Négritude and Léopold Sédar Senghor
Senegal has a long history with the arts; griots (praise singers) and the musical arts, Muslim glass painting enterprises, film/cinema, and literary traditions. Although Senegal may currently be better known in popular culture for its musicians whom produce energetic and rhythmic music and dance, the country has a rich history of poetry and fiction and non-fiction writing.
This unit will begin with a brief look at the development of Leopold Senghor as a young Catholic student, a scholar in France, a collaborator of the negritude movement, and as first president of the independent Republic of Senegal. Throughout this biographical sketch we will examine the evolution of Senghor’s use of negritude in his politics, his writings, and as a universal civilization.
What has negritude brought to the world regarding our understanding of the concepts of race, citizenship, and human relationships? What were its purposes, and how did Senghor and the negritude movement shape the political and social milieu of Senegal and its position in the world today? Our goal will also be to understand how literature from the negritude movement was used to create a unified black identity in Africa and among the African Diaspora in the Americas and Europe. With inspirations from the American Harlem Renaissance we will see an example of the universal aim intended of the negritude movement by Senghor and his colleagues.
Senghor was not only a prolific writer and an influential personality in Senegal, but he was also an influential contributor to global discussions on civilization and humanism. Understanding his influence will help us appreciate the intellectual dynamism of Senegalese society and culture that is still vibrant today. We will then explore some of the other forms of artistic expression. They also demonstrate the richness of Senegalese culture and the critique and celebration of Senegalese and African culture.
Léopold Sédar Senghor was one of the most influential personalities of Senegal and, indeed, all of Africa in the mid-20th century. He was also a French citizen and was a decorated French scholar of the highest recognition in France. His importance in history stemmed from roles such as being a poet, public intellectual, philosopher, and politician. Senghor would become a symbol of Frenchness while also representing what it means to be a colonial subject and an authentic African. As we will see he was influenced by the ideology and practice of assimilation project idealized by the French, as well as being a trail-blazer for an independent African identity.
What does this all mean? Take a minute to look up the definitions for words such as ‘assimilation’ (which we saw in Activity Two), ‘authentic’, and ‘identity’ and write them down. What does identity mean to you? What ‘identity’ do you see yourself as (ex: American, Mexican-American, African, Italian, etc.)?
Senghor was born in 1906 to Catholic parents of the minority Serer ethnic group on the coast of Senegal. His two last names, one from his father, Senghor means “Lord”, and Sedar from the Serer tradition means “one that shall not be humiliated”. It is a commonly told story that the moment Senghor was born, a baobab tree in the town cracked in half and fell to the ground. The Great Spirit who had once lived in the tree found a new home in the person who was destined to be a distinguished man, Senghor himself. According to local legend, he was from the beginning of his life, destined for greatness.
Much of his childhood was spent in his home village on the coast, just south of the capital Dakar, where French was not spoken. He learned to fish and farm with his father and maternal uncle with whom he was close; these experiences would have an impact on his writings and establishment of the negritude movement, addressing memories and a personal desire for his childhood home and culture. It was in a Catholic school in a neighboring town Ngazobil that he was introduced to the French language and culture. A French priest presided over the young pupil’s education and integration in French culture and Roman Catholicism. This first experience began his assimilation and adoption of Frenchness and therefore influenced his scholarly, political, and personal life; as well as the future of the independent Senegal Senghor, criticized by some Senegalese for his close ties with France, represented both French and Senegalese cultures. Many of his biographers speak of the dual nationality of Senghor.
“Among African leaders today, Leopold Sedar Senghor stands unique. He is the living symbol of the possible synthesis of what appears irreconcilable: he is as African as he is European, as much a poet as a politician, as influenced by rationalism as by irrationalism, as much a revolutionary as a traditionalist”.
After attending the Catholic boarding school in Senegal, Senghor realized that he was not made for priesthood and instead went to France on a scholarship. After years of attempted exams, he received his degree in French Grammar and was awarded a teaching position in any French public school. He taught both in Paris and in Tours. It is through his contacts at the university that he and several colleagues in the African Diaspora created the scholarship of négritude.
Senghor enlisted in the French army in 1939 at the outset of World War II. He was shortly thereafter captured and held for 18 months in a Nazi concentration camp. His book of poems Hosties Noires was mostly composed during this time. Senghor finally returned to Senegal in 1945 to find the country impoverished and suffering with increased distrust among the Senegalese population, of France
During the colonial period, each French colony had the right to a political representative who held a seat in the French National Assembly. Due to Senegal’s unique system of two administrations, the Four Communes, and the interior, there were two representatives in the French assembly. Lamine Gueye, the chosen representative for the interior, had grown up with one of Senghor’s relatives and persuaded him to run for the second seat. Senghor hesitated to dive into politics as he felt he could best serve his people through his writing and role as an educator; however, he accepted the nomination because of Gueye’s persistence. He won the seat in the French National Assembly in the 1945 election as a member of the Bloc Africain of the socialist party and moved back to Paris. After three years of alliance Lamine Gueye and Senghor ended their political association. After this split Senghor fromed his own political party, the Bloc Democratique Senegalais in 1948. This party would nominate him as their candidate for the first presidency upon Senegal’s independence in 1960. He won the first election and served as president of the Republic of Senegal for twenty years.
Senghor’s poetry and the negritude movement played diverse important roles in his political career. Although he was critiqued for his politics, which were viewed by many as too pro-French, the respect he garnered from his poetry has secured him an eternal standing as a champion of the French word.
The word negritude is a French word and can be translated as “blackness”. The significance of using the word “négre” as the base of the word is an affirmation of a word that was normally pejorative throughout the colonial era, recognizing the historically oppressive and racist nature of Europe’s interactions with Africa – slavery, and colonial rule. Negritude asserted a liberating outcome by all who positively claimed their black identity and the underlying unity of a common black identity among all Africans in Africa and in the Diaspora. As a French word, negritude elicits a common colonial experience and heritage, and speaks to a shared language despite great geographical distances that separated Africans across the world.
The formation of the negritude movement by Leopold Sedar Senghor, Aime Cesaire from Martinique, and Leon Damas from French Guyana was influenced by the example of the American “Harlem Renaissance”, also a literary movement, guided by names such as the poet Langston Hughes. We will examine the relationship between the two movements later in the unit. All three of the fathers of negritude were poets, playwrights and politicians. They used various forms of literature to express opposition to colonial rule of African populations while creating a sense of black solidarity across the African continent and into the African Diaspora in the Americas, Europe, and elsewhere. They felt it was crucial to first appreciate and understand African culture, heritage, and uniqueness as a necessary prerequisite of political and economic progress. However, the uses of negritude changed over time, especially for Senghor. Here is a list of the different visions Senghor had for negritude:
- a critique of imperialism and colonialism
- a revolutionary African development distinguished from the proletarian/worker-led revolt that led reforms in early 20th century Europe
- the birth of a new black civilization
- a philosophy of life
- an ideology for African unity
- a strategy for development (economic, social, political)
- a justification for rule by indigenous elites
- a defense of the dignity of cultured blacks
Much of Senghor’s poetry and the movement was an attempt to connect the two worlds of colonized and colonizer. However, later he began developing a more global application of negritude as a model for global civilization; thus his constructions of the term civilisation universel. And, although negritude started as a small movement, notably through the publications in Presence Africaine, a journal created by a Senegalese scholar Alioune Diop and contributed to by Senghor and Cesaire, it transformed into an important medium of expression for the African Diaspora. Presence Africaine is still a Pan-African literary review and continues to be integral in inspiring the Pan African movement through literary awareness of African culture, politics, and intellectualism.
As a cultural hybrid himself, Senghor was aware of the contradictions inherent in his life and writings. On one hand he criticized many of the actions taken by the French during their colonial rule, but on the other hand he lovingly describes his own deep relationship with both Senegal and France. This dual identity is demonstrated in Senghor’s poetry that focused on Senegal but which was influenced by certain French poetic styles. His poems were also remembrances of his childhood in Senegal and the sights and smells he missed while living in France. Personal descriptions of feelings of exile in France run throughout his poetry; both praising French culture and expressing nostalgia for Senegal. The two places and his interaction with them are very much a part of his poetry and his way of constructing his black, African identity. His poems show connections between France and Senegal, or more generally Africa, often made through reference to rivers or locations, especially the Sine (think back to the kingdoms in Senegambia) and the Seine River that runs through Paris. Two poems illustrate these themes. ‘In Memoriam’ and ‘Joal’ from Senghor’s poetry book Chants d’Ombre (Shadow Songs) first published in 1945.
Today is Sunday.
I fear the crowd of my fellows with such faces of stone.
From my glass tower filled with headaches and impatient
I contemplate the roofs and hilltops in the mist,
In the stillness- somber, naked chimneys,
Below them my dead are asleep and my dreams turn to
All my dreams, blood running freely down the streets
And mixing with blood from the butcher shops.
From this observatory like the outskirts of town
I contemplate my dreams lost along the streets,
Crouched at the foot of the hills like the guides of my race
On the rivers of the Gambia and the Saloum
And now on the Seine at the foot of these hills.
Let me remember my dead!
Yesterday was All Saints’ Day, the solemn anniversary of the
And I had no dead to honor in any cemetery.
O Forefathers! You who have always refused to die,
Who knew how to resist Death from the Sine to the Seine,
And now in the fragile veins of my indomitable blood,
Guard my dreams as you did your thin-legged migrant sons!
O Ancestors! Defend the roofs of Paris in this dominical fog,
The roofs that protect my dead.
Let me leave this tower so dangerously secure
And descend to the streets, joining my brothers
Who have blue eyes and hard hands.
His poem, Joal, which is named after the town of his birth, begins with personal memories of smells, sounds, and sights of home. He includes also historical memories before he was born that had an equal impact on the reality he was born into. Finally, he evokes emotions from his European memories.
I remember the regal signare women under the green shade
Those mulatto signare women with eyes as surreal as
Moonlight on the shore
I remember the past glory of Sunset
That Koumba N’Dofene wanted woven into his royal cloak.
I remember the funeral feasts steaming with the blood of
The noise of quarrels, the rhapsodies of the griots.
I remember the pagan voices singing the Tantum Ergo,
The processions and the palms and the triumphal arches.
I remember the dance of nubile girls,
The wrestling songs – Oh! the final dance of the young men
Poised slender and tall
And the women’s pure shout of love – Kor Siga!
I remember, I remember…
My head beating the rhythm
Of such a weary walk through the long days of Europe
Where sometimes an orphan jazz comes sobbing, sobbing,
- What are your impressions of the poems, what is going on? What kinds of emotions do they evoke for you?
- How does the author feel about African and European culture?
The Harlem Renaissance was a literary movement in the post WWI era. It was comprised of many African-American poets, musicians, authors and playwrights, all contributing to a goal of expressing pride in black culture and heritage. W.E.B DuBois, a distinguished Harvard trained sociologist, is famous for coining the phrase “twoness” which implies the double aspects of a black identity; an American and a negro (someone coming from Africa). We can assume the appeal this idea might have had on Senghor, himself feeling both Senegalese and French. The movement was also purposeful in expressing a black consciousness amidst racism experienced by African-Americans in America. Therefore, similar to the negritude movement that had inspirations from the Harlem Renaissance, the Renaissance also expressed a desired unified African Diaspora and common black identity.
Although it is important to discuss the historical events that provide the context for these movements, it is equally beneficial to analyze and appreciate the poetry and the descriptions expressing Africa and Africaness (think back to your exercise on defining identity). Many of the poems in both movements, although of different times and varying purposes, seek to claim and express an identity, a heritage through images of a homeland, illustrations through color and smells, symbolism and so forth.
First, a few poems by Senghor and Langston Hughes express one or several of these and demonstrate a link as well as a uniqueness to Africa, Europe, and the Americas. It is important to keep in mind the locations and time periods in which these two movements were situated. The Harlem Renaissance was going strong in the 1920’s and the negritude movement was in the later part of the 1940’s. Also keep in mind how the different styles and language contribute to their intentional messages.
Ethiopia: At the Call of the Race of Sheba; VI stanza
For there we are all together, different colors… some are the colour of
Roast coffee and others banana and golden, others like the earth in a rice-
Different features and dress customs and languages; but in the depths of
the eyes the same chant of suffering beneath the long fevered lashes
The Kaffir the Kabyle the Somali Moor, Fan Fon Bambara and Bobo and
Nomad and miner, moneylender, peasant and workman, student and soldier
And all the white workers in the common struggle.
See…the miner of the Asturia the Liverpool docker the Jew driven out of
Germany, Dupont, Dupuis and all the boys from Saint-Denis.
Prayer to the Masks
Masks! O Masks!
Black mask, red mask, you white-and-black masks
Masks of the four cardinal points where the Spirit blows
I greet you in silence!
And you, not the least of all, Ancestor with the lion head.
You keep this place safe from women’s laughter
And any wry, profane smiles
You exude the immortal air where I inhale
The breath of my Fathers.
Masks with faces without masks, stripped of every dimple
And every wrinkle
You created this portrait, my face leaning
On an altar of blank paper
And in your image, listen to me!
The Africa of empires is dying – it is the agony
Of the sorrowful princess
And Europe, too, tied to us at the navel.
Fix your steady eyes on your oppressed children
Who give their lives like the poor man his last garment
Let us answer “present” at the rebirth of the World
As white flour cannot rise without the leaven.
Who else will teach rhythm to the world
Deadened by machines and cannons?
Who will sound the shout of joy at daybreak to wake
Orphans and the dead?
Tell me, who will bring back the memory of life
To the man of gutted hopes?
They call us men of cotton, coffee, and oil
They call us men of death.
But we are men of dance, whose feet get stronger
As we pound upon firm ground.
The Negro Speaks of Rivers
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
- What themes are these poems addressing?
- What do these poems have in common? What are the differences?
- Who are the poems intended for?
- From what we know about the two movements, their respective time periods, and the contexts, what is the message in these poems?
As we have seen, literature has had an importance in Senegalese society for many years. It has influenced the development of the post-colonial state, a Senegalese and African identity as well as international recognition for the vibrant cultural expressions found all over Senegal. Similar to any country, Senegal has a wide variety of cultural expressions such as literature, music, film, dance, etc. Senegal is especially known for its music and film as well as the literature we have surveyed. The broad influence of West African music can be seen in many parts of the world, particularly in areas where African slaves were taken during the era of the Atlantic slave trade; for example, Brazilian shamba, music, Afro-Cuban rhythms, Jamaican reggae, and in the U.S. in jazz, black spirituals, rock and roll, and hip-hop. For a review of African music, visit Module 13 and the learning activity on music in Module 18, Central Africa.
African music, in its historical and contemporary manifestations, is an expression of culture, politics, advocacy and revolt. Griots, or praise singers, were a caste (or group) employed first by kings and powerful politicians to celebrate their leadership. Griots were also storytellers and historians (remember most languages found in Senegal were oral languages, meaning they were not written down) as their songs recounted events and marked important ceremonies. As song messages were ways of marking family heritages, historical events, and transmitting cultural significances, music is clearly a crucial aspect to Senegalese society. Singer/songwriters in the 21st century are sometimes also referred to as ‘modern day griots’. Some of the current Senegalese musicians use their music to incite certain political actions and ideas. Rap groups often create songs critiquing the government and its policies. They call upon the youth to make a change for the country and in their mentalities towards the world and their own lives.
The Galsen (the word SENEGAL inverted on itself) movement started by a small group of rappers was a conscious effort to encourage the youth to be politically active and resist certain ideas about money and power. Much of the influence for presentation such as music videos comes from Western style rap production; however, Senegalese rap is an interesting mix of Wolof, Muslim, and traditional expressions with also modern styles of dress, rhythm, and content. Although there are the Galsen and rap music in Senegal is infused with universal influences, the goal and message is distinctly Senegalese and politically and socially engaging. The film “Democracy in Dakar” created by African Underground in 2007 during the national elections demonstrates the political presence of rap music in Senegal. The selected episode with interviews from rappers shows the political agenda in their music as well as the relationship with American rap, especially what makes Galsen rap unique to Senegal.
Watch the video and answer the questions.
- What do you think the expression “Fight the Power” means to these rappers?
- What influences from the U.S do they point to?
- What are the differences with the U.S and American rap the rappers talk about? Why are they different?
Awadi, a popular rapper of the Galsen movement and his first group PBS (Positive Black Soul) is constantly filling his music with political and cultural critiques. For example, in his first solo album some of the song titles include: Les Miserables (the Miserables), Un autre monde est possible (Another world is possible), and an entire album entitled Sunugaal (the original Wolof version of Senegal meaning ‘our pirogue’. Pirogues are the long, colorful boats used by fishermen). The album’s music was a personal quest to understand the poverty and illegal migration of Senegalese taking the treacherous journey on these boats to islands off the coast of West Africa to access Europe. This phenomenon has claimed the lives of many who have attempted the trip, a problem Awadi tries to understand and build awareness among citizens. Listen to one of the music videos and a documentary of the making of this album.
Awadi against immigration: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYdNljql_1s
Awadi and Bouba Mendy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UN0raE_vbms
There are also female rappers in Senegal, singing in a similar advocacy type style. Sister Fa is one of them.
Sister Fa- Miliyamba (French/Mandinka): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSHvTszWI1I
Another group of rappers called Daara J (pronounced ‘g’) often sing about religion, especially their interpretations of Islam. Daara is an Arabic word meaning Qu’ranic school. Watch this video and write down what differences you see from American rap videos as well as the videos you have seen of Awadi.
Other types of music popular to Senegal and uniquely distinct to Senegalese culture is Mbalax (prounced Mbalakh). Mbalax was developed to reinforce traditional African music with new added flavors. Rhythms from Latin, jazz, and western styles infuse this music with a distinct mix of traditional African rhythms and many other types. It combines lively drumming, singing, and often energetic dancing called sabar. Therefore, it is more than just music; it is an experience that often occurs in the streets, music halls, and other locations. Mbalax is dominantly sung in Wolof, but also mixes other national languages. More recently, music videos are being created with Mbalax and sabar dancing alongside cultural events and stories. The two are also incorporated in ceremonies associated with wrestling, Senegal’s most celebrated sport. Wrestlers prepare for matches by performing synchronized dancing with their team and displaying their skills. Watch the video below and comment on the story being told, your thoughts on the music and dancing. Can you tell which person is the wrestler? Why do you think so and what kind of status do you think they have?
La Lutte – Senegalese Wrestling in Dakar
Cinema is one Senegal’s most famous forms of artistic expressions. Indeed, Senegal is internationally renowned for its cinema. In fact, many attribute the title of “Father of African Film” to Ousmane Sembene, a Senegalese film producer and director. Sembene’s cinema career spans from the eve of independence (late 1950’s) to his death in 2007, whereas his imprint on Senegalese society and cinema will arguably last much beyond him. Cinema for Sembene, and other Senegalese film producers, was an opportunity to spread social commentary in a more accessible way than written literature in a society with high rates of illiteracy. Themes of films invoked political corruption, social hybridity, poverty, cultural practices such as female genital cutting, and other socially relevancies such as greed.
Sembene’s first short film, and some say the first film produced by an African, was entitled Borom Sarret (The Wagoner). It was a short film in French whose story took place at the time of independence. The film poignantly speaks of the poverty striking both the rural and urban areas in Senegal while showing the huge disparities separating the rich and the poor in the country. Sembene would go on to make many films from his original writings as well as influence other directors. His professional cinematic training took place in Russia, which boasted a strongly developed university of cinema, although Sembene would argue his training started much earlier. As a young man he worked in the port yards of Dakar as well as in other jobs that demanded a great deal of physical labor and very little chance for upward movement. This, he said, was his ultimate training. He often said he was a student of life (and not a student of formal education), which his work reflected in a powerful way. Other films he made including Xala, La Noire de…, and Camp de Thiaroye all had powerful messages of corruption and colonial relationships and race. He critiqued Senegalese society as much as he did the French colonial governance.
Sembene consistently asked his audience to take a look not just at their government but their own feelings and behavior, the treatment of community and friends, as well as traditions both religious and secular. He was awarded several prizes in Africa as well as in Europe and his films are consulted as windows into Senegalese culture both its dark and light sides. Although he is the most recognized filmmaker, in the 1960’s to the 80’s the industry in Senegal produced a great number of films by various other directors, including Safi Faye, the first female director in Sub-Saharan Africa. Another well-known and similarly civically engaged director was Djibril Diop Mambety.
Mambety wrote and directed films filled with current symbolism and social critique which demand the audience to examine social behavior and cultural values both modern and traditional. He was relentlessly critical and some would classify him as a rebel having been ousted from many of his previous jobs in theatre and cinema before making his own way. His rowdiness and outspoken manner played into his films and is regarded as one of Africa’s most revered cinematographers. To preview some of the works of these various directors, visit the website below.
Choose one film from the database “African Film Library”. Watch the trailer provided for the film you have chosen. It does not matter what film you choose. While watching the clip, write down notes about your observations regarding: clothing, housing and environment, expressions and body language, and content. The various directors are trying to convey a strong message about Senegalese politics, economic development, and they are especially critiquing social and moral behaviors. Keep this in mind when watching the clips.
After watching the clip, find a partner and explain to them the following:
- What themes or critiques are the directors trying to demonstrate in their films? (for example: are they critiquing greedy behavior or corruption?)
- Who is the film’s message intended for?
- What is your impression of the people in the film?
- Where was the film made (i.e. city, rural towns, etc.)?