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Research in African Literatures 33.4 (2002) 17-24

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Homage to Léopold Sédar Senghor: 1906-2001

Janet G. Vaillant

Léopold Sédar Senghor was a "great baobab." The image of Senghor as baobab tree was suggested by Abdourahman Waberi (qtd. in Thorin 63). It recognizes Senghor's ability to survive as a distinct personality through seasons of flowering and drought, success and failure, while continuing to draw from his African roots. He dominated the ground on which he stood. The image also calls up a story told at his birth. At that moment, according to family legend, a great baobab cracked open and fell to the ground, freeing its spirit to seek out and take residence in the young child. This child grew into a towering presence that cast a broad shadow over the events of his time. Since Senghor's retirement from public life and now his recent death, that shadow has changed shape and withdrawn to make way for others. Parts of his legacy seem to grow in significance, while others shrink and threaten to fade altogether. I have chosen to focus on three aspects of that legacy here: his ideas that were so radical for his time, his poetry that won him a wide audience, and his statesmanship that created a positive political environment for those who succeeded him. All of them are the work of one extraordinary personality whose greatest gift of all was his ability to keep perspective on himself and his work.

It is essential to recall the historical setting in which Senghor acted. Unless it is taken into consideration, the impact of his ideas and activities on the history of his time cannot be fully appreciated. His radical and original ideas were Senghor's first great contribution. He was cautious by nature and training, but bold nonetheless, conscious of the public implications of everything he said and wrote, and eager for influence. Today it is almost impossible to fathom how radical and controversial his ideas were when first expressed in the late 1930s. Thereafter his poetry earned him recognition as a spokesman by many Africans and as the interpreter of francophone African aspirations by the French. Today Senghor's poetry endures as the record of an individual sensibility at a particular moment in history, but it also transcends that particularity to take its place among important voices in world literature. This remarkable man also became one of the great statesmen of his era, shaping the political culture of Senegal in ways that endure to this day. Throughout his life he was universally recognized as a person without spite or hatred; he was skilled at making compromises, able to forgive and win to his side almost all those who had at one time opposed him. The glaring and tragic exception was his decision to arrest and jail his capable political partner Mamadou Dia in 1962, after what appeared then to be an attempted coup d'état.

When Senghor was a thirty-one-year-old professor, he returned from France fresh from academic triumph to give a public speech in Dakar. The boy from the countryside had studied hard and successfully to win the [End Page 17] highest degree in French academic life. He held a post teaching Latin and Greek to French children at a lycée in Tours. The year was 1937. French culture ruled supreme; the power of its colonial administration in West Africa appeared strong; its assimilation policy in full force. The intellectual foundation of this colonization was the proposition that Africans had no culture of their own and that they should work as hard as possible to acquire French culture and civilization. Then, and only then, they would be accepted as the equals of the citizens of metropolitan France. The urban elites of St. Louis and Dakar prided themselves on their French education and sophistication. They joined French representatives of the colonial administration and business community to listen to what this impressive young man had to say.

The radical and unexpected content of Senghor's address shocked...


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