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The Poet who was President: The Life and Legacy of Léopold Sédar Senghor

Senegal's first president is rightly revered for instilling democracy in Senegal and founding the négritude philosophical movement. But Senghor was a poet first and foremost.
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Léopold Sédar Senghor receiving an award in Germany in 1961. Photograph by Egon Steiner.

Léopold Sédar Senghor once famously declared that if he had to choose between his accomplishments as a poet, a thinker or a statesman, he would like his legacy to be that of a poet. The best way to comprehend such a remark coming from a man who is considered to be one of the most important African intellectuals of the 20th century, who is celebrated as one of Africa’s independence heroes, and who was president of Senegal for 20 years, is to understand that he was not really making a choice at all.

What Senghor’s declaration really meant was that his philosophy as a thinker was that of a poet; and that as a statesman faced with difficult political choices, he tried to never lose sight of the poet within him. But what does it mean that Senghor’s philosophy and political actions were those of a poet?

The strong-willed student

Senghor was born in 1906 in the village of Joal on the coast of Senegal, about 100 km from the capital Dakar. His family had converted to Christianity, and Léopold was brought up a Catholic, but the Senghors still kept to the spirit of, and retained many cultural traits from, the ancestral religion of the Serer, the ethnic group to which they belonged. Later in his life, Léopold would be a fierce advocate for the "inculturation" of the Gospel, arguing that Christianity in Africa and elsewhere should reflect the local culture, languages and even worldview, and not appear as the will to impose as universal a European incarnation of the religion.

Senghor attended a school founded by the Holy Ghost Fathers, a congregation of Roman Catholic priests and followers, in a neighbouring village before graduating to a high school run in Dakar by the same Catholic mission. He was a brilliant student, especially in the humanities, Latin and Greek, but he was also strong-willed and considered stubborn by his teachers. Senghor’s schoolmaster Father Lalouse in particular was appalled that the young man dared to challenge the prevailing idea that in order to enter the true religion of Christianity – and join ‘civilisation’ (i.e. Europe) – Africans first had to rid themselves of what amounted to paganism and backwardness. Eventually Father Lalouse gave in and decided that it was better for the young Senghor to take his contrarian views to the then newly-created public high school and complete his degree in that secular environment.

After he graduated in 1928, Senghor went to Paris to study at the Lycée Louis le Grand and then at the Sorbonne. At Louis le Grand, he met two people who would become lifelong friends and deeply affect his trajectory. One was Georges Pompidou, the man who introduced Senghor to socialism and went on to become France’s Prime Minister (1962-8) before succeeding General Charles de Gaulle as president (1969-1974). The other was Aimé Césaire, a young man from the French Caribbean island of Martinique, who in the mid-1930s, together with Senghor and their comrade Léon Damas of Guyana, helped initiate the poetic, intellectual and political movement known as ‘négritude’. The choice of the term négritude – derived from the highly derogatory and racist word “nègre” – was deliberately, provocatively and proudly appropriated by Césaire and the others.

Négritude and emotion

As les trois pères of the movement defined it, négritude is the affirmation of the value of black civilizations made manifest, for example, in the influence exercised by African arts on 20th century culture in Europe and America. Despite the diversity and plurality of the cultures they created on the continent and in the diasporas, African and African-descended societies shared, according to négritude philosophy, fundamental civilisational traits and the same need to face racism and colonialism. The fact the founding trio of the movement was made up of the three poets from Guyana, Martinique, and Senegal was certainly a powerful symbol for such a claim to solidarity.

And poets and writers are what the three primarily were. Indeed, the work most likely to be considered to be the manifesto of the négritude movement is Senghor’s 1948 anthology of poems by black poets writing in French. That anthology, which opened with a flamboyant preface by the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, contained some of the poems that Césaire, Damas, and Senghor had published before and immediately after World War II.

Before that, however, Senghor had started his literary career as a négritude writer with an essay on ‘What the Black Man Contributes’ published in 1939. In it, he examined the aesthetic and philosophical significance of what was then called ‘art nègre’. Following on from the reflections of art critics Paul Guillaume and Thomas Munro, who in their book Primitive Negro Sculpture had compared Greco-Roman statuary with African sculpture, Senghor summarised what he saw as the contrast between Western and African thinking in a succinct formula that for many encapsulates the philosophy of négritude as a whole: “emotion is black as reason is Hellenic.”

Senghor’s beliefs however extended well beyond that axiom, and until the final years of the 20th century, he continued to work on the open-ended question of black cultures and black arts. Senghor strongly advocated dialogue, encounter and the coming together of cultures, claiming that metissage (or mixture) – in the past as well as for the future – is the sine qua non of any great civilisation.

Unity and independence

After WW2, during which Senghor was captured by the Nazis, his compatriot Lamine Guèye, then the leader of the Senegalese section of the French Socialist party, convinced Senghor to run for election to become Senegal’s representative in the French National Assembly. Senghor accepted and won.

Shortly after in 1947, however, Senghor seceded from Guèye’s party to create his own. This followed a disagreement over a train conductor strike on the Dakar-Niger railway; Guèye argued against the strike while Senghor supported it. Despite the breakaway, Senghor was re-elected in 1951 and moved up the ranks in the following years.

In 1958, when France proposed a referendum for its West African colonies asking them to decide between gaining immediate independence and remaining part of a confederation of French Union, Senghor called for a vote in favour of the latter. His critics denounced his attitude and patience with French colonialism, praising by contrast the decision of Ahmed Sekou Touré in neighbouring Guinea to proclaim his country’s independence despite latent French threats – threats that were realised when France called back all its executives who had been managing the administration and the economy of the colony.

Part of Senghor’s preference for a French Union could be explained by his strong opposition to what he called the “balkanisation” of West Africa; he feared that the region would separate into isolated territories that, in his opinion, were not viable spaces for independent development. To an extent, his concern was vindicated. In 1960, France’s colonies gained independence, and balkanisation ensued. French West Africa, a federation of eight French colonial territories, broke apart, and following a final short-lived attempt to maintain a federation with Mali (then French Sudan), Senegal too became an independent nation.

“One who cannot be ashamed”

On 5 September 1960, Senghor was elected to be Senegal’s first president. In a way, the country Senghor inherited was politically unique amongst its neighbours. Under colonialism, Senegal had had a special status among French West African colonies – the four cities of Saint Louis, Dakar, Rufisque and Goree had the status of French ‘communes’ meaning their inhabitants were French citizens rather than colonial subjects – and as a consequence those areas had a long tradition of democratic multiparty elections and a number of political parties were already active when Senegal became independent.

Senghor thus took over a country with some kind of democratic legacy, but this was initially short-lived under his presidency. In 1962, his erstwhile political ally, long-time friend and prime minister, Mamadou Dia, was accused of plotting a coup and imprisoned for 12 years. Senghor responded to the perceived threat by establishing a one-party authoritarian system like so many of its neighbours.

Still, as Senghor would insist himself, he was first and foremost a poet, and it was perhaps the poet in him that prevented him from going to the extremes of most authoritarian leaders. It was perhaps the poet in him too that led him to do two things typically unheard of amongst those with such a tight grip on power.

Firstly, in 1976, after 14 years of single-party rule, Senghor reversed his earlier thinking and decided that Senegal should take up again its democratic traditions once more. Three political parties were officially recognised to begin with; alongside Senghor’s own Socialist Party, the Senegalese Democratic Party represented a liberal right-of-centre stance, while the African Independence Party adopted the radical left. More importantly, however, the press was also given far greater freedoms, and a culture of fiercely independent journalism developed rapidly.

Secondly, in 1980, Senghor decided to freely step down. He resigned from the presidency – handing over power to his prime minister, Abdou Diouf, who remained as president for the next 20 years – and devoted the rest of his life to poetry. In 1983, he became the first African to be elected to the French Academy, and he continued to write and publish for several years. He died in 2001, having spent the final years of his long life with his wife in Normandy, France.

When Senghor died, Senegal had just experienced its second peaceful transition of power from Diouf to Abdoulaye Wade following elections in 2000, and the country was still one of the few African countries never to have suffered a coup. Since then, Senegal has seen more elections and another handover of power from Wade to Macky Sall. Though many problems remain, Senegal today is seen as a beacon of democracy and stability in the region, and Senghor – who is celebrated as providing a valuable example for leaders across Africa – is to thank in no small part.

His legacy, without a doubt, justifies his middle name, Sédar, which translates as “one who cannot be ashamed”. Léopold Sédar Senghor helped found the important intellectual, literary and political movement négritude. He was a prominent statesman who led by example and helped advance democracy on a continent long considered ‘forgotten by human rights’. And last, but certainly not least, he was one of the greatest poets of the 20th century.

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