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
Leopold Senghor
Leopold Senghor; drawing by David Levine


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…

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