leaders who resided in Paris during the Twenties and Thirties, including Ho Chi Minh and Chou En Lai, Senghor was the least seduced by Communist revolutionary ideology and traveled the furthest toward nonviolent democratic institutions and toward the reconciliation of racial and cultural differences. Today, when the fading of the cold war is forcing us to look at many local and often tribal conflicts, this exceptional life has much to suggest to us about the significance of early personal backgrounds and the depth of ideological conflict among leaders of emerging democracies.


Since antiquity the figure of the black has played far more than a walk-on part in Western culture. A cluster of recent books on the black in Western art has given us a cornucopia of particulars from that history.3 When did the black as Negro begin to raise his or her voice in the pandemonium of Western thought and literature? Unable to get an education in the United States during the middle of the nineteenth century, the West Indian black Edward W. Blyden moved on to Liberia to write his five remarkable books. This powerful missionary-educated mind occupies the place of Aristotle for African studies and Black Consciousness.

Blyden’s isolation, even while he represented Liberia at the Court of St. James, was probably exceeded by that of W.E.B. DuBois, who, after taking a Harvard M.A., was denied a doctoral degree in Germany for not fulfilling the residence requirement. After 1900 DuBois devoted much of his energy to organizing congresses of the Pan-African movement, interracial in principle, pan-Negroist in practice, as the British historian Basil Davidson points out. However, in spite of the congresses, of the intellectual capacities of the leaders, and of the genuine circulation of black elites in the early part of the twentieth century the voices of Blyden, DuBois, Martin Delaney, James Africanus Horton, and many other blacks were never able to gain the international hearing they deserved.

What happened in Paris in the 1930s and 1940s resembles the rapid forming of a critical mass, composed not only of black intellectuals from the West Indies, the United States, and West Africa but also of white artists, poets, and intellectuals already halfway to Africa because of their responses to primitive art, jazz, blues, and Josephine Baker. Gide, Camus, Emmanuel Mounier, and Sartre joined Senghor, Césaire, Damas, the Senegalese writer Alioune Diop, and Richard Wright as sponsors of the new review Présence Africaine (1947). Sartre contributed a lengthy manifesto-like introduction to Senghor’s Anthologie de la poésie nègre et malagache (1948). Through such activities the black voices that represented Negritude laid claim to and were granted a new cultural prominence. The term Negritude represents a set of claims as significant and complex of those of Surrealism and Existentialism.

Senghor, Césaire, and Damas maintained in the 1930s that blacks throughout the world have a different psychological makeup from that of whites. Blacks, they said, have retained profound human values that whites have lost. Black artists share a characteristic style. Africa, the mother continent, possesses a rich culture qualitatively different from that of Europe. Senghor and his friends set out to convince black intellectuals to take pride in the fact of being black and to inform the world about black character, black history, and black civilization.

It was a daring and ambitious goal, which soon faced charges of counterracism. Today, anyone can amass references and quotations to prove that Africa and the Africans have a long history and that prejudice against color is a sign of intellectual backwardness. But in the early years of the twentieth century, blacks had been written out of history both by much evolutionary theory and by writers on culture. There is a debate today over whether ancient Greeks and Romans were racist. But about the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the evidence is overwhelming. “Enlightened” scholars were shaped by a reverence for science, progress, and the preeminence of European thought. The absence of these values they called “savagery,” as many statements of Voltaire, Hume, Hegel, and Darwin attest. The ideology of conquest in the nineteenth century became the next logical step. The American historian and political scientist Robert W. Tucker summarizes that continuity when he describes how Europeans judged colonization to be “both inevitable and just—inevitable because reciprocity could not necessarily be expected from those lacking in civilization, just because the primacy of the European states serves to confer upon the backward the benefits of civilization.”4

  1. 1

    Ernest Milcent and Monique Sordet. Léopold Sédar Senghor et la naissance de l’Afrique moderne (Paris: Seghers, 1969); Jacques Louis Hymans, Léopold Sédar Senghor: An Intellectual Biography (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1971).

  2. 2

    Some errors appear almost gratuitous. Senghor and De Gaulle never “stood side by side to preside over the ceremonies marking Senegal’s independence” (p. 2). Vaillant correctly records Senghor’s date of birth as 1906. She does not raise the question of who tampered with his birth certificate in order to allow him to enter the lycée when he was two years over age. The assassination attempt against Senghor in 1967 involved a gun, not a knife (p. 326). A number of factors lead us to believe that many chapters of Vaillant’s biography were written more than a decade ago. For instance, the only mention of the shifting usage of “Negro” and “black” in French and English has been belatedly inserted on page 143 as the lone footnote in the body of the book itself.

  3. 3

    Especially The Image of the Black in Western Art (Harvard University Press, 1976– ); Vols. I, II, and IV have appeared to date.

  4. 4

    Robert W. Tucker, The Inequality of Nations (Basic Books, 1977), p. 9.

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