My generation did not really know Leopold Sedar Senghor. He was our president. He was an associate professor of grammar. He even introduced the word “dibiterie” into the French language.
We didn’t really know the poet, let alone the philosopher. I think we heard more about him after his retirement with the advent of President Abdou Diouf as president in the early 1980s. It was only in college that Senghor and negritude were introduced to us.
Who was Senghor? How could a man so admired by one part of the world be so disparaged by the other? There are two dimensions to consider when it comes to the man: the poet-philosopher and the statesman.
The Poet And The Philosopher Senghor
There is not much to add when it comes to the poetry of the former Senegalese president.
The man was unanimous in this field. The world recognizes his genius and his mastery of the French language. He wrote beautifully, if enigmatically. Many institutions have named departments after him.
“Naked woman, black woman. Dressed in your color which is life, in your form which is beauty…”. This is the most common quote that one hears very quickly when talking about Senghor’s poetry. It is in his poetry that his mastery of the French language really shows.
He sometimes wrote very clearly, but not always; his writings even seemed pedantic. The poet himself said in an interview with IKNEWS that “the essential is not in what you write, the essential is in the way you write”.
In any case, the Poet-President has been immortalized in French civilization thanks to his contribution to poetry in the language of the colonizer.
Many contemporary philosophers, Abiola Irele, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, and Cheikh Thiam, among others, have written about the philosophical dimension of Senghorian Negritude. The philosophical flight of Senghorian Negritude is found in the meaning of African art, specifically in our sculpture and in our way of sculpting.
The object (sculpture) is neither a stick nor a rock, it is all of these and more. The object is the whole of our environment. The object is everything; everything that surrounds us. Our awareness of our existence is realized only in the awareness of our particularity our place in this environment and our relationship with it.
Senghor said “I feel therefore I am”, another Western appropriation (in this case, Descartes’ thought) projected onto the black world.
What Senghor fails to emphasize is that African philosophy has never been individualistic. The Black person exists only in an ecosystem. This is the Bantu philosophy and it is also the philosophy found in West Africa.
It is a philosophical position that understands that our existence is to be completed. It is always in the process of becoming. It is dynamic insofar as it seeks itself.
To continue on the Senghorian methodology of projection of the European vision of the black world, I would say simply: you are, therefore I am. I am in existence only because you are too. Unlike the Europeans, the Africans do not see themselves in a different position, separated and cut off from the rest. He sees himself as an insignificant part of an infinitely larger environment.
Stockholm Syndrome Before Stockholm?
Senghor’s detractors often blame him for his infamous position that “emotion is negro, like Hellenic reason. Very clearly, this statement, taken literally, shows Senghor’s acceptance of the superiority of Western civilization.
What can explain this position? It is perhaps necessary to revisit the journey of the young Senghor to understand this.
Senghor came from a comfortable family. He was trained by missionaries and even went to the seminary. He finished his studies at the University of Paris where he obtained his agrégation in grammar.
Because of his background, Senghor became the very prototype of the assimilated Black (for the French) and the evolved Black (for himself).
He would later clarify that his position was never to deny the capacity of the Negro to reason. Any reasonable person understands that all people are endowed with reason, critical thinking, culture, history, etc.
Senghor’s sin, in this unfortunate expression, is in his abdication of the unreasoning and illogical theory of thinkers who claimed to be rational. One must wonder if Senghor himself really saw any value in what he wrote beyond the beauty with which he expressed himself.
During his interview on IKNEWS, the question was asked about why he wanted to remain under the shadow of France. His answer was that he was concerned that his country would not be destroyed if he chose to take up arms to win his country’s independence.
The irony is that he himself was a prisoner of war during the European conflicts of 1939-1945. He had risked his life to liberate German France but refused to do so for his own people.
Senghor pushed his attachment to France to the point of opposing the Algerian war of liberation. If he could explain his unfortunate phrase “emotion is negro, like Hellenic reason”, one must wonder how he would explain that colonization was “a necessary evil”.
Why, after Cheikh Anta Diop’s thesis, did Senghor not hold this as evidence of a black civilization that was not only rich and superior but also anterior and precursor?
We know today that philosophy, medicine, mathematics, geometry, astronomy, writing, and art began in Black Africa.
In fact, Senghor did not even need the scientific analyses of Cheikh Anta Diop to understand “What the Black Man brings”. Because of his mastery of the Greek language, Senghor himself translated Herodotus’ description of the people of “ancient” Egypt.
He tried to see the contribution of Africans in the Western world instead of seeing two different worlds: a Black Africa in all its Negritude facing the West in all its youth. He will speak about his love of Mozart’s music and European music because it resembles African polyphony and plainsong.
After the breakup of the Federation of Mali (a federation between Senegal and Mali), Senghor became the President of the Republic of Senegal.
While the wind of independence was blowing almost everywhere in the European colonies, the AEF (French Equatorial Africa) and the AOF (French West Africa) were to experience independence only on the surface.
Nothing was going to change fundamentally.
Senghor himself said it clearly in his famous speech of 1957 at the French National Assembly.
The Pan-African Senghor
This speech shows that the Poet-President (he was a deputy at the time) understood very well France’s intention to continue its colonization. He alludes to the French policy of “giving with one hand and taking away with the other”.
In a way, this speech already showed the paradox that Senghor would demonstrate during his presidency.
On the one hand, he emphasized that: “The least of the contradictions in which the partisans of division are locked is not the following: they are for centralization in the metropolis and for balkanization in Black Africa.”
On the other hand, Senghor wrote in the national anthem of Senegal: “Get up, brothers here in Africa gathered” showing his pan-African tendencies.
Which Africa was he talking about? AOF and AEF? The whole African continent?
The failure of the OAU because of the Francophone tendencies shows well that the African unity of Senghor stopped at the Francophonie.
However, it must be emphasized that Senghor was open to a Senegambian union. In the 1960s, Senegal and The Gambia commissioned a United Nations report to study the possible plans and benefits of unification between the two countries. The Confederation of Senegambia became a short-lived reality (1982-1989) under Abdou Diouf as President and Dawda Jawara as Vice-President.
The Senghor For France
In his famous speech, he finally concluded “Square France, believe us, we do not want to leave it. We grew up there and it is a good place to live. We simply want, Ministers, but dear colleagues, to build our own huts, which will enlarge and strengthen at the same time the family square, or rather the hexagon France.”
The great advocate of Negritude was beginning to show his true vision: the francité.
To understand the politician, it would help, perhaps, to understand Senghor’s relationship with Félix Éboué.
Félix Éboué was a French colonial administrator. He was the first black Frenchman appointed to a high position in the French colonies when he was appointed governor of Guadeloupe in 1936.
Senghor married Ginette Éboué, daughter of Félix Éboué, in 1946 (they divorced in 1955).
There is no evidence of the influence of Éboué on Senghor.
The question arises, however, whether Senghor was simply not a French governor of the colony of Senegal. Just as Éboué was for Guadeloupe.
After all, it would not be the first time that France used an African to advance its interests.
Blaise Diagne, the first black African elected to the French Chamber of Deputies, and the first to hold a position in the French government, was another.
He arranged for the recruitment of Senegalese Tirailleurs into the French war effort during the 1914-1918 conflicts in Europe. This earned him the rage of many of his contemporaries, notably Lamine Senghor, another great African figure and a prisoner of the 1914-1918 war, who wasn’t going to be kind to Senghor in his book.
Was Senghor simply a pragmatic man who had to manage the first steps of a young nation? A young nation that would need France’s support? At least at the beginning?
When the President handed over power to Abdou Diouf in the early 1980s, it would only be to let his successor continue Senghor’s governance for another two decades.
Many say that his retirement from the presidency was only due to his desire to join the French Academy. It is possible that this was simply a coincidence.
It is worth noting, however, that by joining this academy, Senghor would participate in the strengthening of the most powerful weapon of the neo-colonizer: the French language.
President Diouf will later become the face of the Francophonie. He had previously enlisted French consultants to help him during the presidential election that he would lose to President Abdoulaye Wade in 2000.
What will history remember about Leopold Sedar Senghor? A tender recollection of the Poet-President? The recognition, perhaps, of a philosopher before his time? His own wish was that history would remember him only for his poetry. His other great wish was to be buried in his native country, near his ancestors.
As for the politician and the philosopher, the deliberation is still in progress.
President Senghor was to join our ancestors on December 20, 2001. It is perhaps important to note that in 2004, the writings and archives of the former president were to be donated to the commune of Verson (France). The last act of the man Senghor?
These documents, in my opinion, should be kept in Senegal. Perhaps they will be included in the repatriation of the African heritage plundered by the Europeans.
Like the ancients, Senghor has attained immortality now. He has become an ancestor. History will decide what place he will finally occupy.
With the entry into force of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement, the largest common market in the world, it is clear that Africa’s march towards real continental unity has begun. We will finally -maybe- be able to give back to our liberators the place they deserve.
There are certainly more and more thinkers who offer a new reading of Senghor. The illustrious Wole Soyinka himself will show a more generous reading of the Poet-President.
It is certainly easy to judge the past. It is less easy, however, to grasp the full context of that past. What place will Leopold Sedar Senghor occupy?