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
One can imagine the distress of the brilliant black students in European universities sitting quietly and listening to charges brought against the color of their skin and against the African peoples from whom they had sprung. How could they respond? Their equality of opportunity was compromised by theories of race and culture that still went unanswered and by the incontrovertible color of their skin. Even those black students who mastered Greek and Latin were reminded by many true sons of Europe that they were illegitimate children of Western culture.
By the mid-1930s, Senghor and his friends had had enough. In essays and in poems they began to declare their version of “Black is Beautiful.” But they were not just writing slogans in public places. Vaillant’s book traces their long voyage of cultural self-discovery and discusses several sources of the Negritude movement. A special place is accorded to Senghor’s debt to the intellectual vigor of black American poets, writers, and academics such as Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, W.E.B. DuBois, Alain Locke, and Langston Hughes. The Nardals, a black American family established in Paris who held open house, provided the crucial link among black intellectuals of all shores living in or passing through Paris in the 1930s. Vaillant could have provided more information on the two Nardal sisters, particularly on Jane. We are not told that her unpublished article “For a Negro Humanism” launched many of the ideas that Senghor and Césaire would present to the world with such brilliance.5
In these pages Vaillant should also have given some attention to Edward W. Blyden, the remarkable Liberian precursor of Negritude mentioned earlier. Between 1857 and 1903 his writings opened up the whole field of “the African personality.” A letter Blyden wrote to William Gladstone from Liberia makes “this little Republic, planted here in great weakness” sound like Plymouth Plantation.6
The second debt of Negritude traced by Vaillant is not to other blacks but to European anthropologists and artists. Leo Frobenius, Maurice Delafosse, and Robert Delavignette were the first anthropologists to do archaeological work on African cultures. By revealing the antiquity and significance of African precolonial history and civilization, they outlined a new picture of black achievements. In the same period artists who “went native” in their spiritual quest, from Rimbaud to Gauguin to Picasso to Cendrars, left a deep mark on the Western psyche. They also provided a stimulus for Senghor in his rediscovery of Africa. In a few cases, like that of André Gide, Vaillant mentions a highly important name and passes on with no further discussion.7
When young black intellectuals in Paris in the 1930s assembled all these resources to reach for a new way of looking at themselves, they did not use the word “Negritude.” Borrowing an expression from American blacks, they called themselves “new Negroes” after Alain Locke’s anthology, The New Negro (1925). Only later did Césaire coin the term “Negritude.” It has remained an evolving concept whose definition varies from writer to writer and whose focus shifts, particularly in the case of Senghor.
At the start, Senghor defined Negritude as “the sum total of qualities possessed by all black men everywhere.” This definition comes very close to the way in which Blyden, in the previous century, described the “black personality movement”: “the sum of values of African civilization, the body of qualities which make up the distinctiveness of the people of Africa.”
Later on, during the struggle for independence of African colonies, Senghor presented Negritude as a political ideology designed to promote liberation and self-rule. In a third stage, after independence, Senghor expanded Negritude to emphasize blacks’ contribution to a coming civilization of universal values. Themes of cultural exchange were always present in his notion of Negritude, and Vaillant gives a full account of métissage in Senghor’s thinking.
Negritude or Black Consciousness has at least a 150-year history and has taken many forms, starting well before the name was invented in the 1930s. Senghor’s contribution, whose evolution we have traced above in three stages, has lost influence since the late 1950s for a number of reasons. It was difficult for him to put aside “the racial premise,” as Vaillant phrases it, of his early declarations, the premise of a genetic distinctiveness. Even Richard Wright, Jacques Stephen Alexis, and many other black intellectuals insisted on the primacy of geographic, cultural, and economic factors—as opposed to genetic ones—in discussing the fate of black people. When generalized into communitarian African socialism for local consumption in Senegal, Negritude lost its edge and its appeal. When later grafted onto the cloudy thinking of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, it sank into a sea of universal spirituality. All along Senghor clung to a static, idealized notion of precolonial African history as essentially “traditional.” Historians can now demonstrate that Africa, including West Africa, has for centuries absorbed cultural and political shocks, including the arrival of Islam in the tenth century.
There will be more to say about Negritude.
After Senghor’s retirement as president of Senegal in 1980, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris mounted a large exhibition in his honor. Senghor welcomed the event on the condition that the exhibition emphasize his intellectual and literary work rather than his political career. The Senegalese, however, remember Senghor the shrewd politician and charismatic leader better than Senghor the poet and essayist. Other African heads of state sometimes criticized Senghor’s ideas but rarely his integrity and his skill. He learned early to navigate in a political system molded by three conflicting forces: precolonial political traditions, the Muslim Brotherhoods, and political institutions inherited from France.
Senegal borders on both the Sahara desert and the Atlantic ocean. Because of the early advent of Islam, most Senegalese are Muslims (83 percent), and Muslim leaders, called Marabouts, play an important role in the political process. Although the Marabouts do not make policy, and attempts to build an Islamic party have failed in Senegal, the support of the Marabouts is essential for the stability and even the viability of any government. The question then becomes how Léopold Senghor, a Catholic, managed to be accepted by the Islamic religious leaders.
Senegal has also had long and continuous contact with Europe by way of the Atlantic. A French colony from 1850 to 1960, Senegal was the only region in Black Africa where France fully implemented its assimilationist policies. As early as 1879, black residents of the major cities along the coast were granted French citizenship and were allowed to elect their own mayors, municipal council, and a representative to the French Chamber of Deputies in Paris.
This disparity in colonial status between citizens and subjects gave rise to two very different styles of political leadership. In the cities, the political leaders were the urban, Western-educated Senegalese beginning with Blaise Diagne. In the countryside leadership came from Islamic and traditional chiefs. In a colony so divided, it was very difficult for political thinking to evolve toward nationhood and unity. After World War II the Senegalese deputy in Paris, Lamine Guèye, obtained passage of a bill extending the vote and rights of free association to all Senegalese citizens, including women. He picked Senghor to seek election as deputy of the newly enfranchised citizens. By accepting, Senghor faced two political challenges. How was a Paris professor and poet born in a rural village to earn recognition as a leader from the black Senegalese political elite of the towns, a turbulent group with habits of unfettered political debate and considerable skills in party organization and campaigning? At the same time, how was a Catholic intellectual educated in Paris to establish a constituency in an essentially feudal system of local Islamic rulers whose power and prestige were determined by the number and the loyalty of their clients? The concept of one-man-one-vote was utterly alien to the rural parts of the country, where the majority of the population lived.
Comparing archival sources and her own interviews with participants, Vaillant traces Senghor’s political career from winning that first election in 1945 to his resignation from the presidency in 1980. The story is marked by successes, serious mistakes, and resounding defeats. Against all odds, Senghor and his friends succeeded in dominating the old Senegalese urban elite, and early in his career he was able to win the support of the Muslim leaders by promising them a higher price for peanuts and by including them in the nascent political process. By the mid-1950s, his party, the Senegalese Democratic Bloc (BDS) was able to articulate the political demands of the majority and to represent them vigorously to the French colonial administration.
The growing demand if not for independence at least for greater autonomy pushed the Fourth Republic to issue the “loi cadre” of 1956, which established partial self-government in the black African colonies. At the same time, the BDS turned left as it incorporated young radical intellectuals, and its name changed to the Senegalese People’s Bloc or BPS. The BPS won again in 1957. Mamadou Dia, an able technocrat and Senghor’s political alter ego, became the head of government while Senghor was conducting the battle for autonomy in Paris. A new situation was created by De Gaulle’s return to power and the beginning of the Fifth Republic. De Gaulle held out two options to French African colonies: political autonomy within the framework of the French Federation or immediate independence. Senghor, the coalition builder, was obliged to make some tough choices.
Vaillant misses this dramatic juncture, in which a political defeat became one of the two most searing personal crises of Senghor’s life. At the Cotonou Congress he convoked in 1958 to consider De Gaulle’s offer, he declared in a fifty-page report that the French colonies were not yet ready for independence. The delegates to the congress, including those of Senghor’s own party, rejected his report and voted unanimously for independence. Senghor retreated in humiliation to his wife’s property in Normandy. His political career was saved by a small change in the constitution allowing an affirmative vote for association with France within the Community to lead eventually to independence.8
In 1958 Senegal, like all other French colonies except Guinea, rejected immediate independence and stayed with the French Community. 9 But not for long. Senegal and the former French Sudan10 became sovereign as the Mali Federation in 1960. The Federation represented an attempt by Senghor to avoid the fragmentation or, as he said, the “Balkanization” of Africa. The Federation, however, collapsed six months later when Senegal seceded from it. This happened because the increasingly radical Sudanese could not work with the conciliatory diplomacy of Senghor. In September 1960 he was proclaimed president of Senegal by the National Assembly and later elected.
Senghor dreamed of being president of a federated country extending from Dakar to Lake Chad, from Nouakchott to Cotonou. Instead, he ended up being president of a country the size of South Dakota with a population of three million in 1960, basically a peasant-dominated society overwhelmed by problems of poverty and illiteracy. Discouraged by the collapse of the Mali Federation but still confident, Senghor and Dia, his prime minister, launched a strategy to overcome economic problems by developing the agricultural sector while building schools and hospitals. But soon another grave political crisis erupted, a power struggle with Dia.
Vaillant describes this conflict carefully and vividly. The two men held diverging concepts of nation-building and of the way in which the peasants should participate in politics and the economy. For Dia, the purpose was to build a modern state without the Muslim Marabouts as middlemen between the government and the peasants. Dia’s socialist and nationalist-minded programs also antagonized French interests. Senghor, on the other hand, wanted to maintain and enhance the connection with the Marabouts as intermediaries and to strengthen French interests in Senegal. He believed that a French economic presence was essential for the country’s future and adopted a relaxed open-door approach. Dia remained a conscientious technocrat and tried to protect the country’s limited resources. Senghor won the struggle with the support of the Marabouts. But he lost a close friend and his most valuable political ally.
Without Dia, Senghor ran a lax economy based on the peanut crop. When successive droughts decimated the harvest, he had to take strong measures to maintain the legitimacy of his government. In the mid-1970s Senghor decentralized the administration, brought young technocrats into the political process (including Abdou Diouf, the current president of Senegal), and made political institutions more democratic by instituting a controlled multiparty system. Among the many oneparty governments in Africa since independence, this move by Senghor in 1975 represented the first U-turn from authoritarianism to a relatively open political life.
Scholars are still debating the significance of these developments in Senegalese politics. Vaillant thinks that Senghor, with his long experience of negotiation and compromise, was more at ease with an open political system than with a one-party system. “Senghor’s final political wish was to commit Senegal firmly to representative democracy.” The trouble with this line of argument is that it reflects a “patrimonial” conception of politics: democracy is a gift from an enlightened leader or powerful elite to a powerless part of society. Vaillant’s explanation overlooks the long fight by peasants, trade-union workers, and intellectuals for an open system, and omits Senghor’s resistance to that change. As noted by Vaillant herself, beginning in 1962 Senghor advocated a new authoritarianism, whose basis he found in Negritude. When circumstances obliged him to make changes Senghor helped bring democracy to Senegal. He was not its sole agent.
No published photograph shows Senghor wearing a boubou, the flowing costume of his region. His elegant single-breasted suits and tan gloves signified the degree to which he adopted the role of a Frenchman. After three years of special preparation for the Ecole Normale Supérieure, he had failed the oral examination in 1931, and switched to the Sorbonne. Continuing study of Latin and Greek and writing a thesis on Baudelaire did not interrupt his wide reading, including the arch-nationalist Maurice Barrès along with Proust and Rimbaud. After obtaining French citizenship in 1933 he became the first African to attain the highly competitive agrégation.
But by this time, in 1935, Senghor knew that he was swimming in a river that flowed in two directions. While his formal studies were making him more and more French, or “Hellenic” as he liked to say, a strong countercurrent in French intellectual and artistic life was propelling him back toward “primitive” cultures. Senghor later proposed the name “Revolution of 1889” for the Bergsonian antirational tendencies in philosophy and anthropology that, before and after World War I, accompanied the African influences at work in Apollinaire and Cendrars, in Cubism and Surrealism. These currents received their official apotheosis in the Paris Colonial Exposition of 1931. That was exactly the moment when Senghor met the Nardal family and, through them, the militant group of West Indian poets living in Paris.
Amid these Parisian buffetings Senghor exhibited a double uniqueness compared with Césaire and Damas and the other West Indian writers. His jet-black color left no doubt about the purity of his African origins. He occasionally went so far as to refer impishly to an imaginary drop of Portuguese blood in his veins. At the same time his enduring Catholic faith, though several times profoundly shaken, set him apart from the others, some of whom were lapsed Catholics.
Here then is the turbulent confluence of cultures within which Senghor, entering his thirties, tried to establish a place for himself in France. One current carried him to a high plateau of French education and on to a position teaching Latin at a lycée in Tours, and then into the French army as World War II approached. The reverse current, issuing from different forces in French cultural life and from his West Indian friends, pushed him insistently back toward the country he had left behind. In a poem he wrote in 1940 while in a German prison camp, Senghor used a military metaphor to describe his moral turmoil:
Europe has crushed me like a war- rior flattened under the elephan- tine feet of tanks
My heart is more bruised than my body used to be coming back from distant adventures along the enchanted shores of Spirits.
A French reader hears in these lines the long Biblical verses used by Claudel with sidelong glances at Rimbaud.
But Senghor also wrote in a very different mode:
Mbaye Dyôb! I wish to proclaim your name and your honor.
Dyôb! I wish to run your name up the flagpole of homecoming, to ring your name like the victory bell
I wish to chant your name Dyôbène! You who called me your master and
Warmed me with your fervor on winter evenings around the red- hot stove, which made me cold.
(“Taga for Mbaye Dyôb”)
A Senegalese can hear the dithyrambs of a village singer improvising in formulaic patterns following a wrestling match. Senghor’s poetry seems sometimes to combine the European and the African traditions, sometimes to alternate between them. “Springtime in Touraine,” an early poem, mixes lyricism echoing Apollinaire with an undercurrent of violence out of Rimbaud. Then it ends abruptly with the jokey, menacing line, “On ne badine pas avec le Nègre” (“Don’t kid around with a black”), which rides piggyback on the title of a Musset play, On ne badine pas avec l’amour. Some of his best-known and most moving poems, like “Nuit de Sine” and “Femme noire,” are no more African than European in diction and form. As time went on, Senghor composed increasingly in a strong elegiac mode with a loose sweeping line that hovers among its sources—Lautréamont and the Surrealists, the guimm or ode of the Serer people of West Africa, Whitman, the blues. At his weakest, he took refuge in the travelogue style of a self-appointed United Nations poet, a first-person universal that does not reach the power of true incantation.
Like the Surrealist André Breton, Senghor maintained that all great poets write with the ear. He gave clues about how to recite his poems by printing directions on musical accompaniment: “For flutes and balafong,” “Ode for kôra.” “Elegy for the Trade Winds,” a powerful suite illustrated by Marc Chagall in a deluxe edition, cries out for declamation. The language swells through ten pages celebrating childhood, winds and tornadoes, and the alluring place names of West Africa. Out of the night and the rain, the poet performs ritual insistent gestures:
My negritude has nothing to do with racial lethargy but with sun- light in the soul, my negritude is living and looking
My negritude goes trowel in hand, a lance clenched in its fist….
The smell of spring green white gold, smell of albizzias
I say lemon smell where one em- balms hearts and passions have been embalmed.
And I salute their spurt into the joy- ous Tradewind
Let the old nigger die and long live the new Negro.
Senghor’s militant affirmation of Negritude turns up in his most expansive poems. He strove neither for epic narrative nor for lyric intensity. His poems celebrate life as directly as songs can.
Senghor, a short, slender, courteous, public man, must sometimes become annoyed at how often he is expected to refine and redefine the notion of Negritude. Yet since the 1930s that term has helped black intellectuals gain confidence in their cultural and racial identity. Unfortunately, Duvalier in Haiti appropriated it to justify his tyranny. But Negritude also helped guide Senegal into independence with a pride and steadiness that blocked many of the evils to which other African countries fell prey.
As Senghor now enters his mid-eighties, two books have appeared in French to complete his career. (Euvre poétique is a compact, four-hundred-page volume, sections of which have already been translated into a dozen languages. The poems express emotions and convictions familiar to readers throughout the third world and are fully accessible in their rolling rhythms and vivid figures to all of us.
In Ce que je crois Senghor collects five essays that swing in gradually expanding orbits around the original kernel of Negritude. After drawing ambitious conclusions about the significance of African prehistory and the elements of a native African philosophy, he delivers both subjects into the arms of what he hopes the future will bring: “La Civilisation de l’Universel.” This naive and undefined ideal seems to designate a kind of apolitical multiculturalism on a global scale.
Senghor cannot write many pages without evoking the word métis. He means primarily cultural intermixture, as in his own career he crossed passionate Negritude with passionate Frenchness. But he also makes much of the special gifts of Maurice Béjart, the dancer-choreographer of mixed white and African birth. And Senghor himself, after observing an early vow to marry a black wife, later married a white Frenchwoman and had a son by her.
One half-hidden suggestion in Ce que je crois should interest those concerned with the relation between primitivism and modernism. First implicitly in discussing the syntax of Wolof poetry, and later explicitly in commenting on the influence of Negro arts on Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism, Senghor identifies the common terms, the essential exchange, as the style of “parataxis”—placing words in sequences without explicit connection or transition. Precisely. We have really known it all along. But it takes a grammarian of European and African languages to go to the heart of that great cultural intersection at the opening of the twentieth century and find the precise word.
Behind the beautifully dressed public man, a private individual had disciplined himself all his life, through regular physical exercise and a demanding work schedule, to remarkable habits of concentration and punctuality. How then, considering his many accomplishments, could we have spoken in our opening paragraph of a tragic note in Senghor’s life? In her biography Vaillant refers frequently to challenges and difficult decisions, less often to any lasting defeats. To what degree has Vaillant the biographer found her way not only through the swarm of events around Senghor but also into the mind of this dedicated man? What is the tone, the inner sound of his life?
The younger of Senghor’s two sons by his first wife and the one son by his second wife both died before their father, one by suicide and the other in an automobile accident. The fate of his sons has brought great sorrow into Senghor’s later years. Vaillant tells us virtually nothing about his family life, or about how a good Catholic living in France was able to “dissolve” his first marriage and marry again.
For thirty years, from his early twenties to his early fifties, before he became president, Senghor lived with few interruptions in Paris and, along with the Nardal sisters, served as the great agent of exchange among West Indian, American, and African blacks. Every West African intellectual in Paris accepted his hospitality and sought his friendship. Yet today Senghor, once again living primarily in France, has few close Senegalese friends. After retirement, when he built a house in a suburb of Dakar, he asked the city council to rename the adjoining streets for Aimé Césaire and Léon Damas. His closest friends are still West Indians whom he met early in Paris. When Mamadou Dia broke with him two years after independence, he lost his most valued Senegalese friend. The extroverted African intellectual now finds himself thrown back on his French connections.
In Senghor’s early political career even his enemies marveled at his ability to find a way to speak directly to any group, however remote, however destitute, even if he barely knew their language (in a country of six national languages). A Catholic from a trader’s family in an Islamic nation intensely aware of noble lineage, Senghor made his way not by violence and military coups but by essentially democratic means of persuasion, compromise, and free elections. What rewards has he reaped?
A few years ago the Senegalese government decided to rename the University of Dakar, the most respected university in French-speaking Africa. Thirty years earlier Senghor had been the moving force behind the university project and its principal fund raiser. The government finally chose the name of Université Cheikh Anta Diop after Senghor’s chief political and intellectual rival. In Dakar, where everything in sight carries the name of a colonial administrator or a national hero, people are wondering what is left to name for the country’s great leader.
Fifty years after its launching the term Negritude has by no means disappeared. Every black African intellectual and politician has had to find a satisfactory response both to “subjective Negritude”—the way an individual black wears his or her color—and to “objective Negritude”—“patterns of culture” genetically or geographically correlated with the black race and now carried all over the world.12 Leaders of the Black Consciousness movement in South Africa hold many of Senghor’s writings in high regard. Some of the racial tensions that originally provoked subjective Negritude in Europe have surfaced anew in the events leading up to the current military confrontation along the Senegal-Mauritania border between white North Africans, or Moors, and black Africans.
But Negritude has been plagued with ironies and contradictions. Soon after its birth Sartre appropriated many of its advocates (including Césaire) and much of its intellectual capital for revolutionary Marxism. Today one hardly hears any reference to Negritude among ordinary people in Senegal, where it was for twenty years official government doctrine. When Senghor came to draw up policy for Senegalese schools, he modeled the curriculum so closely on the French system that his opponents accused him of forgetting Africa and favoring Europe. Almost no informed and reflective member of either race would today accept a sentence in one of Senghor’s earliest writings that has come back often to haunt him: “Emotion is Negro, as reason is Hellenic.”
Senghor has spent a long career promoting a Negritude to which he was born again in his late twenties and from whose early racist associations he has had to keep distancing himself. His personal encounter with Nazism as a war prisoner in World War II cured him of any taint of “antiracist racism,” as Sartre defensively called it.
Will Senghor’s poetry assure him a major place in the world of literature? In the current enthusiasm for African studies his work will undoubtedly receive much attention among scholars. Translators are at work on his poetry in many parts of the world. A complete English version of Œuvre poétique by Melvin Dixon will appear next year in the enterprising CARAF (Caribbean and African literatures translated from the French) series from the University Press of Virginia. As time goes by Senghor’s poems will, we are confident, be seen increasingly as an integral part of his political and intellectual career rather than as a free-standing accomplishment demanding separate literary treatment.13 Not that Senghor’s poems are all didactic or discursive. But as he nears the end of his life we can see them more clearly as occasional compositions in the best sense, works attached to the moods of his career rather than creations that leap beyond the vagaries and contingencies of his life. The same might be said of Rimbaud.
A century ago the impatient Liberian voice of Edward Blyden asked in a letter “whether black men, under favorable circumstances, can manage their own affairs.” They had been doing so, of course, for ages; Blyden was referring to the special situation being created in Africa by European colonization. Of the many answers to that question now presented by newly independent states, Senegal offers one of the most courageous. This small country beset by the encroaching desert and dependent on a woefully unreliable rainfall, was able to produce a founding father not intent on leaving behind a reigning dynasty or a new capital city bearing his name. In a Muslim country Senghor saw to it that the constitution established complete freedom of religion and that the Code de la famille recognized both monogamous and polygamous marriages. For a black people Senghor founded republican institutions and an educational system that combine European and African precedents. These are the true creations of métissage, the principle of synthesis to which Senghor subscribed with increasing fervor.
One of the great problems for Africa today, at least among the elite, lies in the fact that each of its fifty-odd resolutely independent states wishes to have its own founding parent and its own separate history. For a few years between 1958 and 1960 Senghor came as close as any leader to uniting the splintered factions of French West Africa. But the goal of federation failed everywhere. When Senghor resigned the presidency in 1981, he left a country that had been brought close to economic coma by drought, population increase, rising oil prices, and poor management. But he never stooped to malfeasance for personal gain of the kind practiced by some other African leaders. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank had to help the new president to undertake painful measures of economic austerity and reform.
The true monument to Senghor will be found in no economic miracle, in no structure of steel and stone, but in the conviction with which ordinary Senegalese citizens affirm that their country stands for tolerance. That tolerance now faces two serious challenges. A dynamic renewal of a militant Islam, fed by many former Marxist intellectuals, seeks to increase its political power and to reduce the voice of secularism and nonsectarianism. And dealing with a rebellion in the southern breadbasket province of Casamance reinforces the Jacobin, centralist tendencies of the government. But most of the people, encouraged by Senghor’s example, continue to believe in tolerance.
Almost on the last page of her summation Vaillant tells us about a dream Senghor described to her in a letter:
He began as the intellectual who would understand and speak for his toiling black people. Then he became their ambassador to the assembled nations, and finally, their president. This vocation was synonymous with the person Senghor had become. He seemed to sense this, for he once wrote that he had awakened from a dream in panic. He had dreamed that he had become white. The panic derived, he wrote, from the knowledge that if he were white there would be no reason for his suffering. He could no longer be the leader of his black people. Under such circumstances, he would have no choice but suicide. Questioned further why this dream held such terror for him, he answered more prosaically that if he were white, he would have no defense against his pride.
This is the most revealing and moving moment in a biography that elsewhere maintains a respectful distance from its subject. For the first time the word “suffering” appears, and properly. Why did Senghor experience such intense panic over the dream? We understand that waking up white, while lifting from him the black’s burden of suffering in a white-dominated world, would also deprive him of his mission as leader of his people. But the second response, if accurately recorded and translated, is more difficult to fathom: “He would have no defense against his pride.”
We find these words enigmatic, even Delphic, rather than prosaic. The passage taken as a whole suggests that Negritude has provided Senghor with the source of his primary pride in a mission and also, out in the white world, with an acute awareness of an inescapable condition that protects him from a more dangerous pride of individual achievement and fame. Senghor seems to have glimpsed through his dream a deeper level of DuBois’s “double consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others.” As in some of his early poems, Senghor acknowledges the suffering that double consciousness brings. Here lies the tragic side of an often admirable life.
December 20, 1990
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). ↩
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. ↩
Especially The Image of the Black in Western Art (Harvard University Press, 1976– ); Vols. I, II, and IV have appeared to date. ↩
Robert W. Tucker, The Inequality of Nations (Basic Books, 1977), p. 9. ↩
Vaillant refers several times in her notes to the excellent book by Hymans (see footnote 1) that records this information. In too many places Vaillant falls short of Hymans’s discussions of philosophical and political questions. ↩
See V.Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa (Indiana University Press, 1988), chapter 4. Blyden’s works have now been reedited in various editions and collections. ↩
Gide’s Travels in the Congo (1927) and Back from Tchad (1928) exposed the despotism of the colonial system and in effect vindicated René Maran, a West Indian who had lost his job in the colonial administration because of his prize-winning novel Batouala (1920), set in Africa. Gide’s confession, “I have come to feel a whole race of suffering humanity—a poor oppressed people, whose beauty, whose worth we have failed to understand,” was obviously well received by black intellectuals. But these literary types bear watching. How do they really grasp the mentality and humanity of Africans? Vaillant notes the case of Rimbaud, who in “Bad Blood” wrote the cry of self-degradation, “I am a beast, a Negro,” and an explosive paragraph to follow. Gide had much more to offer than expressions of sympathy for Africans: ↩
After his 1958 tour of French territories in Africa, De Gaulle accepted a change from “federation” to “community” in the language of the constitution referring to the colonies. Community status for the colonies would allow for eventual independence with no time limit specified. This way a vote for community was not a vote against independence, and many African leaders, including Senghor, declared in favor of community. Senghor has stated that the constitutional change was suggested to De Gaulle by Georges Pompidou after Pompidou received a despairing letter from Senghor. Other accounts attribute the change to the Madagascar deputy, Philibert Tsiranana. ↩
Sékou Touré, who delivered the vote in Guinea for immediate independence, became a hero for many black Africans. In the early 1980s, when information was coming out about the economic disaster of his regime and the violence and torture by which it stayed in power, Touré was still popular among radical groups for his bold gesture in grasping independence. ↩
The Arabic expression Bilad as Sudan means in the land of blacks. In the colonial period the term Sudan was applied to the east-west Sahelian strip south of the Sahara desert. French Sudan in West Africa corresponded to present-day Mail. ↩
Translations of Senghor’s poetry are by Roger Shattuck. ↩
Abiola Irele has written a careful survey and analysis of Negritude from. Senghor and Fanon to Towa and Hountondji. See his “Contemporary Thought in French-Speaking Africa,” in Africa and the West: The Legacies of Empire, edited by Isaac James Mowe and Richard Bjornson (Greenwood Press, 1988). The same volume contains a short essay by Senghor and several valuable discussions of the intellectual climate in West Africa. ↩
This opinion parallels that of Sylvia Washington Bâ expressed in her fine book, The Concept of Negritude in the Poetry of Léopold Sédar Senghor (Princeton University Press, 1973). ↩