Leopold Sedar Senghor (The Library of Congress)

Over the course of his long career as a writer, philosopher, and statesman, the Senegalese poet Leopold Sedar Senghor inspired countless young writers throughout the French-speaking world. Along with Aime Cesaire and Leon Damas, he founded the negritude movement, which argued that the black people of colonial Africa and the Caribbean should take pride in their African roots and find in their native traditions an inspiration for a new literature and a new way of life. Senghor put these ideas into practice in his wide field of activity. He wrote voluminously as a poet and as a philosopher of the new culture and politics of African independence from colonial rule. In the political arena, he was one of the major architects of independence for his own country, Senegal, and for French West Africa more generally. He served as president of Senegal for two decades.

‘‘Prayer to the Masks’’ is typical of Senghor’s writing throughout his long career, although it comes from his first collection, Songs of the Shadow, published in 1945. It exhibits clearly the features that characterized his poetic writing: the use of African themes and settings, the highly rhythmic long lines reminiscent of the Bible and Walt Whitman, the evocations of music and song, and the contrast of the vitality of a mythic (and future) Africa with the present of both Europe and Africa under colonialism. It is the poem of a young man seeking to connect with the past; he senses that this connection will inspire him to struggle through the damaged life of the present to forge a better future for himself and his people.

Senghor was born in Joal, a village in Central Senegal, in 1906. His father was a successful merchant dealing with the French in goods for the export trade. After one year of elementary education in Joal, he was sent to a missionary school in Ngasobil and later a Catholic high school in Dakar, where he was educated in the French language and French culture. Although he originally wanted to enter the priesthood, Senghor was sent on scholarship to France in 1928, where he pursued the study of literature at the Lycee Louis le Grand and the Sorbonne. In the preparatory class at the lycee (school), Senghor befriended his classmate Georges Pompidou, who later became president of France. Senghor earned the License-es-lettres (equivalent to a bachelor’s degree), the Diplome d’etudes super-ieures (equivalent to a master’s degree), and the agregation (similar to a doctorate). He was the first African from the French colonies to earn the agregation.

The 1920s and 1930s were decades of developing political and cultural consciousness on the part of American, Caribbean, and African-born blacks. Relatively large urban communities of blacks

developed in cities such as New York and Paris, and previously separate groups—African Americans, Caribbean-Creoles, and Africans from French colonies such as Senegal—began to encounter one another, form friendships and organizations, and collaborate in cultural and literary publications. Their response was a literary and cultural movement, affirming the unique value of blackness and the black cultures of Africa and the Americas, under the banner of negritude. The founding figures were Senghor, Aime Cesaire, and Leon Damas, all of whom were students in the early 1930s in Paris and contributors to a series of reviews and journals. The term negritude itself was coined by Cesaire in his book-length poem Notes on a Return to the Native Land. In 1947 and 1948, Damas and Senghor published anthologies that further gave shape to the literary movement.

Senghor served in the French army during World War II and was confined for several months in a German prisoner-of-war camp. After the war, he was actively involved in Senegalese and African politics. In 1945 he published Chants d’ombre (Songs of Shadow), which contains ‘‘Prayer to the Masks.’’ The poems in this volume, written before the war, express his feelings for Africa, thoughts on racism, and his fears about his native land’s future. The translation used here is from the 1991 edition, The Collected Poetry, translated by Melvin Dixon.

He served in the cabinet of the French prime minister Edgar Faure in 1955 as secretary of state. In 1960, he was closely involved in attempts to form a multistate federation of West African states, and in that same year, he was elected president of the newly independent Republic of Senegal. While president, Senghor wrote critical and political prose, in addition to multiple award-winning volumes of poetry, including an acclaimed collection of essays on socialism, On African Socialism, written in 1964. He served as president until 1980, when he voluntarily stepped down from office, the first African president to do so. In 1984, he was appointed to the prestigious Academie Francaise for his literary and humanistic achievements. Senghor died at age 95 in 2002.

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14 August 2014. Author: Criticism