[Senghor died in Verson, France at age 95
on December 20, 2001.--D.R.]
"I feel that if I had remained a teacher, my poetry would have been gratuitous and more impoverished, for what feeds it is the communal life, the life of my people. In my poetry I certainly express my personal life, but I express myself as a black man, an African." (Senghor In Dixon 1991:xxxix)
While Senghor is most well known as Senegal's skillful president (1960-1981), he is also one of Africa's most skilled and acclaimed poets. His brilliance was recognized early as he completed his Baccalaureat in 1927 and received a scholarship to go to France for further studies. There Senghor gained French citizenship and was the first African to complete the agregation de l'Universite exam, allowing him to teach at both the lycée and university level. Through his diverse publications, such as Shadow Songs (1945), Black Hosts (1946), Songs for Naett (1949), Nocturnes (1961), and Letters in the Season of Hivernage(1972), Senghor built a name for himself as one of Africa's premier French language artisans. As such he became the first African member of the Académie Française, where he helped form a bridge between continental and colonial French. The Académie is widely regarded as the most distinguished French intellectual association, and is charged with compiling a dictionary of acceptable new words and usage. There Senghor helped create a language of expression that at once allows for the propagation of ethnic and national norms and reaches a broad Francophone audience.
Senghor is most famous for his giving the term "negritude" wide application. For Senghor, negritude is one's identification of one's "blackness" without reference to culture, language, or geography. In this way, "negritude" transcends the deep divisions within and between Arabs, Africans, and the African Diaspora by recognizing a common racial thread. Negritude is the emergence of a powerful black presence in the world. It has in many ways become the basis for Afrocentricity.
Senghor's body of work stretches broadly in form and content. Where his early work reflected the carefully chiseled words of a young craftsman, the text that comprise his Lost Poems reflects careful borrowings from Baudelaire and Langston Hughes. He experiments with breaking the mold of form and rhyme while inventing a playful new dance with the language. Senghor's content varied widely from early years of African historical expression and rebellion to displays of sensuality, love, and, eventually, death.
The Message, Lines 5-25
I left my warm meal and the handling of many disputes.
Wearing nothing more than a pagne for the dewy mornings,
I had only words of peace as protection and to open every
And I too traversed rivers and forests full of dangers
Where vines hung more treacherous than snakes.
I went among people who would easily let fly a poisoned
But I held on the sign of recognition
And the spirits watched over my breath.
I saw the ashes of burned-out barracks and royal homes.
And under the mahogany trees we exchanged long speeches
And ceremonial gifts.
And I arrived at Elissa, the nest of falcons
Defying the pride of Conquerors.
I saw once again the old dwelling on the hill,
A village of long and lowering eyelashes.
I recited the message to the Guardian of our Blood:
The diseases the ruined trade, organized hunts,
And bourgeois decorum and the unlubricated scorn
Swilling the bellies of the slaves.
Black Women, Lines 10-19
Naked woman, dark woman
Ripe fruit with firm flesh, dark raptures of black wine,
Mouth that gives music to my mouth
Savanna of clear horizons, savanna quivering to the fervent
Of the East Wind, sculptured tom-tom, stretched drumskin
Moaning under the hands of the conqueror
Your deep contralto voice is the spiritual song of the
Prayer for Peace (I of V only)
to Georges and Claude Pompidou
Lord Jesus, at the end of this book, which I offer You
As a ciborium of sufferings
At the beginning of the Great Year, in the sunlight
Of Your peace on the snowy roofs of Paris
-- Yet I know that my brothers' blood will once more redden
The yellow Orient on the shores of the Pacific
Ravaged by storms and hatred
I know that this blood is the spring libation
The Great Tax Collectors have used for seventy years
To fatten the Empire's lands
Lord, at the foot of this cross - and it is no longer You
Tree of sorrow but, above the Old and New Worlds,
And her right arm stretches over my land
And her left side shades America
And her heart is precious Haiti, Haiti who dared
Proclaim Man before the Tyrant
At the feet of my Africa, crucified for four hundred years
And still breathing
Let me recite to You, Lord, her prayer of peace and pardon.
And the Sun, Lines 12-17
I think of you when I am walking or swimming,
Sitting or standing, I think of you morning and night,
When I cry in the evening, and Oh yes, when I laugh
When I speak to myself and when I remain silent
in my joy and pain. When I think and do not think,
My dear, I'm always thinking of you!
Elegy for Martin Luther King (IV of V) (for jazz orchestra)
It was the fourth of April, nineteen hundred and sixty-eight,
A spring evening in a grey neighborhood, a district smelling
Of garbage mud where children played in the streets in
And spring blossomed in the dark courtyards where blue
Streams played, a song of nightingales in the ghetto night of
Martin Luther King chose them, the motel, the district,
The garbage and the street sweepers, with the eyes of his heart
Spring days, those days of passion wherever the mud of flesh
Would have been glorified in the light of Christ.
It was the evening when light is clearest and air sweetest,
Dusk at the heart's hour, and its flowering of secrets
Mouth to mouth, of organ and of hymns and incense.
On the balcony now haloed in crimson where the air
Is more limpid, Martin Luther stands speaking pastor to
"My Brother, do not forget to praise Christ in his
And let his name be praised!"
And now opposite him, in a house of prostitution,
And perdition, yes, in the Lorraine Motel - Ah, Lorraine, ah
Joan, the white and blue woman, let our mouths purify you
Like rising incense!--In that evil house of tomcats and
A man stands up, a Remington rifle in his hands.
James Earl Ray sees the Reverend Martin Luther King,
Through his telescopic sight, sees the death of Christ: "My
Do not forget to magnify Christ in his resurrection this
Sent by Judas, he watches him, for we have made the poor
Of the poor. He looks through his telescopic sight, sees only
Neck so black and beautiful. He hates that golden voice
The angels' flutes, the voice of bronze trombone that
thunders on terrible
Sodom and on Adama. Martin looks ahead at the house in
front, he sees
The skyscrapers of light and glass, He sees curly, blond heads, dark,
Kinky heads full of dreams like mysterious orchids, and the
And the roses sing in a chorus like a harmonious organ.
The white man looks hard and precise as steel. James Earl
And hits the mark, shoots Martin, who withers like a
And falls. "My brother, praise His Name clearly, may our
Exult in the Resurrection!"
Dixon, Melvin (transl). 1991.
The collected poetry / Léopold Sédar Senghor. (CARAF books series). Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia.