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Léopold Sédar Senghor (9 October 1906 20 December 2001) was a Senegalesemarker poet, politician, and cultural theorist who served as the first president of Senegalmarker (1960–1980). Senghor was the first African to sit as a member of the Académie française. He was also the founder of 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.

Early life: 1906-1928

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Léopold Sédar Senghor was born on 9 October 1906 in the small coastal city of Joalmarker, some one hundred kilometres south of Dakarmarker. Basile Diogoye Senghor, Léopold's father, was a businessman belonging to the bourgeois tribe Serer, a minority group in Senegal. Gnilane Ndiémé Bakhou, Léopold's mother, and the third wife of his father, was Muslim of Peul origin belonging to the Tabor tribe. She gave birth to six children, including two sons. Senghor had also inherited from the Serers, apart his first name, his two last names: his father's name, Senghor (derived from the Portuguese for Lord, Senhor ) and the Serere's name Sedar (meaning "One that shall not be humiliated").

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. When he was told the religious life was not for him, he attended a secular institution. By then, he was already passionate about French literature. He distinguished himself in French, Latin, Greek and Algebra. With his Baccalaureate completed, he was awarded a scholarship to continue his studies in France.

"Sixteen years of wandering": 1928-1944

In 1928 Senghor sailed from Senegal for France, beginning in his words, "sixteen years of wandering." Starting his post-secondary studies at the Sorbonne, he quickly quit and went on to Louis-Le-Grandmarker to finish his prep course for entrance at the École Normale Supérieuremarker. He was there while Paul Guth, Henri Queffélec, Robert Verdier and Georges Pompidou were also studying at this establishment. After failing the entrance exam, he decided to prepare for his grammar Aggregation. He was granted his aggregation in 1935 after a failed first attempt.

He graduated from the University of Parismarker, where he received the Agrégation in French Grammar. Subsequently, he was designated professor at the Universities of Tours and Paris, during the period 1935-1945.

Senghor started his teaching years at the Lycée René-Descartes in Toursmarker and taught with the Lycée Marcelin Berthelot in Saint-Maur-des-Fosses near Paris. Besides his teaching career, Senghor attended linguistics classes taught by Lilias Homburger at the Ecole pratique des hautes etudes, and studied also with prominent social scientists such as Marcel Cohen, Marcel Mauss and Paul Rivet (director of the Institut d'ethnologie de Paris). It was at this time that 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 in effect a response to the racism still prevalent in France, turning the racial slur "nègre" into a positively connoted celebration of African culture and character. The idea of négritude would inform 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.

In 1939, Senghor was enrolled as a French army officer within the 59th Colonial Infantry division. A year later he was made prisoner by the Germans in la Charité-sur-Loiremarker. He was interned in different camps but finally interned in Front Stalag 230, in Poitiersmarker. This later camp was reserved for colonial troops captured during the war. German soldiers wanted to execute him and the other black POWs the same day they were captured, but they escaped this fate by yelling "Vive la France, vive l'Afrique noire!" The soldiers decided against executing them after being told by a French officer that this entirely racist act 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. He resumed his teaching career while staying involved in the resistance with the Front national universitaire.

Political career: 1945-1982

Colonial France

Once the war was over, he took over the position of 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. While travelling on a research trip for his poetry, the local socialist leader, Lamine Guèye, suggested he become 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. One occasion when Senghor showed his difference from Lamine Guèye, was when the train conductors on the line Dakar-Niger went on strike. The latter voted against the strike arguing the movement would paralyse the colony, while Senghor supported the workers, gaining him great support among Senegalese.

In 1946, Senghor married Félix Éboué's daughter, with whom he had two sons: Francis (1947-) and Guy (1948-1983).

The following year he left the African Division of the French Section of the Workers International (SFIO) that had given enormous financial support to the social movement. With Mamadou Dia, Senghor founded the Bloc démocratique sénégalais (1948). They won the legislative elections of 1951, and Lamine Guèye lost his seat.

Re-elected deputy in 1951 as an independent overseas member, he was 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 Thièsmarker, 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.

Meanwhile, he divorced his first wife and in 1957 married Colette Hubert, a French national from Normandy with whom he had a son, Philippe Maguilien (-1981). In 1964 he published the first volume of a series of five titled Liberté. The book contains a variety of speeches, allocutions, essays and prefaces.


Senghor was a supporter of federalism for newly independent African states, a type of "French Commonwealth". 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 Malimarker). Senghor was president of the Federal Assembly until its failure in 1960. 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 and suspected of fomenting a coup. He remained in jail for twelve years. Following this, Senghor created a presidential regime. On 22 March 1967, Senghor escaped an attempt on his life. The suspect, Moustapha Lô, was sentenced to death for treason and executed in June 1967.

He resigned his position before the end of his fifth term in December 1980. Abdou Diouf replaced him at the head of the country. Under his presidency, Senegal adopted a multi-party system (limited to three: socialist, communist and liberal) as well as 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.

Académie française: 1983-2001

He was elected a member of l'Académie française on 2 June 1983, at the 16th seat where he succeeded the Duke of Levis-Mirepoix. He was the first African to sit at the Academie. The entrance ceremony in his honor took place on 29 March 1984, in presence of then French President François Mitterrand. This was considered as 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.

"Je ne suis pas sûr de mourir. Et si c'était ça l'enfer?" ("I'm not sure that I will die. Maybe this is hell?") said Senghor, post-retirement, in 1996.


He spent the last years of his life with his wife in Versonmarker, near the city of Caenmarker Normandy, where he died on 20 December 2001. His funeral was held on 29 December 2001 in Dakarmarker. 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") 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 Erik Orsenna wrote in the newspaper Le Monde an editorial titled: "J'ai honte" (I am ashamed).


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 to have always 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.

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

In 1994 he was awarded the Distinguished Africanist 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." 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."

The airport of Dakarmarker was renamed Aéroport International Léopold Sédar Senghormarker in 1996, on his 90th birthday.

The Passerelle Solférinomarker in Parismarker 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 Abeba.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, titled "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 laurier roses -- 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. 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 Zairemarker is that of authenticité or Authenticity.

Works of Senghor

  • Prière aux masques (Circa 1935 - Published in collected works during the 1940s).
  • Chants d'ombre (1945)
  • Hosties noires (1948)
  • Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache (1948)
  • Éthiopiques (1956)
  • Nocturnes (1961)
  • Nation et voie africaine du socialisme (1961)
  • Pierre Teilhard de Chardin et la politique africaine (1962)
  • 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


  1. Christian Roche (2006), Léopold Sédar Senghor, le président humaniste, Toulouse, Editions Privat. Preface by Abdou Diouf.
  2. Léopold Sédar Senghor: le poème d'une vie at the site of the French National Assembly.
  3. Senghor himself stated (in La poésie de l'action : conversation avec Mohamed Aziza, 1980) that "Les Senghor se trouvent surtout en Casamance, à la frontière de l’ancienne Guinée portugaise, cédée par échange à la France. Senghor vient du portugais Senhor, et c’est probablement pourquoi il y a un “h”. Cela signifierait donc “Monsieur”. J’ai probablement une goutte de sang portugais, car je suis du groupe sanguin “A”, qui est fréquent en Europe, mais rare en Afrique noire." This finds echo in his poem Elégie des Saudades (Elegy to the Saudades): "J'écoute au fond de moi le chant à voix d’ombre des saudades. / Est-ce la voix ancienne, la goutte de sang portugais qui / remonte du fond des âges ? / Mon nom qui remonte à sa source ? / Goutte de sang ou bien Senhor, le sobriquet qu’un capitaine / donna autrefois à un brave laptot ? / J’ai retrouvé mon sang, j’ai découvert mon nom l’autre / année à Coïmbre, sous la brousse des livres."
  4. "J'ai honte"
  5. "Distinguished Africanist Award 2009" African Studies Association
  6. 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
  7. Aéroport International Léopold Sédar Senghor, official website
  • 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 (in French)

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