Diop, David Mandessi

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David Mandessi Diop

David Mandessi Diop (1927–1960), born in France to African parents, was a poet of the Negritude movement, rejecting colonialism and Western values and celebrating African people and culture. Although he died when he was only 33 years old, his poems, described as angry and revolutionary, yet hopeful and optimistic, are read and studied today in Africa and around the world.

Born in Exile

Diop was born in Bordeaux, France, in 1927, the third of five children. His mother was from Cameroon and his father was from Senegal, and as a child Diop traveled often between Europe and Africa. His mother raised the children in German-occupied, World War II France, after his father died. He attended primary school in Senegal and secondary school in France, where one of his teachers was Leopold Sedar Senghor (1906–2001), who would become president of Senegal in 1960.

Diop began to publish poetry while still in school; one of his influences was Aime Cesaire (born 1913), the writer and later statesman from Martinique who, with Senghor and others then in Paris, began the Negritude movement. When barely out of his teenage years, Diop saw several of his poems published in Senghor's Anthologie de la nouvelle poesie negre at malgache (1948), described in the Books and Writers website as "an important landmark of modern black writing in French." Most of Diop's poetry was written before he was 21 years old.

Diop spent most of his life in France. He suffered bouts of tuberculosis while growing up and spent months in sanitariums. At one time he planned to study medicine but changed his focus to liberal arts and obtained two baccalaureats and a licence es lettres in order to teach in secondary school. He married in 1950, and his wife, Virginia Kamara, is said to have inspired his poetry.

Returned to Africa in Adulthood

Diop returned to Africa with his wife and children in the 1950s, a time when tabloid publications were playing a sizable role in the development of African poetry. A journal called Bingo began publication in Senegal in 1953 and published poems by Diop and Senghor as well as other emerging African writers. Diop was also published in Presence Africaine, and he began to call for independence in Africa. His first (and only remaining) book of poems, Coups de pillon (Hammer Blows and Pounding), was published in 1956.

Died Shortly after Guinea's

Diop taught at the Lycee Delafosse in Dakar, Senegal, and then was a secondary-school principal in Kindia, Guinea. On Guinea's independence in 1958, the French colonial government departed in haste, leaving the country without a civil service. Diop and many other Africans volunteered to work in the new government under Ahmed Sekou Toure (who would remain in power until 1984). Diop was so employed on August 25, 1960, when he and his wife died in a plane crash over the Atlantic in the course of a flight between Dakar and France. The manuscript for his second book of poetry was also lost in the crash, meaning that the twenty-some poems of Coups de pillon are all that remain of his work. Even so, he is one of the most widely read poets of the Negritude and anticolonialist movements, and at least one school (le college David Diop in Senegal) bears his name.

Poetry Balanced Bitterness with Hope

The Negritude movement expressed opposition to colonialism and assimilation and lifted up African values and culture, and some of its writers expressed much bitterness and pessimism. Diop, on the other hand, is seen as more inclined to express hopefulness and comfort for exiles (actual and figurative). Wilfred Cartey, in Whispers From A Continent, notes, "within the body of each single poem Diop counterpoints notes of exile with recurrent chords of hope and return. Although within each poem harsh and gentle statements, negatives and positives, may alternate, Diop closes, almost without exception, on a note of optimism." Sometimes the return from exile is symbolic. Return may require combat and resistance; it may also be found in memories of Africa. African women represent for Diop the solace to be found in the return. An article in the Encyclopedia Britannica called Diop "the most extreme of the Negritude writers" because he rejected the idea that the colonial experience had done anything good for Africa. He is also said to have believed that political independence had to take place before Africa could come into its own culturally and economically.

Other themes found in Diop's work are "Africa's obstinate endurance and … power to survive. Thus in his poems," said Cartey, "there is always a movement away from the negative effects of oppression to the positive possibility of regeneration in the poetic discovery of truth.… Hope springs from combat."

Wrote Unsparingly of Colonials

In his poetry, Diop represents separation from Africa with language suggesting agony, monotony, howls, metallic sounds, and machine guns. Among his villains are the Catholic church and Europeans' false promises of friendship, along with their other lies. The colonials are called "mystificateurs," disguising the real effects of their inflicted culture with inflated or pious language. In "Vultures," Diop wrote that "civilization kicked us in the face" and "holy water slapped our cringing brows." The Europeans' efforts to "civilize" Africa are described as "the bloodstained monument of tutelage."

In "Negro Tramp," a poem dedicated to Aime Cesaire and based on Cesaire's description of an old man on a trolley, Diop uses the image of the derelict man as a symbol for Africa under colonial rule. The man is not to blame for his state; he walks "like an old, shattered dream/A dream ripped to shreds.… naked in your filthy prison/ … offered up to other people's laughter/Other people's wealth/Other people's hideous hunger." He expresses pity for Africans who have submitted to the colonials' will, where they are "squealing and hissing and strutting around in the parlors of condescension." "Africa," which Diop dedicated to his mother, begins with an exile's cry: "I have never known you/But my face is filled with your blood." The continent at first seems to be someone with a bent back breaking "under the weight of humiliation." But the continent reproaches the speaker in the poem, calling him "Impetuous son." Far from bowed and trembling, "this young and robust tree,/This very tree/Splendidly alone … /Is Africa, your Africa, growing again/Patiently stubbornly.…" The tree's fruit "Bears freedom's bitter flavor," while round about the tree lie "white and wilted flowers," perhaps a reference to the colonials.

Elsewhere, Africa is viewed as enduring forever and offering healing to Africans. In "A Une Danseuse Noire," which some consider his best poem, the black dancing woman represents Africa and its offer of regeneration. She inspires Africans to unchain the whole continent, and Diop promises her "For you we will remake Ghana and Timbuktu." He had already begun that mission when his life was cut short.


Cartey, Wilfred, Whispers from a Continent: The Literature of Contemporary Black Africa, Random House, 1969.

The Negritude Poets, edited by Ellen Conroy Kennedy, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1975.


Awhefeada, Sunny, "Development of Modern African Poetry," The Post Express,http://allafrica.com/stories/printable/200010210105.html (January 7, 2004).

"David Diop (1927–1960)," Books and Writers,www.kirjasto.sci.fi/diop.htm (December 18, 2003).

"Diop," University of Florida,http://web.uflib.ufl.edu/cm/africana/diop.htm (December 18, 2003).

"Diop, David," Encyclopaedia Britannica Library,http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=31053&tocid=0&query=david%20diop&ct= (February 12, 2004).

Lees, Johanna, "A l'ecole David Diop a Liberte VI, la rentree sous le signe du deuil," Le Soleil,http://fr.allafrica.com/stories/printable/200210090561.html (January 7, 2004).

Lemmer, Krisjan, "Cultural," Mail & Guardian,http://allafrica.com/stories/printable/200103010425.html (January 7, 2004).

"Negritude," Encyclopaedia Britannica Library,http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=31053&tocid=0&query=david%20diop&ct= (February 12, 2004).