Léopold Sédar Senghor
Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906-2001)
Léopold Senghor, Senegal’s Poet of Négritude, Dies at 95
Léopold Sédar Senghor, a poet, professor, philosopher and statesman who became the first president of Senegal when it gained independence from France, died yesterday at his home in Normandy. Mr. Senghor, one of the central figures in the political upheaval that led to freedom for France’s African colonies, was 95.
His life was a blend of African and European experiences. In World War II, he fought in an all-African French Army unit and spent two years in a Nazi camp after being captured. In 1984, he became the first black member of the French Academy. In between, he served as an always eloquent, often critical spokesman for the cause and culture of Africa.
“I wear European clothing,” he once said, “and the Americans dance to jazz which derives from our African rhythms: civilization in the 20th century is universal. No people can get along without others.”
The current president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, announced the death to a summit meeting of West African nations in Dakar, Senegal. President Alpha Oumar Konaré of Mali, speaking for the 15 leaders there, hailed Mr. Senghor as a “great politician and great African.”
President Jacques Chirac of France yesterday mourned Mr. Senghor as a historic figure for Africa. “Poetry has lost one of its masters, Senegal a statesman, Africa a visionary and France a friend,” he said in a statement.
Mr. Senghor’s career was studded with paradoxes. He was a Roman Catholic who led a predominantly Muslim nation, a sophisticated scholar who drew his primary support from peasants and a poet who wielded political power with great skill.
Among African leaders, Mr. Senghor was the chief theoretician of négritude, or “blackness,” his definition for the common culture and spiritual heritage of the black peoples of Africa. In one of his earliest poems, “Totem,” he wrote:
I must hide in the intimate depths of my veins
The Ancestor storm-dark skinned, shot with
lightning and thunder
And my guardian animal, I must hide him
Lest I smash through the boom of scandal.
He is my faithful blood and demands fidelity
Protecting my naked pride against
Myself and all the insolence of lucky races.
Mr. Senghor was also an eloquent diplomat, who on the one hand deftly criticized the colonial policies of Portugal and South Africa, while on the other scolding some developing nations for what he considered their hypocrisy. At the United Nations in 1961, for instance, he noted the double standards applied by some nations newly rid of colonialism.
“We have denounced the imperialism of the great powers only to secrete a miniature imperialism toward our neighbors,” he said then. “We have demanded disarmament from the great powers only to transform our countries into arsenals. We proclaim our neutralism, but we do not always base it upon a policy of neutrality.”
Mr. Senghor was born Oct. 9, 1906, in the small Senegalese coastal town of Joal. His father was a prosperous peanut planter and trader who had 20 children. His mother, a Roman Catholic, had him educated at a nearby Catholic mission and seminary and nurtured Mr. Senghor’s first ambition — to become, as he recalled many years later, “a teaching priest to work toward the intellectual emancipation of my race.”
When he turned 20, however, Mr. Senghor abandoned his calling to the priesthood and transferred to secondary school in Dakar. In 1928 he won a partial scholarship that permitted him to study at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he formed a lifelong friendship with Georges Pompidou, who was later to become prime minister and then president of France.
During his Sorbonne years, Mr. Senghor said, he also discovered “the unmistakable imprint of African art on modern painting, sculpture, music and literature,” which confirmed his belief in Africa’s contribution to “the civilization of the universal.”
In his studies in philosophy, Mr. Senghor originated, with Aimé Césaire of Martinique and Léon G. Damas of French Guiana, the concept of négritude, in part as a proud protest against French rule and the policy of assimilation.
Négritude retained a respect for French, European and Western poetry and political thought, but Mr. Senghor as a young scholar emphasized the importance of his African heritage and urged his compatriots to “assimilate, not be assimilated.”
His love poems over the years reflected themes of négritude, dealing as they did with what he saw as the “soullessness” of Western civilization — “No mother’s breast. Legs in nylon.” — and he maintained that only African culture has preserved a mystic means of reviving “the world that has died of machines and cannons.”
Further, Mr. Senghor believed, the African culture gained strength from its closeness to nature and its people’s ancestors, while Western culture was out of step with the world’s ancient and natural rhythms.
In his poetry, Mr. Senghor could sound like Walt Whitman or Robinson Jeffers. His poems carried a tone of optimism, often of exuberant celebration, according to critics like Clive Wake and John Reed, who translated his collected poems.
At the Sorbonne, Mr. Senghor was recognized as one of the most brilliant students, and upon his graduation in 1935 achieved the distinction of becoming the first African agrégé, the highest-ranked teacher in the French school system. He taught French to French children in Tours.
In 1939, while teaching at another school near Paris, he was drafted into the French Army, serving in an all-African unit until 1940, when he was captured by the Germans. During the two years he spent in Nazi prison camps, he wrote some of his best poems, collected in 1945 in a volume titled “Chants d’Ombre.”
Mr. Senghor returned to teaching and writing after the war, and in 1945 became deputy for Senegal to the French Constituent Assembly.
A year later, he was elected one of Senegal’s two deputies to the National Assembly. Sitting in the legislature for the Socialist Party, he soon decided that only an African party could adequately represent African needs. Having founded the Senegalese Democratic Bloc in 1948, he ran as that party’s candidate in 1951 and defeated the Socialist candidate for the National Assembly.
By the mid-1950’s, the French Parliament had embarked on a policy aimed at giving a large measure of self-government to the African colonies. Mr. Senghor opposed the policy, believing that it would result in a proliferation of small, weak nations.
Instead, Mr. Senghor favored a federal unity between French Equatorial Africa and the French colonies of West Africa. Later, he successfully appealed to President Charles de Gaulle of France for independence, and Senegal became a republic in 1960. Mr. Senghor was elected its first president. It united with former French Sudan into the short-lived Fédération du Mali, headed by Modibo Keita.
Late in 1962, he repulsed an attempted coup led by a longtime protégé, Prime Minister Mamadou Dia, ordering his old friend imprisoned for life. From then on, he tolerated no challenge to his generally moderate, pro-Western policies.
Mr. Senghor won re-election to the presidency in 1963, 1968 and 1973, and remained president until his retirement in 1980. The first African president voluntarily to resign power, he handed the office to his chosen successor, Abdou Diouf.
As president, Mr. Senghor faced problems common among the emerging nations of Africa. His country was poor, its resources mostly limited to fishing, peanut farming and the mining of phosphates. He devoted himself to modernizing agriculture, with limited success, and tried to combat the corruption and inefficiency that had become endemic under French rule.
In foreign policy he was a neutralist, while at home he advocated a special form of “African socialism,” which he said should be devoid of both atheism and excessive materialism. In contrast to African leaders who fell under the sway of the Soviets in the cold war, he emphasized his disapproval of a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
In 1946, Mr. Senghor married Ginette Éboué, the daughter of Félix Eboué, who was a prominent colonial official in Africa. They had two children before divorcing nine years later. He later married Colette Hubert, a Frenchwoman from Normandy, where he spent much of his time after retirement. The couple had one son, Philippe, who died in an accident in the 1980’s.
The New York Times, 2001