This past Sunday marked the 61st anniversary of Léopold Sédar Senghor’s election as Senegal’s first democratic president, when the country gained independence from French colonial rule. And to honor the important day, I wanted to highlight Senghor’s role as a cultural and literary figure—and of course, some of his poems.
Unlike most politicians, Senghor not only had a long literary career, but he catapulted his political work through his literary career, rather than the other way around. Hailed as one of the leaders of the Négritude movement, he collaborated with Aimé Césaire and Léon Damas to push against the rise of twentieth-century facism. With Paris as a center for many artists and scholars from the Caribbean and African French colonies, the group was said to have met regularly at the Clamart tea-shop on the Left Bank, quickly establishing it as their meeting point. Drawing from surrealism and the Harlem Renaissance, the Négritude movement, in its anti-imperialist, avant-garde aesthetics and affects, aimed to center a global Black culture, history, and experience. The movement soon became “a vital cultural base,” through which Senghor developed his political thought, notably that of African socialism, which Janet G. Vaillant writes in her book, he “placed […] in a context larger than that of Marx alone,” and the limiting prism of the West.
Indeed, explains Sylvia Washington Ba in her most recent book, “Senghor was among the first to give poetic expression to African experience in a European tongue and, in so doing, […] achieved a synthesis of inspiration and means of expression that does honor to both and betrays neither.” Such poetic expression was essential to Senghor’s vision of revolution, particularly in the face of assimilation and erasure. Emphasizing the urgency of both the term and the work of Négritude, he explained, “[between 1933 and 1935], along with several black students, we [Césaire and himself] were plunged into a sort of panic-stricken despair. […] No reform was in sight and the colonizers were justifying our political and economic dependence by the theory of the tabula rasa.” He further elucidated: “in order to establish an effective revolution, our revolution, we first had to divest ourselves of our borrowed attire—that of assimilation—and assert our being, that is to say our negritude.”
You can read poet Baba Badji’s translations of Senghor’s work here.