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Léopold Sédar Senghor

"Senghor" redirects here. For the Senegalese surname, see Senghor (surname).
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Léopold Sédar Senghor (9 October 1906 – 20 December 2001) was a Senegalese poet, politician, and cultural theorist who for two decades served as the first president of Senegal (1960–1980). Senghor was the first African elected as a member of the Académie française. Before independence, he founded the political party called the Senegalese Democratic Bloc. He is regarded by many as one of the most important African intellectuals of the 20th century.


Senghor's first marriage was to Ginette Eboue.[1] His second wife, Colette Hubert, who was from France, became Senegal's first First Lady upon independence in 1960. Senghor had three sons between his two marriages.[1]

Early years: 1906–28

Léopold Sédar Senghor was born on 9 October 1906 in the city of Joal, some one hundred ten kilometres south of Dakar. Basile Diogoye Senghor (pronounced: Basile Jogoy Senghor), Sedar Senghor's father, was a businessman belonging to the bourgeois Serer tribe.[2][3][4] Gnilane Ndiémé Bakhou (?–1948), Léopold Sédar Senghor's mother, and the third wife of his father, was a Muslim of Fula origin, belonging to the Tabor tribe. She gave birth to six children, including two sons.[2] His Serer middle name Sédar comes from the Serer language meaning "one that shall not be humiliated" or "the one you cannot humiliate".[5][6] His surname Senghor is a combination of the Serer words Sène (a Serer surname and the name of the Supreme Deity in Serer religion called Rog Sene[7]) and gor or ghor, the etymology of which is kor in Serer language meaning male or man. Tukura Badiar Senghor, the prince of Sine and a figure from whom Léopold Sédar Senghor has been reported to trace descent, was a c. 13th-century Serer noble.[8][9]

At the age of eight Senghor began his studies in Senegal in the Ngasobil boarding school of the Fathers of the Holy Spirit. In 1922 he entered a seminary in Dakar. After being told the religious life was not for him, he attended a secular institution. By then, he was already passionate about French literature. He won distinctions in French, Latin, Greek and Algebra. With his Baccalaureate completed, he was awarded a scholarship to continue his studies in France.[10]

"Sixteen years of wandering": 1928–1944

In 1928 Senghor sailed from Senegal for France, beginning in his words, "sixteen years of wandering." [11] Starting his post-secondary studies at the Sorbonne, he quit and went on to Louis-Le-Grand to finish his prep course for entrance to the École Normale Supérieure, a grande école. Paul Cary, Henri Queffélec, Robert Verdier and Georges Pompidou were also studying at this elite institution. After failing the entrance exam, Senghor prepared for his grammar Agrégation. He was granted his agrégation in 1935 after a failed first attempt.[12]

Academic career

He graduated from the University of Paris, where he received the Agrégation in French Grammar. Subsequently, he was designated professor at the universities of Tours and Paris, where he taught during the period 1935–45.[13]

Senghor start his teaching years at the lycée René-Descartes in Tours; he also taught at the lycée Marcelin-Berthelot in Saint-Maur-des-Fosses near Paris.[14] He also studied linguistics taught by Lilias Homburger at the École pratique des hautes études. He studied with prominent social scientists such as Marcel Cohen, Marcel Mauss and Paul Rivet (director of the Institut d'ethnologie de Paris). Senghor, along with other intellectuals of the African diaspora who had come to study in the colonial capital, coined the term and conceived the notion of "négritude", which was a response to the racism still prevalent in France. It turned the racial slur nègre into a positively connoted celebration of African culture and character. The idea of négritude informed not only Senghor's cultural criticism and literary work, but also became a guiding principle for his political thought in his career as a statesman.[15]

Military service

In 1939, Senghor was enrolled as a French army enlisted man (2ème Classe) with the rank of private within the 59th Colonial Infantry division in spite of his higher education and his later acquisition of the French Citizenship in 1932. A year later in 1940, during the German invasion of France, he was taken prisoner by the Germans in la Charité-sur-Loire. He was interned in different camps, and finally at Front Stalag 230, in Poitiers. Front Stalag 230 was reserved for colonial troops captured during the war. German soldiers wanted to execute him and the others the same day they were captured, but they escaped this fate by yelling Vive la France, vive l'Afrique noire! ("Long live France, long live Black Africa!") A French officer told the soldiers that executing the African prisoners would dishonour the Aryan race and the German Army. In total, Senghor spent two years in different prison camps, where he spent most of his time writing poems. In 1942 he was released for medical reasons.[16]

He resumed his teaching career while remaining involved in the resistance during the Nazi occupation.

Political career: 1945–82

Colonial France

Once the war was over, Senghor was selected as Dean of the Linguistics Department with the École Nationale de la France d'Outre-Mer, a position he would hold until Senegal's independence in 1960.[17] While travelling on a research trip for his poetry, he met the local socialist leader, Lamine Guèye, who suggested that Senghor run for election as a member of the Assemblée nationale française. Senghor accepted and became député for the riding of Sénégal-Mauritanie, when colonies were granted the right to be represented by elected individuals. They took different positions when the train conductors on the line Dakar-Niger went on strike. Guèye voted against the strike, arguing the movement would paralyse the colony, while Senghor supported the workers, which gained him great support among Senegalese.[18]

Political changes

In 1947, Senghor left the African Division of the French Section of the Workers International (SFIO), which had given enormous financial support to the social movement. With Mamadou Dia, he founded the Bloc démocratique sénégalais (1948). They won the legislative elections of 1951, and Guèye lost his seat.[19]

Re-elected deputy in 1951 as an independent overseas member, Senghor was appointed state secretary to the Council's president in Edgar Faure's government from 1 March 1955 to 1 February 1956. He became mayor of the city of Thiès, Senegal in November 1956 and then advisory minister in the Michel Debre's government from 23 July 1959 to 19 May 1961. He was also a member of the commission responsible for drafting the Fifth Republic's constitution, general councillor for Senegal, member of the Grand Conseil de l'Afrique Occidentale Francaise and member for the parliamentary assembly of the European Council.

In 1964 Senghor published the first volume of a series of five, titled Liberté. The book contains a variety of speeches, essays and prefaces.[20]


Senghor supported federalism for newly independent African states, a type of "French Commonwealth" while retaining a degree of French involvement:

In Africa, when children have grown up, they leave their parents' hut, and build a hut of their own by its side. Believe me, we don't want to leave the French compound. We have grown up in it, and it is good to be alive in it. We simply want to build our own huts.
—Speech by Senghor, 1957[21]

Since federalism was not favoured by the African countries, he decided to form, along with Modibo Keita, the Mali Federation with former French Sudan (present day Mali). Senghor was president of the Federal Assembly until its failure in 1960.[22]

Afterwards, Senghor became the first President of the Republic of Senegal, elected on 5 September 1960. He is the author of the Senegalese national anthem. The prime minister, Mamadou Dia, was in charge of executing Senegal's long-term development plan, while Senghor was in charge of foreign relations. The two men quickly disagreed. In December 1962, Mamadou Dia was arrested under suspicion of fomenting a coup d'état. He was held in prison for twelve years. Following this, Senghor created a presidential regime.[23]

On 22 March 1967, Senghor survived an assassination attempt.[24] The suspect, Moustapha Lô, pointed his pistol towards the President after he had participated in the sermon of Tabaski, but the gun did not fire. Lô was sentenced to death for treason and executed on 15 June 1967, even though it remained unclear if he had actually wanted to kill Senghor.[25]

Following an announcement at the beginning of December 1980,[26] Senghor resigned his position at the end of the year, before the end of his fifth term. Abdou Diouf replaced him as the head of the country. Under his presidency, Senegal adopted a multi-party system (limited to three: socialist, communist and liberal).[27] He created a performing education system. Despite the end of official colonialism, the value of Senegalese currency continued to be fixed by France, the language of learning remained French, and Senghor ruled the country with French political advisors.


He supported the creation of la Francophonie and was elected vice-president of the High Council of the Francophonie.

In 1982, he was one of the founders of the Association France and developing countries whose objectives were to bring attention to the problems of developing countries, in the wake of the changes affecting the latter.[28]

Académie française: 1983-2001

He was elected a member of the Académie française on 2 June 1983, at the 16th seat where he succeeded Antoine de Lévis Mirepoix. He was the first African to sit at the Académie.[16] The entrance ceremony in his honor took place on 29 March 1984, in presence of French President François Mitterrand. This was considered a further step towards greater openness in the Académie, after the previous election of a woman, Marguerite Yourcenar.

In 1993, the last and fifth book of the Liberté series was published: Liberté 5: le dialogue des cultures.


He spent the last years of his life with his wife in Verson, near the city of Caen in Normandy, where he died on 20 December 2001. His funeral was held on 29 December 2001 in Dakar. Officials attending the ceremony included Raymond Forni, president of the Assemblée nationale and Charles Josselin, state secretary for the minister of foreign affairs, in charge of the Francophonie. Jacques Chirac (who said, upon hearing of Senghor's death: "Poetry has lost one of its masters, Senegal a statesman, Africa a visionary and France a friend"[29]) and Lionel Jospin, respectively president of the French Republic and the prime minister, did not attend. Their failure to attend Senghor's funeral made waves as it was deemed a lack of acknowledgement for what the politician had been in his life. The analogy was made with the Senegalese Tirailleurs who, after having contributed to the liberation of France, had to wait more than forty years to receive an equal pension (in terms of buying power) to their French counterparts. The scholar Érik Orsenna wrote in the newspaper Le Monde an editorial entitled "J'ai honte" (I am ashamed).[30]


Although a socialist, Senghor avoided the Marxist and anti-Western ideology that had become popular in post-colonial Africa, favouring the maintenance of close ties with France and the western world. This is seen by many as a contributing factor to Senegal's political stability: it remains one of the few African nations never to have had a coup, and always to have had a peaceful transfer of power.

Senghor's tenure as president was characterized by the development of African socialism, which was created as an indigenous alternative to Marxism, drawing heavily from the négritude philosophy. In developing this, he was assisted by Ousmane Tanor Dieng. On 31 December 1980, he retired in favour of his prime minister, Abdou Diouf.

Seat number 16 of the Académie was vacant after the Senegalese poet's death. He was ultimately replaced by another former president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.


Senghor received several honours in the course of his life. He was made Grand-Croix of the Légion d'honneur, Grand-Croix of the l'Ordre national du Mérite, commander of arts and letters. He also received academic palms and the Grand-Croix of the l'Ordre du lion du Sénégal. His war exploits earned him the medal of Reconnaissance Franco-alliée 1939–1945 and the combattant cross 1939–1945. He was named honorary doctor of thirty-seven universities.
File:Léopold Sédar Senghor at the University of Salamanca 02.jpg
Léopold Sédar Senghor received a degree honoris causa from the University of Salamanca

Senghor received the Commemorative Medal of the 2500th Anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire on 14 October 1971.[31]

On 13 November 1978, he received the Collar of the Order of Isabella the Catholic of Spain.[32]

The same year, Senghor received a honoris causa from the University of Salamanca.

In 1983 he was awarded the Dr. Leopold Lucas Prize by the University of Tübingen."[33]

The French Language International University in Alexandria was officially open in 1990 and was named after him.

In 1994 he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the African Studies Association; however, there was controversy about whether he met the standard of contributing "a lifetime record of outstanding scholarship in African studies and service to the Africanist community."[34] Michael Mbabuike, president of the New York African Studies Association (NYASA), said that the award also honors those who have worked "to make the world a better place for mankind."[35]

The airport of Dakar was renamed Aéroport International Léopold Sédar Senghor in 1996, on his 90th birthday.[36]

The Passerelle Solférino in Paris was renamed after him in 2006, on the centenary of his birth.


His poetry was widely acclaimed, and in 1978 he was awarded the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca. His poem "A l'appel de la race de Saba", published in 1936, was inspired by the entry of Italian troops in Addis Ababa. In 1948, Senghor compiled and edited a volume of Francophone poetry called Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache for which Jean-Paul Sartre wrote an introduction, entitled "Orphée Noir" (Black Orpheus).

For his epitaph was a poem he had written, namely:

Quand je serai mort, mes amis, couchez-moi sous Joal-l'Ombreuse.
Sur la colline au bord du Mamanguedy, près l'oreille du sanctuaire des Serpents.
Mais entre le Lion couchez-moi et l'aïeule Tening-Ndyae.
Quand je serai mort mes amis, couchez-moi sous Joal-la-Portugaise.
Des pierres du Fort vous ferez ma tombe, et les canons garderont le silence.
Deux lauriers roses-blanc et rose-embaumeront la Signare.
When I'm dead, my friends, place me below Shadowy Joal,
On the hill, by the bank of the Mamanguedy, near the ear of Serpents' Sanctuary.
But place me between the Lion and ancestral Tening-Ndyae.
When I'm dead, my friends, place me beneath Portuguese Joal.
Of stones from the Fort build my tomb, and cannons will keep quiet.
Two oleanders -- white and pink -- will perfume the Signare.


With Aimé Césaire and Léon Damas, Senghor created the concept of Négritude, an important intellectual movement that sought to assert and to valorize what they believed to be distinctive African characteristics, values, and aesthetics. This was a reaction against the too strong dominance of French culture in the colonies, and against the perception that Africa did not have culture developed enough to stand alongside that of Europe. In that respect négritude owes significantly to the pioneering work of Leo Frobenius.

Building upon historical research identifying ancient Egypt with black Africa, Senghor argued that sub-Saharan Africa and Europe are in fact part of the same cultural continuum, reaching from Egypt to classical Greece, through Rome to the European colonial powers of the modern age. Négritude was by no means—as it has in many quarters been perceived—an anti-white racism, but rather emphasized the importance of dialogue and exchange among different cultures (e.g., European, African, Arab, etc.).

A related concept later developed in Mobutu's Zaire is that of authenticité or Authenticity.

Works of Senghor

  • Prière aux masques (c. 1935 - published in collected works during the 1940s).
  • Chants d'ombre (1945)
  • Hosties noires (1948)
  • Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache (1948)
  • La Belle Histoire de Leuk-le-Lièvre (1953)
  • Éthiopiques (1956)
  • Nocturnes (1961). (English tr. by Clive Wake and John O. Reed Nocturnes, London: Heinemann Educational, 1969. African Writers Series 71)
  • Nation et voie africaine du socialisme (1961)
  • Pierre Teilhard de Chardin et la politique africaine (1962)
  • Poèmes (1964).
  • Lettres de d'hivernage (1973)
  • Élégies majeures (1979)
  • La Poésie de l'action: conversation avec Mohamed Aziza (1980)
  • Ce que je crois (1988)

See also

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  1. ^ a b "Léopold Senghor". The Daily Telegraph. 2001-12-21. Retrieved 2012-04-06. 
  2. ^ a b Bibliographie, Dakar, Bureau de documentation de la Présidence de la République, 1982 (2e édition), 158 pp.
  3. ^ Robert O. Collins, African History: Western African History, p. 130.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Universite De La Vallee D'Aoste. LÉOPOLD SÉDAR SENGHOR (1906-2001)
  6. ^ Charles Becker & Waly Coly Faye, "La Nomination Sereer", Ethiopiques, n° 54, revue semestrielle de culture Négro-Africaine Nouvelle série volume 7, 2e semestre 1991.
  7. ^ Thiaw, Issa Laye, "La Religiousite des Sereer, Avant et Pendant Leur Islamisation", Ethiopiques, No. 54, Revue Semestrielle de Culture Négro-Africaine. Nouvelle Série, Vol. 7, 2e Semestre 1991.
  8. ^ R.P. Gravrand, Le Gabou Dans Les Traditions Orales Du Ngabou, Ethiopiques numéro 28 - numéro special, Revue Socialiste de culture Négro-Africaine. Octobre 1981
  9. ^ Sarr, Alioune, Histoire du Sine-Saloum, Introduction, bibliographie et Notes par Charles Becker, BIFAN, Tome 46, Serie B, n° 3-4, 1986–1987.
  10. ^ Bryan Ryan. Major 20th-Century Writers: a selection of sketches from contemporary authors, Volume 4, Gale Research, 1991. ISBN 0-8103-7915-5, ISBN 978-0-8103-7915-2
  11. ^ Jonathan Peters. A Dance of Masks: Senghor, Achebe, Soyinka, Three Continents Press, 1978. ISBN 0-914478-23-0, ISBN 978-0-914478-23-2
  12. ^ Janet G. Vaillant. Black, French, and African: a life of Léopold Sédar Senghor, Harvard University Press, 1990. ISBN 0-674-07623-0, ISBN 978-0-674-07623-5
  13. ^ The World Book Encyclopedia, Vol. 17, World Book, 2000. ISBN 0-7166-0100-1, ISBN 978-0-7166-0100-5
  14. ^ Jacques Girault, Lecherbonnier Bernard, Université Paris-Nord. Center for Comparative Literary Studies and French. Leopold Sedar Senghor: Africanity - universality: 29–30 May 2000, Harmattan, 2002. ISBN 2-7475-2676-3, ISBN 978-2-7475-2676-0
  15. ^ Michelle M. Wright. Becoming Black: creating identity in the African diaspora, Duke University Press, 2004. 0822332884, 9780822332886
  16. ^ a b Jamie Stokes. Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Africa and the Middle East, Vol. 1. Infobase Publishing, 2009. ISBN 0-8160-7158-6, ISBN 978-0-8160-7158-6
  17. ^ Selected Poems of Leopold Sedar Senghor. Published by: CUP Archive
  18. ^ Jacques Louis Hymans. Léopold Sédar Senghor: an intellectual biography, Edinburgh University Press, 1971. 0852241194, 9780852241196
  19. ^ Gwendolen Margaret Carter, Charles F. Gallagher. African One-Party States, Cornell University Press, 1964
  20. ^ Hugues Azèrad, Peter Collier, Twentieth-century French poetry: a critical anthology, Cambridge University Press, 2010. ISBN 0-521-71398-6, ISBN 978-0-521-71398-6
  21. ^ Nugent, Paul (2004). Africa since Independence: A Comparative History. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan. p. 7. ISBN 978-0-333-68273-9. 
  22. ^ Africa Bureau (London, England). Africa digest, Volume 8. Africa Publications Trust, 1960
  23. ^ Christof Heyns. Human Rights Law in Africa 1998, Vol. 3 of Human Rights Law in Africa. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2001. ISBN 90-411-1578-1, ISBN 978-90-411-1578-2
  24. ^ Sheldon Gellar. Senegal: an African nation between Islam and the West, Westview Press, 1995. 0813310202, 9780813310206
  25. ^ Mbow, Abdoulaye (30 April 2011). "Retour sur la tentative d’assassinat de Senghor et le meurtre de Demba Diop en 1967 : Quand la peine de mort était encore une réalité au Sénégal". L'OFFice (in French). Retrieved 28 June 2011. 
  26. ^ "President Leopold Senghor to Retire". Liberian Inaugural 1980-12-03: 8.
  27. ^ Stephan Haggard, Steven Benjamin Webb, World Bank. Voting for reform: democracy, political liberalization, and economic adjustment. World Bank Publications, 1994. ISBN 0-19-520987-7, ISBN 978-0-19-520987-7
  28. ^ Hakim Adi, Marika Sherwood, Pan-African History: Political Figures from Africa and the Diaspora Since 1787, Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0-203-41780-1, ISBN 978-0-203-41780-5
  29. ^ "Africa mourns Senegal's Senghor". BBC News. 2001-12-22. Retrieved 2008-08-13. 
  30. ^ "J'ai honte"
  31. ^ Badraie
  32. ^ Boletín Oficial del Estado
  33. ^ Peter L. Berger, Dialog zwischen religiosen Traditionen in einem Zeitalter der Relativitat, Mohr-Siebeck, 2011. ISBN 978-3-16-150792-2
  34. ^ "Distinguished Africanist Award 2009" African Studies Association
  35. ^ Bensaid, Alexandra and Whitehead, Andrew (1995) "Literature: Award to Senghor Triggers Debate" IPS-Inter Press Service, 18 April 1995, accessed via the commercial service Lexis/Nexis, 30 December 2008.
  36. ^ Invalid language code. Aéroport International Léopold Sédar Senghor, official website

Further reading

  • Armand Guibert & Seghers Nimrod (2006), Léopold Sédar Senghor, Paris (1961 edition by Armand Guibert).
  • Sources from this article were taken from the equivalent French article fr:Léopold Sédar Senghor.

External links

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