Black History / Leopold Senghor
For Black History Month, I thought we''d examine the life of
Leopold Senghor, the first president of Senegal, who passed
away last December at the age of 95. Frankly, it is easy to get
frustrated when one examines present-day Africa and its total
lack of leadership and progress. Senghor''s life at least offers
Born in Senegal in 1906, the son of a well-to-do farmer,
Leopold, a Roman Catholic, was all set to become a priest when
he was forced to leave the seminary after participating in a
protest against racism. But in 1928 he gained admittance to
school in France (France being the colonial ruler of Senegal).
Senghor quickly gained a reputation as quite the scholar and
poet, and in the 1930s he helped establish a movement known as
"Negritude," which sought to affirm pride in one''s African
heritage. In the words of Albin Krebs, Negritude held that
"African culture gained strength from its closeness to nature and
its people''s ancestors, while Western culture was out of step with
the world''s ancient and natural rhythms." It''s not quite as
radical as it may sound.
Senghor took French citizenship and joined the French Army
during World War II, whereupon he was captured by the
Germans (he wasn''t alone in this regard) and spent 18 months in
a POW camp.
After the war, Senghor was elected to the French National
Assembly as one of two representatives from Senegal. Later he
became involved in the independence movement and in 1960,
months after the Mali federation (which contained Senegal)
collapsed, Senghor became the first elected president of
independent Senegal. Upon taking office he pledged to govern
honestly and with justice, but added: "A country cannot be
governed without prison walls."
Senghor proceeded to rule for 20 years and has been called by
some diplomats one of the century''s most remarkable men.
While he abandoned multi-party democracy early in his reign
and was essentially reelected time and again with a rubber stamp,
Senegal was a stable, pro-Western nation under his rule. Even
more remarkable, Senghor was able to achieve peace in a nation
that is 90% Muslim, while he was Catholic.
Leopold was far more than just a politician, he was also a
renowned poet and statesman. He denounced African leaders
whom he viewed as arrogant and while he favored the Negritude
movement with its emphasis on African values, Senghor also
refused to reject the European culture brought to the continent by
the colonial powers.
Ironically, during his 20-year rule American leaders often
brushed him off, preferring to concentrate on his neighboring
dictators, but he never seemed to be too offended. "I wear
European clothing and the Americans dance to jazz which
derives from our African rhythms: civilization in the 20th century
is universal. No people can get along without others."
Senghor''s poetry wasn''t without its edge, however. In one of his
earliest works, "Totem," he wrote:
"I must hide in the intimate depths of my veins
The Ancestor storm-dark skinned, shot with lightning and
And my guardian animal, I must hide him
Lest I smash through the boom of scandal.
He is my faithful blood and demands fidelity
Protecting my naked pride against
Myself and all the insolence of lucky races."
In another, he wrote of the "white" world:
"I will not emerge, oh Lord, from my reserve of hatred,
For these diplomats who show their canine teeth and who
tomorrow will trade black flesh.
Yet my heart melts like snow on the roofs of Paris in your gentle
It is sweet to my enemies, to my brothers whose hands are white
But at the United Nations in 1961 he noted the hypocrisy of
some in Africa who were newly independent.
"We have denounced the imperialism of the great powers only to
secret a miniature imperialism toward our neighbors. We have
demanded disarmament from the great powers only to transform
our countries into arsenals. We proclaim our neutralism, but we
do not always base it upon a policy of neutrality."
Senghor adopted a form of African socialism, where the state
played a major role in the economy in combination with the local
elite. But on this front little real progress was made over the
years and it was under economic pressure that he was forced to
resign in 1980, though in doing so he became the first African
leader to leave office voluntarily rather than falling prey to a
coup or clinging to power for life.
So we honor Leopold Senghor; poet, statesman, scholar, a man
who attempted to make a positive difference and, to a great
extent, did. Africa could use more like him today.
"Africana," Kwame Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Richard Moose and Frances Cook / Washington Post
Albin Krebs / New York Times
*Due to travel, Hott Spotts will not return until February 28. I''m
heading to Taiwan so you can expect a story on this country
upon my return.