Senghor, Léopold Sédar (1906–2001)

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First president of Senegal and developer of negritude and African socialism.

Léopold Sédar Senghor was a man of politics and a man of culture who in both areas was devoted to finding a balance between Europe and Africa. Born in Joal, French West Africa (present-day Senegal), Senghor was the fifth of six children of Gnylane Bakhoum and the trader Basile Diogoye Senghor. Senghor's very name signified his dual influences. Sédar was Serer, the prominent ethnic group of Joal. Catholicism, a French export, inspired the name Léopold and Senghor's attendance of a school run by the Fathers of the Holy Spirit at Ngazobil in 1914.

As a schoolboy he was subjected to a peculiarity of colonialism that imposed the French curriculum upon Africans. Senghor struggled to become assimilated, a French boy with black skin, whose diligent studies and quick mind led him to Dakar, the capital of French West Africa. After briefly attending the Libermann Seminary, Senghor switched to the secondary school in Dakar. In 1928 he obtained the French high school degree with honors, and the Government General of French West Africa granted him a scholarship with which to pursue studies in France.

Senghor arrived in a Paris recently introduced to jazz by African Americans and in which African art and artifacts fascinated avant-garde intellectuals and artists. Yet Senghor's priority was his education, and he attended first the renowned Lycée Louis-le-Grand and then the Sorbonne, studying Latin and Greek and exploring French authors ranging from the poet Charles Baudelaire to the writer Maurice Barrès. In order to sit for the agrégation, the most prestigious teaching degree in France, Senghor had to be naturalized French. He was, in 1933, and passed the exam in grammar in 1935.

Starting in 1931, through his studies Senghor met those with whom he started deliberating negritude, an intellectual movement that focused upon culture to express the politics of black identity within the context of European colonialism. These men and women included the Martinicans AiméCésaire and three of the seven Nardal sisters, Jane, Andrée, and Paulette, as well as the French Guianan Léon Damas. Senghor also discovered the Harlem Renaissance writers and met René Maran, the first black man to win the celebrated Prix Goncourt for a novel, Batouala (1921). This constellation of black thinkers allowed Senghor to reevaluate his European education and African origins. In 1936 Senghor wrote "The Portrait," a poem that expressed affection for the region around Tours, where he was teaching classics and French, and that also was the work in which he first used the term negritude.

During World War II, Senghor was called upon to serve in a regiment of colonial infantry but was soon made a prisoner of war. After the war, Senghor was invited to help write a new constitution for France. Senghor's invitation to serve on the Monnerville Commission introduced him to politics and to the injustice of the continued political misrepresentation of colonies within the métropole (France proper). In 1945 Senghor returned to Senegal to complete his dissertation with research on Serer and Wolof poetry. While there he was persuaded to run for one of two seats Senegal had been given for the Constituent Assembly of the Fourth Republic and won as a socialist. He argued that Africans should assimilate the best of European culture, recognize a rich African tradition of culture and politics, and work on a political relationship with France which would resemble that between capitals and provinces.

An engaged intellectual, Senghor decided to commit to politics. He traveled around Senegal expressing interest in people's lives and started a newspaper, La condition humaine (The human condition), which provided cultural and political education for African readers. In 1948 Senghor broke away from the French Socialist Party and created the Senegalese Democratic Bloc. He advocated greater independence for Africans within the French Union, using ideas he had developed through negritude and African socialism. Negritude became a theory of group identity while African socialism, elaborated in the late 1950s, encouraged intercultural exchanges at the political and social levels between Africa and the West. Senghor believed African traditions, offset by the progressivism of Western socialism, would ensure a strong Africa.

In 1958 Senghor invited a number of parties to join the Senegalese Progressive Union. Careful not to seem ungrateful for France's role in West Africa, he waited until December 1959 when Charles de Gaulle accepted Senegal as a nation and promised the French Fifth Republic's support. Senghor was elected president of an independent Senegal in January 1961 and led the country until 1980. After retiring he returned to his initial passion, working on committees at the French Academy, to which he was inducted in 1984, and continuing to write. Senghor died in Verson, France.

See alsoColonialism; French Empire; Negritude.


Primary Sources

Senghor, Léopold Sédar. The Collected Poetry. Translated by Melvin Dixon. Charlottesville, Va., 1991.

Secondary Sources

Hymans, Jacques Louis. Léopold Sédar Senghor: An Intellectual Bibliography. Edinburgh, 1971.

Vaillant, Janet G. Black, French, and African: A Life of Léopold Sédar Senghor. Cambridge, Mass., 1990.

Jennifer Anne Boittin