His biography tells us something about the development of his ideas: 1930: depression in France, 1940s: world war and reconstruction, 1950s: the lead up to Senegal’s independence; 1960 – 1980, the years as President of Senegal.
He was born in 1906 in the small village of Joal, on the Senegalese coast, about 75 miles south of the capital Dakar. His parents were relatively well-to-do farmers, both of the Serer ethnic group. Family tradition held that the father came from what had been a royal family, but the Serer had lost most of their power to other ethnic groups, and there were no powerful chiefs left. Both of Senghor’s parents were Roman Catholics, and his father in particular saw education as the chief road to advancement. Thus at seven years old, Senghor was put in a Catholic boarding school and later in the Lycee at Dakar. He developed nostalgia for his childhood and the innocence of village life which he expressed in his poems but little knew in reality. He was a good student and was chosen to continue university education in Paris in 1928. The French colonial administration, unlike that of England, did not create universities in Africa until very late. The first, the University of Dakar, began in 1957; the second, the University of Abidjan, in 1963.
Senghor went to the leading French university, the Sorbonne, and graduated in 1934, having majored in French language and literature. Paris in the 1930s was a center for literary and political thought. The world-wide economic depression had hit France in the early 1930s, leading to strong social and political movements. February 1934 saw a far-right effort to bring down the government with a march on the Parliament, and May 1934 saw the first Left government, the Popular Front of Socialists and Communists. Students and others were active in considering alternative structures for a new society.
Senghor was influenced by the Catholic "spiritualists" – writers who were Roman Catholics but not very "orthodox". The poet and social critic Charles Peguy who had been killed during the First World War was a strong influence on many Catholic youth, and there are echoes of Peguy in Senghor’s poems. Peguy was an unorthodox socialist who thought that the French peasants and not industrial workers were the revolutionary force of the 20th century. Senghor, with more reason in Senegal, also saw the rural population as the core social base. As Senghor wrote, "I have chosen my toiling black people, my peasant people, the peasant race throughout the world."
Senghor was part of the student milieu around the journal "Esprit" edited by Emmanuel Mounier which was trying to find a path other than capitalism, communism or fascism- a path called "personalism". "Esprit" was also a home for people influenced by the French "utopian-socialist" and federalist Proudhon. Senghor was always strongly federalist in his approach to the structure of the state and later was an active participant in the world federalist movement. Jacques Maritain and his wife were also active among intellectual Catholic youth of Paris. Maritain was an adult convert from Protestantism to Catholicism and a powerful voice in defense of democracy in a Catholic milieu largely anti-democratic (pro-Royalist of far-Right.)
Paris in the 1930s was also home to African students from countries other than Senegal so that a Pan African spirit developed. As there were also students from the French-speaking West Indies, Haiti as well as Guyana, a "Pan-Black" movement grew up for which Senghor coined the term "Negritude". Negritude, Senghor wrote, is "the sum total of the cultural values of the black world." Aime Cesaire and Leon Damas, along with Senghor were the intellectual leaders of the movement and founded a journal " l’Etudiant Noir" (The Black Student). Into this group came American Black writers who were living in Paris such as Countree Cullen and Langston Hughes. There were mutual intellectual exchanges related to the Americans discovering Africa and the Africans discovering Black literary efforts in the USA.
In the 1930s, the aim of the anti-colonial movement in Senegal was to have Senegalese accepted as full French citizens. A small percentage of educated Senegalese were accepted as French citizens, most kept a "native" status. Through the personal intervention of the Senegalese deputy to the French Parliament, Blaise Diagne, Senghor became a French citizen and the first African to obtain his "aggregation" – a university grade given after a difficult exam which is often a prerequisite for university teaching in France or for teaching in elite secondary schools.
When World War II broke out, Senghor joined the French army and was then held in a German prisoner -of-war camp from 1940 to 1942 – a time during which he could write poems. Upon release from the camp, he became part of a resistance movement led largely by French anthropologist who had studied African societies and whom the Germans thought were unlikely to be members of the resistance.
Through his studies, his participation in student and intellectual circles in Paris and then the resistance, Senghor had made many friends among people who would play a role in the restructuring of France at the end of the war. Thus, Senghor was asked to teach at the Ecole Nationale de la France d’Outre Mer. (The renamed institute that trained the higher level civil servants for colonial service.). In 1945, he was chosen to represent Senegal in the Constituent Assembly that was to draft the new constitution of France. (As the colonial administration in Senegal during the war had been pro-Vichy and the older Senegalese political leaders had been compromised by association with the colonial government, new representatives from Senegal needed to be chosen quickly. Senghor was already living in Paris and had been a member of the anti-Nazi resistance. Although he had been living in France since 1928 and had spent only a few summer vacations in Senegal, he became a forceful voice for Africa in French politics and started to think of a political future rather than a literary one.)
Nevertheless, he had a draw full of poems both his own and that of friends from Africa, Haiti, and the West Indies. He published his first collection of poems in 1945 "Chants d’Ombre." Next, he drew on his contacts and put together an anthology of African and Malagasy poetry which was published in 1948: "Anthologie de la nouvelle poesie negre et malgache de langue francaise." He had the good idea of asking the writer, philosopher and critic Jean-Paul Sartre to write an introduction. In 1948, Sartre was at the top of his fame in Paris intellectual circles and an editor of an influential journal. Anything he wrote would have attracted attention. Sartre used the occasion to write a very full essay "Orphee noir" (Black Orpheus).
Sartre drew attention to the fact that Black poetry in French is, in our days, the only major revolutionary poetry for its role is to prepare a synthesis toward that which is essentially human and for a society without races. Sartre goes on to observe that Negritude is an open-ended doctrine encompassing a wide range of ideas, attitudes and subjects. Sartre cautions against the elevation of the concept of Negritude into an unchangeable principle, for all ideas are related to their circumstances and thus are changeable.
There is in Senghor’s poetry an optimism that shines above and beyond the regrets, the complaints, the longing and the fears. All the major poems were written before the mid-1950s after which more and more of Senghor’s energy was taken with politics and administration.
Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics www.transnational-perspectives.org and an NGO representative to the UN, Geneva. Formerly, he was professor and Director of Research of the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, University of Geneva.
For a good selection of Senghor’s writings translated into English see: John Reed and Clive Wake (Eds). Senghor: Prose and Poetry (London: Oxford University Press, 1965).