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Postcolonial Thought in the French-speaking World$

Charles Forsdick and David Murphy

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9781846310546

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: June 2013

DOI: 10.5949/UPO9781846319808

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Léopold Sédar Senghor: Race, Language, Empire

Léopold Sédar Senghor: Race, Language, Empire

(p.157) Chapter 12 Léopold Sédar Senghor: Race, Language, Empire
Postcolonial Thought in the French-speaking World
David Murphy
Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Léopold Sédar Senghor is a poet and theorist who also served as president of Senegal. He is the author most closely associated with Negritude, a Francophone literary movement that emerged at a time when a form of colonial humanism had begun to transform the nature of French colonial rule in Africa. Since the beginning of the new millennium, critics have shown renewed interest in the life and work of Senghor. For his defenders, his ‘double allegiance’ to France and Africa is a key aspect of his desire to promote the different cultures that arose due to French colonisation. This chapter explores three of Senghor's primary ideas – négritude, francité, and civilisation de l'universel – in order to understand the ambiguities that underlie his attempt to conceptualise blackness and Frenchness, as well as the possible emergence of a new and truly diverse global culture in the wake of decolonisation. It also considers his essays and poetry.

Keywords:   Léopold Sédar Senghor, négritude, francité, civilisation de l'universel, Senegal, colonial humanism, France, Africa, blackness, Frenchness

Since the beginning of the new millennium there has been a remarkable turnaround in the critical appraisal of the life and work of Senegalese poet-president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, the writer most closely associated with the Francophone literary movement of Negritude. In the course of the preceding decades, Senghor had come to be seen by numerous critics (if by no means all) as an anachronistic figure, whose ideas had served their time and were no longer useful in thinking about Africa. The high point of the more recent positive reappraisal came in 2006 (the centenary of his birth), which l'Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie – an organization of which the Senegalese writer is considered by many to be the founding father – had decreed to be L'Année Senghor (The Year of Senghor). Major (and minor) French publishers rushed to repackage and reissue existing material on Senghor, including a new edition of his collected poetry (Senghor, 2006), updated editions of critical works (Guibert and Nimrod, 2006), and translations of work previously published in English (Vaillant, 2006); and also to commission new (and often hagiographic) studies by former colleagues and acquaintances (see, in particular, Bourges, 2006; Brunel et al. 2006; Mémoire Senghor, 2006; Njami, 2006; Roche, 2006). In the course of the year, this led to the publication of well over 20 volumes that dealt with his career as poet, politician and theorist. (This Senghormania extended to the publication of a volume in his honour by a collective of cartoonists from Burkina Faso: see Senghor, cent ans, 2006).

The reappraisal (or, in many cases, pure celebration) of Senghor's work had begun in December 2001, following his death at his home in Normandy, where he had retired after stepping down from the presidency of Senegal at the end of 1980 (see Brandily, 2002; Nimrod, 2003). That Senghor's body had to be returned ‘home’ to Senegal for burial from his final ‘home’ in France is a clear illustration of his emotional and intellectual attachment to two ‘patries’, which represented for him two separate (but complementary) notions of the self. (p.158) From the late 1960s onwards, a young generation of radical African intellectuals had turned against Senghor and Negritude (e.g., Adotevi, 1972; Towa, 1976), precisely because they perceived them as incapable of breaking with France; his belief in an essential form of black identity was, for these critics, a smokescreen designed to hide Senegal's (and, more widely, Francophone Africa's) neocolonial dependence on France, whose language and culture informed Senghor's entire career. Equally, however, it is this ‘double allegiance’ to France and to Africa that Senghor's defenders view as a fundamental aspect of his desire to promote the métissage of the different cultures that were brought into contact by the French colonial project.

The aim of this chapter is to revisit three of Senghor's key concepts, négritude, francité, civilisation de l'universel, in order to explore the ambiguities at the heart of his attempt to think through notions of blackness, Frenchness, and the possibility of a new and truly diverse global culture emerging in the wake of decolonization. It will focus primarily on his voluminous essay-writing, but will also, on occasions, examine his poetry. Negritude placed a high value on the importance of poetic language as a key aspect of the expression of black thought. The examination of Negritude poetry as an example of the movement's thought is, as a result, absolutely necessary. The anthologization of his essays and speeches in the five volumes of the Liberté series – volumes 1, 3 and 5 are devoted to culture (1964; 1977; 1993), while volumes 2 and 4 (1971; 1983) are dedicated to politics – is part of an attempt to give his thought a sense of overall coherence and natural evolution, which belies the uneven and fragmented fashion in which it actually emerged. (See Chapter 6 on Édouard Glissant for an account of a similar anthologization of the Martiniquan theorist's ideas.) Senghor – and his many ‘gatekeepers’ – endlessly sought to shape his own body of work and the surrounding field in ways that fitted with his evolving understanding of race, language and empire while simultaneously situating Negritude as the privileged (and foundational) form of literary and cultural expression in Francophone Africa. Adopting a diachronic approach, in this chapter I will revisit the historical context in which his ideas emerged and also explore the ways in which both he and his critics revised and reinterpreted them subsequently. In so doing, I will attempt not only to qualify some of the excesses of Senghor's recent Francophone champions but also to underline the significance of his thought to Anglophone postcolonial scholars, many of whom remain largely unaware of his work. L'Année Senghor passed off relatively unnoticed in the Anglophone world, and knowledge of his ideas in postcolonial circles is often limited to an awareness of Senghor as the individual on the receiving end of Wole Soyinka's infamous jibe about Negritude that ‘a tiger does not proclaim its tigritude’ (cited in Ashcroft et al., 1989: 124; see Chapter 18 in this volume on Negritude and Présence Africaine).1 This is not to say that (p.159) Senghor's work is unknown to Anglophone scholars. For instance, the field of African/Black studies, particularly in North America, has on the whole continued to foster a largely positive appraisal of his work (e.g. Irele, 1981), as is revealed in the mostly glowing tributes that appeared in a special issue of the journal Research in African Literatures (2002) in the year following his death. (Indeed, this special issue opens with a tribute from Soyinka, which suggests that the two men had made their peace regarding their earlier differences; although, on closer inspection, Soyinka's short text is a masterpiece in the genre of the ambivalent tribute.)2

The reason for Anglophone postcolonialism's distrust of Negritude is succinctly summarized by Benita Parry: ‘[T]his body of writing is routinely disparaged as the most exorbitant manifestation of a mystified ethnic essentialism, as an undifferentiated and retrograde discourse installing notions of a foundational and fixed native self, and demagogically asserting the recovery of an immutable past’ (2004: 43). Even at the height of its influence, there was a sense in some quarters that Negritude was a necessary phase through which anti-colonial expression must pass but which was in itself doomed to disappear, weighed down by the weight of its own contradictions. For instance, in the preface to one of the most important Negritude texts, Senghor's Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française, Jean-Paul Sartre famously described it as ‘an antiracist racism’ and the ‘negative stage in a dialectical progression’ (Sartre, 1988 [1948], 296). In the post-independence period, Negritude increasingly came to be seen as a necessary development whose time had now passed.

Parry has provocatively described this critical reception as a case of ‘two cheers for nativism’, although it is worth noting that her own reconsideration of Negritude focuses on Césaire and sees little worth redeeming in Senghor's writings. As with Parry's approach, this chapter will attempt to avoid ‘disciplining’ nativism, ‘theoretical whip in hand’, and will instead ‘[…] consider what is to be gained from an unsententious interrogation of such articulations which, if often driven by negative passion, cannot be reduced to a mere inveighing against iniquities or a repetition of the canonical terms of imperialism's conceptual framework’ (Parry, 2004: 40). This study will explore the significance of Senghor's ideas in terms of their challenge to colonial authority, and their attempt to think through notions such as hybridity and métissage, which have been central to many of the theorists who have been deemed key proponents of both Anglophone and Francophone postcolonial thought (Bhabha and Glissant, most notably). Although fully acknowledging the ability of ideas to travel and take on new meanings in different periods and contexts, it is vital to understand the very real and pressing issues that faced Senghor as a colonized thinker in (p.160) the 1930s and 1940s. What, then, did the early development of Negritude mean in the context of French colonial practice and thought of the interwar period?

Negritude and colonial humanism

Born in the south-western coastal region of Sine, Senghor was the son of a wealthy Catholic trader with strong ties to powerful French merchants. Although his father's religion was an eclectic mix of Catholic and animist beliefs (he had several wives), the young Sédar Senghor was to develop a strong and devout Catholic faith that informed much of his writing. After spending the early years of his life with his mother in her home village, Senghor moved to the local town of Joal to live with his father. He excelled at Catholic missionary schools in Sine and in Dakar (at one stage, he felt he had a vocation to be a priest), and – in what was to become the classic movement of the colonized intellectual from village to town to metropolitan centre – he eventually gained a scholarship from the colonial authorities that allowed him to pursue his studies at university in Paris, where he arrived in the autumn of 1928. The string attached to this funding was that Senghor would have to serve the colonial regime for a full ten years after the end of his studies (Vaillant, 1990: 34–63). By 1935, he had become the first African to pass the prestigious and highly competitive agrégation exams (in grammar), and along the way he had become a French citizen. In many ways, Senghor seemed to be the model évolué or educated African, whose very being was proof of the benign intentions of French colonial rule. However, in the seven years between his arrival in France and his success in the agrégation, Senghor had undergone profound changes in his outlook. He had discovered jazz, the Harlem Renaissance, Picasso, the anti-rationalist writings of Henri Bergson and the anti-modernist work of the proto-fascist author Maurice Barrès. He had also encountered Aimé Césaire and Léon Gontran Damas, the writers with whom he gradually elaborated the ideas that would constitute Negritude. Slowly but surely during this period, two key ideas crystallized for Senghor: France's black subjects must refuse assimilation and learn to value their blackness. It was in this anti-assimilationist context that Negritude was born.

Although Senghor did not coin the term ‘Negritude’ – he always generously and truthfully conceded this achievement to his friend and colleague, Aimé Césaire – it has become synonymous with him due to his persistent efforts throughout his life to revisit and refine his vision of it. In the relatively short (by Senghor's standards) late volume Ce que je crois (1988), in which the writer was invited literally to set out ‘what I believe [in]’, he situates Negritude as a primary statute of faith: ‘[J]e crois, d'abord et par-dessus tout, à la culture négro-africaine, c'est-à-dire à la Négritude, à son expression en poésie et dans les arts’ [I believe, first of all and above all else, in black African culture, that is to say, in Negritude, and in its expression through poetry and the arts] (25). Negritude is ‘l'ensemble des valeurs de la civilisation noire’ [the collected values of black civilization] (137), which are based on a spiritual and poetic understanding of the world; for (p.161) Senghor, blackness is defined by poetry, rhythm, nature, that is, by a sensual rather than a rational engagement with, and understanding of, the world.

Negritude was in many respects his response to the crisis of identity he underwent during his first decade in France. The sense of confusion and ambiguity felt by Senghor during the 1930s is evident in his poetry of that period, which was first published after the war in the collection Chants d'ombre (1945), the very title of which, ‘Songs of the Shadows’, indicates the interstitial space in which the young évolué found himself. In many of the poems, there is a restless movement between France and Africa in an attempt to find a sense of home. Senghor uses the whiteness of the snow falling on Paris, in ‘Neige sur Paris’ [Paris in the Snow], as an image of a temporarily restored purity bestowed upon a culture that has ravaged Africa (2006: 21–23).3 Simultaneously, there is a nostalgic longing for the continent, which becomes associated for him with romanticized memories of his childhood in Sine. In ‘Que m'accompagnent kora et balafong’ [For Kora and Balafong] (28), he writes of ‘paradis, mon enfance africaine’ [paradise, my African childhood], while in ‘Joal’, the insistent repetition of ‘Je me rappelle’ [I remember] underlines his love for the site of his childhood, a theme that he would develop all through his career: in a later collection, Ethiopiques (1956), he refers to his childhood as ‘Royaume d'enfance’ [the Kingdom of childhood] (2006: 109) and he declares that ‘je confonds toujours l'enfance et l'Eden’ [I always confuse childhood with Eden] (148): this mix of nostalgia for a lost Africa and the Catholic evocation of a lost paradise sums up a key element of Senghor's vision. Although many of the poems in Chants d'ombre enact what would become the standard Negritude trope of celebrating traditional African culture, there is also a sense that the future lies with Europe: this is particularly evident in the final poem, ‘Le Retour de l'enfant prodigue’ [The Return of the Prodigal Son], which closes with the lines,

  • Demain, je reprendrai le chemin de l'Europe, chemin de l'ambassade
  • Dans le regret du Pays noir. (2006: 52)
  • Tomorrow, I will set out once more on the road to Europe, the road to the embassy
  • Homesick for my black homeland.

However, African culture will survive in this new world, and in ‘Prière aux masques’ [Prayer to the Masks], its spirituality and rhythm are ‘le levain qui est nécessaire à la farine blanche’ [the leaven that white flour needs] (23).

As the historian Gary Wilder has shown in his groundbreaking study of French colonialism in the interwar period, Negritude emerged at a moment when a form of colonial humanism had begun to modify the nature of French colonial rule in Africa (Wilder, 2005). A new wave of reforming colonial administrators such (p.162) as Maurice Delafosse, Georges Hardy and Robert Delavignette (whom Senghor knew well) began to move away from the rhetoric of Africa as a blank canvas on to which France would project its civilization through a process of assimilation. These administrators were also (amateur) ethnographers, who knew and valued the cultures of the countries that they governed and, in their writings they began to elaborate a colonial policy that would move away from the stated (if largely illusory) goal of assimilation in order to create a specially adapted education system that would respect the values and address the needs of local cultures. Colonial reformers promoted a more positive view of Africa on which Negritude was able to build,4 but this conception of blackness could not escape the ‘double bind’ of what Wilder terms the ‘French imperial nation-state’, which was simultaneously ‘universalizing’ in its elaboration of notions of citizenship and rights, and ‘particularizing’ in the way in which these rights were selectively applied in its colonies. Essentially, colonial humanism promoted a more inclusive colonial policy, but the equality towards which France was allegedly working was postponed indefinitely, for it would take a long (and unspecified) time to bring the ‘natives’ up to the standards of French ‘civilization’. Consequently, the colonized intellectuals of what would become the Negritude movement were faced with a very specific dilemma:

Neither republicanism nor nativism were in themselves adequate responses to a system that was simultaneously universalizing and particularizing. An antiracism that attempted to attack only one of these terms from the standpoint of the other risked reproducing rather than resolving the colonial antimony that it hoped to contest. (Wilder, 2005: 149–50)

For Wilder, Negritude, in rejecting assimilation while retaining the demand for equality, managed to divorce the notion of citizenship from an explicit and exclusive adherence to French culture: to be a French citizen and to enjoy equal rights, one did not have to renounce other elements of one's identity. (For a more negative reading of these developments, see Genova, 2004.) The fact that such debates about citizenship, culture and identity still rage in Fifth Republic France in the early twenty-first century is a clear indication of just how radical was Negritude's demand for the acceptance of difference within the framework of the interwar imperial nation-state.5 However, to demand rights within the Republic was also to fail to imagine the possibility of independence. In this and other respects, Negritude might be considered a relatively conservative and apolitical turn in the development of ‘black’ thought in the interwar period. In order to explore the limitations of Senghor's Negritude, it is thus necessary to explore the exclusionary practices at work in ‘official’ narratives of its development.

(p.163) The canonization of Negritude

The foundational moment of Negritude has long been considered to be the publication of the first issue of the journal, L'Étudiant noir (1935), with the more radically titled Légitime Défense (1932) usually attributed the role of ‘precursor’. The key critical text in establishing a retrospective sense of the chronological and aesthetic development of Negritude is Lilyan Kesteloot's Black Writers in French (1963), in which she declares that we will not ‘speak of black writers prior to the Légitime Défense manifesto’ as their works are ‘not sufficiently literary to be included in our study’ (1991: 10). The literature on which her book will focus is the ‘literature of “Negritude”’, which she contrasts with the ‘inauthentic’ work of a century of black Antillean writing. Negritude is thus the expression of an ‘authentic’ communal black identity and not just an act of individual selfexpression: ‘it is not only himself that [the black writer] expresses but all Negro peoples in all parts of the world. He expresses an African soul’ (11). Kesteloot's exclusion of work deemed insufficiently ‘literary’ is a common gesture of the critic seeking to establish the credentials and parameters of a favoured literary school or movement, and, in certain respects, L'Étudiant noir did retrospectively turn out to be something of a landmark publication. It was in this first issue that Senghor and Césaire first appeared in print together and, by the early 1960s, when Kesteloot was writing, they had established themselves as the leading lights of a by then firmly established Negritude. However, in the mid-1930s Césaire and Senghor had yet to become published poets (indeed, Senghor's contribution to L'Étudiant noir was his first publication of any kind). Equally, there is a highly revealing slippage in Kesteloot's terms between her relatively neutral title and the claim in her introduction that her focus is in fact the literature of Negritude, a category into which all black writing post-Senghor and Césaire is expected to fit.6 If Negritude is the expression of an essential blackness shared by all black people, then surely the work of all ‘authentic’ black writers is encompassed within Negritude?

Kesteloot's ‘interventionist’ strategy in deciding what is included or excluded from the body of ‘authentic’ black writing (i.e. from Negritude) clearly builds on Senghor's own view of the literary-cultural sphere. As Richard Watts has convincingly argued, Senghor sought actively to shape the emerging field of black writing in French:

Through his work as literary patron of novels, short stories, and collections of poetry from the late 1940s to the 1960s, Senghor was instrumental in marking out the contours of [the] literary field whose shape has changed since the mid-century but that still significantly bears his mark. (Watts, 2005: 77)

Senghor was remarkably generous with his time, contributing over 30 prefaces, generally to the work of emerging young writers, but he was often patronizing (p.164) towards these works in a manner reminiscent of the colonial préfacier (Watts, 2005: 85). In many respects, he positioned himself as the arbiter of what constituted ‘good’ African writing; but whether good or bad, these works remained lesser or greater expressions of Negritude. (The significance of valorizing African writing in French will be analysed in the next section.)

The emphasis on the importance of a high literary culture in the writings of both Senghor and Kesteloot illustrates the specific cultural milieu from which Negritude emerged.7 However, within the terms of this canonization of Negritude as a fundamental expression of Africanness, we are invited not only to believe that an intellectual elite had forged a vision of Africa that was shared by the masses but that it had ultimately led to independence from the European imperial powers (see Kesteloot, 1968). Critics as diverse as Steins (1976), Midiohouan (1986) and Miller (1998) have all questioned the idea that Negritude constituted a uniquely radical challenge to empire in the 1930s. Indeed, in many ways, Negritude marked a retreat from the fiery and more overtly political challenges of a ‘proletarian’ African community in France in the 1920s, largely constituted of demobilized soldiers who had fought for France in the First World War (Dewitte, 1985). In short-lived newspapers such as Le Paria and La Race nègre, or in Lamine Senghor's polemical anti-colonial novella La Violation d'un pays (1927), there was a sustained challenge to empire, often from a communist perspective, but one that was also informed by the need to develop a positive and collective sense of black identity. Explicitly challenging Kesteloot's position, Miller argues that: ‘In certain of these texts, a lack of literary pretension seems to make possible a more radical critique of France than one can find for many years after; writers who were less elite and less aesthetically sophisticated were less indebted to the French system’ (Miller, 1998: 10). Such interrogations of this earlier period have allowed critics to understand more precisely who the Negritude authors were and what exactly Negritude represented to them. In essence, Negritude might loosely be defined as the cultural ‘revolt’ of a colonized elite against the path that the colonial system had laid out for it. This revolt may at first have limited itself to the cultural sphere but it still caused great concern to the colonial regime. Official colonial reports of the 1920s and 1930s consistently voiced fears that colonial education was in fact producing a body of dissatisfied colonized évolués who, due to their role within the colonial system, may begin to undermine it from within.

At the same time, we must recognize that the literary musings of a colonized elite were by no means the only challenge to empire: it has been a general problem in postcolonial studies that the work of one section of society has been given an unquestioned ‘representative’ status (see Harrison 2003a: 92–111). To look beyond Negritude is, in Miller's terms, ‘simply to contribute to a more inclusive vision of the literary and intellectual history of Francophone Africans’ (1998: 10). Even when Negritude was at its zenith, Senghor's thought was (p.165) not wholly ‘representative’ of Senegalese cultural production, let alone that of Africa. To cite just one example, his compatriot the Marxist novelist and filmmaker Ousmane Sembene was an implacable enemy of Senghor both politically and culturally: in his scathing film Xala (1974) Sembene denounces what he sees as the hypocrisy of Senghor's ‘African socialism’, which veils the reality of neocolonial dependence on France; while in his novel The Last of the Empire (1981, he creates a vicious caricature of Senghor and derides Negritude – by then enshrined as state cultural policy of Senegal – as authénègrafricanitus (see Murphy, 2000). In return, Senghor's view of Sembene is telling:

Nous souhaitons seulement que ses films soient moins superficiels, moins politiques, donc plus nègres, plus culturels – au sens de la profondeur. […] J'aimerais qu'il y eût un cinéma fidèle aux valeurs de la Négritude. (Senghor, 1980: 231)

We only wish that his films were less superficial, less political, and therefore more black, more cultivated – with more depth. […] We only wish there were a cinema that was faithful to the values of Negritude.

Reconciling Negritude and francité: towards a ‘universal civilization’?

Negritude was never conceived of by Senghor as an end in itself, a simple retreat into a self-contained and self-isolated ‘blackness’, which is why we also need to consider the term in relation to the concepts of francité and civilisation de l'universel. In the brief introduction to Liberté 1, Senghor concedes that in its early incarnations in the 1930s, Negritude may well have been the ‘anti-racist racism’ that Sartre identified, but it had gradually transformed itself into a ‘black humanism’, and it is in this context that he invites us to read the essays in the volume (1964: 8). For instance, his infamous maxim that ‘L'émotion est nègre comme la raison héllène’ [Emotion is black just as reason is Hellenic] (1964: 24) – perhaps the best known and least contextualized sentence from his entire oeuvre – is drawn from an essay entitled ‘Ce que l'homme noir apporte’, which is an exploration of ‘what the black man brings’ to a world that has been ruled for centuries by a rational, white Europe. Originally published in 1939, in the period of highly racialized thought that marked the interwar years in Europe, the essay seeks to carve out a space for the black voices that are beginning to demand recognition of their culture and history. As Senghor consistently claimed in later life, ‘La Négritude est un Humanisme’ [Negritude is a Humanism] (1964: 8): Negritude is thus as an attempt to give voice to the previously subjugated black peoples of the world within a truly universal conception of humanity.

As was argued above, Senghor's Negritude constitutes a challenge to an ethnocentric view of Frenchness as the expression of white, metropolitan, French culture. It is in the space opened up by this challenge to an exclusive notion of Frenchness that Senghor inserts the notion of francité as an abstract set of values and a mode of expression that is shared by all French speakers irrespective of (p.166) their origins. For Senghor, the acknowledgement by educated, French-speaking Africans of their ‘authentic’ black nature does not entail a corresponding rejection of their French education. As he explains in an essay first published in 1945, ‘Vues sur l'Afrique noire, ou assimiler, non être assimilés’, educated Africans must maintain their ‘authentic’ African identity while benefiting from their French education: the challenge facing them is ‘to assimilate’ Frenchness and not themselves ‘to be assimilated’ by it (1964: 39–69). It is thus necessary to combine a sense of one's blackness with a sense of one's Frenchness, which he called francité, a term he began to define after the Second World War but whose outline is already present in the pre-war writings. For Senghor, his francité is as much a part of his identity as his blackness: his election to the Académie Française in 1983 – the first African to receive such recognition – has been seen by many commentators as emblematic of his dual identity.

Although Senghor's celebration of francité easily lends itself to caricature – see, for example, his absurd claims regarding the ‘natural superiority’ of French over other languages (1988: 188–94) – and is often cited as evidence of his neocolonial mindset, it would be inaccurate to say that Senghor's writing displays no hostility towards the French colonial enterprise. As was illustrated above, the poems of Chants d'ombre reveal the anger, disillusionment and confusion that he felt towards France in the 1930s. However, even at his angriest Senghor always seeks reconciliation rather than rupture. In perhaps his most complex collection of poems, Hosties noires (1948), he returns incessantly to the figure of the tirailleur sénégalais [colonial infantryman], some of whom he came to know personally during his time as a prisoner of war from 1940–42. In the opening poem, ‘Poème liminaire’ [Preliminary/Liminal Poem], the poet rails against an ungrateful France. The poet claims: ‘Je déchirerai les rire Banania sur tous les murs de France’ [I will tear down those Banania smiles from every wall in France] (see 2006: 55), referring to the iconic, racist imagery of the advertisement for a popular cocoa-based drink featuring a grinning tirailleur. In ‘Tyaroye’, Senghor reacts to current events, namely the massacre of 44 tirailleurs by the colonial army at a demobilization camp on the outskirts of Dakar (the massacre took place on 1 December 1944; Senghor's poem is dated ‘December 1944’). At first, his dismay at this event leads to him ask ‘est-ce vrai que la France n'est plus la France?’ [is it true that France is no longer France?] (2006: 90); however, by the end of the poem, the murder of these tirailleurs has been poetically transformed into a form of martyrdom,

  • Non, vous n'êtes pas morts gratuits. Vous êtes les témoins de l'Afrique immortelle
  • Vous êtes les témoins du monde nouveau qui sera demain. (2006: 91)
  • No, you did not die in vain. You bear witness to immortal Africa
  • You bear witness to the new world that tomorrow will bring.

thereby echoing the image of the ‘black host’ of the collection's title, which is also used to close the poem, ‘Au Gouverneur Éboué’ [To Governor Éboué]:

  • (p.167) L'Afrique s'est faite acier blanc, l'Afrique s'est faite hostie noire
  • Pour que vive l'espoir de l'homme. (2006: 74)
  • Africa has transformed itself into white steel, Africa has transformed itself into a black host.
  • So that the hope of man will live on.

In what many commentators have seen as an expression of his profoundly Catholic vision, Senghor here (and elsewhere in his work) seeks to avoid conflict and to promote reconciliation.

For Senghor, francité is expressed most clearly in the cultural domain, and he defines it as ‘l'ensemble des valeurs de la langue et de la culture, partant de la civilisation française’ [the collected values of the language and culture that emanate from French civilization] (1988: 158). The future of Francophone Africa lies in a Franco-African cultural hybridity of which he and his fellow évolués will serve as a sort of avant-garde. It is this desire to locate and define this emerging culture that marks his prefatory contributions, which have been explored so expertly by Richard Watts (cited above). An example of this approach to culture is given in his introduction to a 1977 anthology of Senegalese literature, in which Senghor praises two early Senegalese authors from the colonial era, David Boilat and Bakary Diallo, as worthy founders of the Franco-Senegalese literary tradition for the manner in which they represent a Franco-African hybridity:

Ce qui caractérise cette littérature sénégalaise, c'est qu'elle participe, à la fois, de la négritude et de la francité: qu'elle est négro-africaine dans les valeurs qu'elle exprime tout en gardant un certain sens de la mesure, où se révèle l'influence française. (1977a: 9)

Senegalese literature is characterized by its expression of both Negritude and francité: it is black-African in terms of the values it expresses but nonetheless it maintains a certain sense of balance, which reveals the French influence.

For Senghor, French colonialism has produced a hybrid Senegalese culture in which the Senegalese share ‘French’ and ‘African’ traits in equal measure, with African ‘passion’ and ‘rhythm’ balanced by French ‘logic’ and ‘clarity’; essentially, for Senghor, only the French language can capture the hybrid consciousness introduced by colonialism. As I have argued elsewhere (Murphy, 2008), this attempt to imagine Senegalese/African hybridity solely in terms of the encounter between a (generically defined) African culture and the culture of the colonizer is to neglect much of the complexity of (post)colonial cultures. Jocelyne Dakhlia's work on the pre-colonial Maghreb is highly instructive in this context. For Dakhlia, it is important to destabilize ‘the far-too-widely accepted understanding that real identitary complexity, with all it brings in the way of existential enrichment and suffering, began only with colonization’ (2002: 241). North African culture prior to European conquest was deeply hybrid and, in fact, it was ‘linguistic colonialism [that] resulted in a binary opposition, opposing an Arabic-speaking Muslim population to an assimilating French-speaking group’ (p.168) (241). Equally, to view Senegalese/black African culture and history in terms of a syncretic mix of (African) tradition and (European/Western) modernity, as certain critics have unquestioningly done, is to deny their full complexity in which Islam, race, ethnicity, class and gender, as well as the legacy of colonialism, all have a part to play (see Diouf, 1989).

The paradoxical vision of the fixed notions of Negritude and francité somehow combining to forge a ‘Universal Civilization’ is one of the most problematic, but also most inspirational and utopian aspects of Senghor's thought:

Je crois également, pour l'avenir, à la Francophonie, plus exactement, à la Francité, mais intégrée dans la Latinité et, par-delà, dans une Civilisation de l'Universel, où la Négritude a déjà commencé de jouer un rôle, primordial. (1988: 25)

I also believe, for the future, in la Francophonie, or to be more precise, in Francité, but it must be integrated into Latinité and, beyond that, into a Universal Civilization, where Negritude has already begun to play a fundamental role.

Senghor's retrospective account of the evolution of his thought in the volumes of the Liberté series and Ce que je crois stresses a movement from the particular of racial identity through the enabling power of the French language and onwards to the global rendezvous of a Universal Civilization, which emerges from a process of métissage in an ever-more globalized world. In a sweeping and highly complex rhetorical gesture, Senghor imagines a rapidly evolving process of global métissage, in which elements of blackness and Frenchness are combined but never lost entirely. It is a question of maintaining diversity within a globalized world, and it is obvious why such notions have been so important to the contemporary institutions of la Francophonie, which have gradually evolved from a defence of the role of ‘Frenchness’ in the world to a defence of all ‘cultural diversity’ in the face of what is perceived as a rampant Anglo-American culture.

Senghor borrows his conception of a Civilisation de l'Universel from the French Jesuit palaeontologist, theologian and mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: this vision posits a common source of humanity as emerging from the first forms of human life in Africa. Senghor was clearly inspired by archaeological discoveries in the second half of the twentieth century that had begun to trace patterns of human evolution in which Africa was seen as the ‘original’ source of global cultural diversity. However, despite recurrent references in his essays to the ‘brassage’ [mixing] of various peoples, it is remarkable that his work never manages to develop a coherent historical narrative of change. Cultural and racial ‘mixing’ may have taken place throughout the history of mankind, but Senghor perceives a deep-seated and immutable foundation to culture. For instance, in Ce que je crois, he takes the reader on a 100-page detour through the prehistory of Africa, stressing the continuities in African cultural expression as a ‘necessary’ prelude to introducing the concept of Negritude. Moreover, there (p.169) is an extremely dangerous biological determinism at work in his vision of the unity of black African culture, which suggests that he never fully freed himself from the legacy of 1930s racialized thought. Senghor's education in the Classics and his linguistic work on the development of African languages gave him an important ‘long view’ on the process of cultural evolution, but this results in a largely static view of cultures as fundamentally unchanging: his visions of Africa and Europe are remarkably monolithic for someone who believed so powerfully in the notion of métissage. This enables him to develop a powerful and empowering image of blackness that rejects the cold rationality of the modernist project; but its images of this blackness are all turned towards the past, with little sense of the very real engagements with Western-dominated modernity taking place throughout Africa.

This chapter has attempted to restore to Senghor's thought some of the complexity that is often absent from its interpretation by both his admirers and his detractors. Senghor's conception of Negritude is not as reductive and essentialist as his critics have made out. However, inviting scholars, particularly those hostile to Senghor's work, to reassess his career should not be seen as an acknowledgement that the criticism of his work in the 1960s and 1970s was in some way the result of its authors' ‘crise de personnalité juvenile’ [adolescent identity crisis], as Henri Lopes has suggested (Brandily, 2002: 36). Returning to the specific colonial context of the 1930s allows us to understand more precisely the forces that shaped Senghor's thought but it is also necessary to recognize the ways in which his ideas have ‘travelled’ (in Said's sense of that term). The richness of Negritude's imaginary and its utopian/Edenic vision of Africa may be deeply problematic, but they also offer the potential for new and productive readings by later generations of black people to emerge. Equally, Senghor's vision of cultural diversity in a globalized world has been a powerful rallying cry for those keen to promote a multi-polar world. At the same time, it is crucial that we remain aware of the origins of his ideas, for there is a very real danger of simply repeating the same mistakes and reaching the same intellectual impasses as Senghor did. His ideas were born within the framework of the colonial encounter with France, and the question of whether his work remains trapped inside, or manages to imagine a way beyond, empire lies at the heart of Francophone postcolonial criticism. Senghor has long enjoyed the ‘officially’ sanctioned status of Francophone intellectual, and his ideas are routinely used to sanction la Francophonie as an idealized framework grouping together the constituent elements of France's former empire. It is now time to resituate Senghor as a key Francophone postcolonial intellectual, whose work demonstrates the ambiguities of the French colonial legacy (Forsdick and Murphy, 2009).8

(p.170) Further reading

Bibliography references:

Miller, Christopher L., 1998. Nationalists and Nomads: Essays on Francophone African Literature and Culture (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press). An important intervention in the history and evolution of Francophone African writing and thought. Building on the pioneering work of Martin Steins, Miller provides in the first chapter of this volume a highly nuanced account of the neglected voices of radical black thought, most notably Lamine Senghor, which pre-dated Negritude.

Senghor, Léopold Sédar, 1988. Ce que je crois (Paris: Grasset). A succinct late account, in Senghor's own words, of his fundamental beliefs, this volume provides a more reader-friendly introduction to concepts such as Negritude, francité and civilisation de l'universel than the encyclopaedic collections of his essays and speeches in the Liberté series.

Vaillant, Janet G., 1990. Black, French and African: A Life of Léopold Sédar Senghor (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press). A largely sympathetic and very thorough account of Senghor's life and work, both as poet and as politician. It is particularly useful in explaining the socio-cultural context from which the writer emerged in colonial Senegal, and also in analysing the precise context in which black, colonized writers came together in 1930s Paris.

Wilder, Gary, 2005. The French Imperial Nation-State: Negritude and Colonial Humanism between the Two World Wars (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press). Perhaps the best example of the recent historical scholarship that has sought to provide a more complex account of the ways in which spaces for criticism of the French colonial project were opened up in the interwar period. A brilliant account of how the thinking of Senghor, Césaire and Damas both borrowed from and went beyond the ideas of reforming colonial administrators.


(1) For instance, there are just three passing references to Senghor in The Empire Writes Back, the text that marked the institutionalization of postcolonial studies within the Anglophone academy (Ashcroft, et al., 1989: 21, 22, 123). Although Senghor's work is included in some of the early postcolonial studies readers (see Williams and Chrisman, 1993), it gradually retreats from view as postcolonial canons and paradigms become more entrenched.

(2) Somewhat ironically, given Soyinka's criticisms of Negritude, his compatriots Chinweizu, Jemie and Madubuike (1980) famously identified with Senghor as the more ‘authentic’ African writer.

(3) A selection of Senghor's poetry has been translated in various volumes: see, in particular, the bilingual edition of his Selected Poems (Senghor, 1976). As these translations are scattered across several different publications, and their quality is sometimes slightly uneven, all translations from his poetry here are mine.

(4) Steins persuasively argues that Negritude was able to build on positive images of Africa that were circulated by a colonial literature that opposed itself to the ‘false’ images of exoticist literature (Steins, 1981).

(5) Edwards (2003) and Thomas (2007) have both shown the complex transnational imaginary of blackness that has been developed in France since the interwar period.

(6) It is interesting to note that the sub-title of Kesteloot's book in its English translation enshrines more clearly the idea that her focus is indeed the writing of ‘Negritude’.

(7) Such elitist notions survive today: see for example Nimrod's depiction of contemporary African authors as ‘écrivailleurs sénégalais’ (which might loosely be translated as ‘scribbling foot soldiers’), compared to Senghor, the literary genius/general (2003: 13).

(8) I would like to thank the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland for its financial support, which allowed me to conduct much of the research for this chapter.