An African who became a famous French poet, teacher, and politician, and was then the founding president of his native Senegal, which he ruled peacefully for twenty years. In all his roles he was a champion for négritude, the equality of black and African culture with that of Europe.
Léopold Sédar Senghor was born in the fishing village of Joal in Senegal on 9 October 1906, to a Serer father and a Fulani mother. Educated at the Sorbonne, he became a schoolteacher and in 1944 a professor at the University of Paris. He fought during the Second World War and was captured by the Germans.
As a poet he is regarded, together with Aimé Césaire of Martinique, as the founder of the négritude movement, which regarded African civilization as the equal of European, though not the superior as some later thinkers claimed. His work was greatly admired by Sartre, and he is now considered the greatest of modern African poets.
As a politician he entered the French National Assembly in 1945, and served as a government minister in 1955-6 and in 1958. In that year the constituent colonies of French West Africa became autonomous republics, and he became a leader in African politics. He supported continued union of the territories, and continued association within France as part of the French Community. In this he had some success when his own country of Senegal in April 1959 united with the neighbouring Sudanese Republic* as the Mali Federation. But in 1960 the French Community broke up and the members became fully independent, the Mali Federation in June 1960. The union was short lived; and on 20 August 1960 Senegal became independent with Senghor as president.
His moderate socialist Bloc Démocratique Sénégalais dominated Senegalese politics throughout his rule, though opposition was allowed as in few other African countries. He was a reformer, and a voice for Africa on the world stage. Senegal was comparatively free of internal troubles. He retired on 31 December 1980, succeeded by his vice-president Abdou Diouf. (Diouf also ruled for twenty years, but in 2000 was defeated by an opposition candidate and handed over power: another legacy of Senghor's peaceful foundations.)
Senghor continued his cultural work in retirement, being elected a member of the Académie Française in 1984. He lived in a village in Normandy, where he died on 20 December 2001.
Femme nue, femme noire
Vétue de ta couleur qui est vie, de ta forme qui est beauté
J'ai grandi à ton ombre; la douceur de tes mains bandait mes yeux
Et voilà qu'au coeur de l'Eté et de Midi,
Je te découvre, Terre promise, du haut d'un haut col calciné
Et ta beauté me foudroie en plein coeur, comme l'éclair d'un aigle
Naked woman, black woman
Clothed in your colour which is life, and your form which is beauty
I grew into your shadow; the sweetness of your hands bandaged my eyes
And there you are in the heart of Summer and Midday,
I discover you, Promised Land, from the top of a scorched high pass**
And your beauty strikes me in plain heart, like an eagle's lightning
Senegal - Abdou Diouf >
* The country formerly the French Sudan, now Mali - not the country now known as Sudan.
** Thanks to Albert Herring for the C! and the translation of this line.