Leopold Sedar Senghor (1906-2001) – Who will teach rhythm to the world laid low?


René Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed the year 2010 as the International Year for the Rapprochement of Cultures. Thus we are pleased to present the creative efforts of individuals who have helped to create bridges of understanding among cultures.


Who will teach rhythm to the world laid low by machines and cannons,

Who will shout with joy to wake up the dead and the orphans at the dawn?

Say, who will give back the memory of life to the man with eviscerated hopes?…

We are the men of the dance, whose feet regain force by drumming on the heard earth.

Senghor “Prayer to the Masks”

Leopold Sedar Senghor was a poet, a cultural bridge-builder between Africa and Europe and the first President of independent Senegal.  His efforts at the rapprochement of cultures and their mutual enrichment are very much in the spirit of this International Year for the Rapprochement of Cultures. At a time when the dialogue among civilizations as well as a possible clash among civilizations is on the world political agenda, it is helpful to look at the lasting contribution of Senghor as a cultural thinker.

While his intellectual convictions were rather constant, his intellectual life falls into four rather separate segments:

1930s: His studies in France against the social background of unrest linked to the Depredssion.

1940s: The War years and the social and economic reconstruction in France.

1950s: Participation in French politics and the lead up to the independence of Senegal

1960-1980: The years as President of Senegal

He was born in 1906 in the small village of Joal, on the Senegalese coast, about 75 miles south of the capital Dakar.  His parents were relatively well-to-do farmers, both of the Serer ethnic group.  Family tradition held that the father came from what had been a royal family, but the Serer had lost most of their power to other ethnic groups, and there were no powerful chiefs left.  Both of Senghor’s parents were Roman Catholics, and his father in particular saw education as the chief road to advancement.  Thus at seven years old, Senghor was put in a Catholic boarding school and later in the Lycee at Dakar.  He developed nostalgia for his childhood and the innocence of village life which he expressed in his poems but little knew in reality.  He was a good student and was chosen to continue university education in Paris in 1928.  The French colonial administration, unlike that of England, did not create universities in Africa until very late.  The first, the University of Dakar, began in 1957: the second, the University of Abidjan, in 1963.

Senghor went to the leading French university, the Sorbonne, and graduated in 1934, having majored in French language and literature.  Paris in the 1930s was a center for literary and political thought.  The world-wide economic depression had hit France in the early 1930s, leading to strong social and political movements.  February 1934 saw a far-Right effort to bring down the government with a march on the Parliament, and May 1936 saw the first Left government, the Popular Front of Socialists and Communists.  Students and others were active in considering alternative structures for a new society.

Senghor was influenced by the Catholic “spiritualists “ — writers who were Roman Catholics but not very “orthodox”.  The poet and social critic Charles Peguy who had been killed during the First World War was a strong influence on many Catholic youth, and there are echoes of Peguy in Senghor’s poems.  Peguy was an unorthodox socialist who thought that the French peasants and not the industrial workers were the revolutionary force of the 20th century.  Senghor, with more reason for Senegal, also saw the rural population as the core social base.  As Senghor wrote, “I have chosen my toiling black people, my peasant people, the peasant race throughout the world.”  Senghor proposed that the communal identity of traditional African society which he saw as classless and non-exploitive could serve as the base for a new society — ideas that he later developed when President of Senegal as ‘the road to African Socialism’.

Senghor was part of the student milieu around the journal Esprit edited by Emmanuel Mounier which was trying to find a path other than capitalism, communism or fascism — a path called “personalism”. Esprit was also a home for people influenced by the French “utopian-socialist” and federalist Proudhon.  Senghor was always strongly federalist in his approach to the structure of the state and later was an active participant in the world federalist movement. Jacques Maritain and his wife were also active among intellectual Catholic youth of Paris.  Maritain was an adult convert from Protestantism to Catholicism and a powerful voice in defense of democracy in a broader Catholic milieu largely anti-democratic with a strong pro-Royalist far-Right current.

Paris in the 1930s was also home to African students from countries other than Senegal so that a Pan-African spirit developed. In the 1930s, in a France where all the political parties, Right and Left, supported the colonial system as part of the “civilizing mission” opf France, the idea that African culture had anything to contribute to European political and economic thought was met with scepticism.  Therefore Senghor and his friends put their emphasis on the idea that African civilization was equal to that of Europe and could make contributions as an equal.  Stressing equality was also a way of denying legitimacy to the prevailing ideological charters of colonialism. As there were also students from the French-speaking West Indies and Haiti and Guyana, a “Pan-Black” movement grew< up for which Senghor coined the term Negritude. Negritude, Senghor wrote is “the sum total of the cultural values of the black world.”  Aime Cesaire and Leon Damas, along with Senghor were the intellectual leaders of the movement and founded a journal L’Etudiant Noir (The Black Student). Into this group came American Black writers who were living in Paris such as Countree Cullen and Langston Hughes.  There were mutual intellectual exchanges related to the Americans discovering Africa and the Africans discovering Black literary efforts in the USA.

Public debate on the ways to transform the economic and political structure of France was weakened by the start of the Second World War and the German occupation of France, although discussions in smaller circles continued both around the “National Revolution” of the Vichy government of Marechal Petain and in the different resistance movements.  Senghor spent 1940-1942 in a German prisoner-of-war camp where group discussions were prohibited.  Thus Senghor concentrated in the camp on writing poetry which he started publishing in 1945 as France came out of the war.

In 1945 when France was restructuring itself after the war, everything seemed possible.  There was a widely felt need to transform the society.  The old society had led to war and defeat. A new society was needed, more just, more peaceful and with new political faces. Senghor was chosen to represent Senegal in the Constituent Assembly that was to write a new constitution for France. As the colonial administration in Senegal during the war had been pro-Vichy and the older Senegalese political leaders had been compromised by association with the colonial government, new representatives from Senegal needed to be chosen quickly.  Senghor was already living in Paris and had been a member of the anti-Nazi resistance.  Although he had been living in France since 1928 and had spent only a few summer vacations in Senegal, he became a forceful voice for Africa in French politics and started to think of a political future rather than a literary one.

The French political system had developed so that the colonies had representatives in the French Parliament.  A good number of the first leaders of the independent African states had been members of the French Parliament where they had played important roles in French politics.  Since the African representatives had no political base in France, they could be chosen as ministers as relatively neutral figures in the often-changing French governments of the Fourth Republic (1945-1959). Senghor was elected to the French Parliament from Senegal in 1951 and served as minister in 1955 in the government of Edgar Faure, one of the most intellectual of the French political leaders who appreciated Senghor as a “fellow intellectual”.

The French withdrawal from Indochina in 1954 and the start of the war for independence in Algeria in November of the same year highlighted that the colonial system was coming to an end. Senghor came to see that his future was not in politics in France as “the voice of Africa” in French politics but in Africa itself.  Thus he started building a political base in Africa. He hoped that a federal structure could keep the French West African states together — the start of a “United States of Africa”.  However, the richer states, in particular the Ivory Coast, were not prepared to pay for the poorer states, and in 1960, each colony became an independent state, although the colonies did not correspond to the pre-colonial West African societies.

Senghor had contributed to the restoration and reform of French society. In 1960, he would have to answer “Present” to his greatest challenge as President of now independent Senegal. Senghor faced two major challenges. As President he was chief of a large administration, and he had never been an administrator.  Some French colonial civil servants stayed on, but the politically sensitive posts had to be held by Senegalese. Senghor had stressed in political debates in France that the African farmers were a “revolutionary force” and the building bloc of a new society. Now he confronted a Senegalese reality where the most productive agriculture (peanut production largely for export) was in the hands of conservative Islamic religious orders called the Mouride who ran a system of work in exchange for salvation, little short of serfdom.

The second major challenge was in developing a common ideology that would mobilize the efforts of the ethnically-divided Senegalese population. Negritude as an ideology had been largely addressed to Europeans in order to stress the worth and dignity of Africans.  Now Senghor had to address Africans, and it could not be in the same terms. Moreover , many Senegalese had thought that with the end of colonialism wealth which had been going to France would now stay in Africa.  However, Senegal had always been a poor country with few resources for export other than peanut oil and some cotton.  Wealth was not going to come automatically.  The classless and non-exploitive African society of Senghor’s Negritude was in reality one of deep divisions on ethnic and urban/rural lines, and exploitation of the weaker was not a European monopoly.

True to his convictions, Senghor stressed the creation of cooperatives and credit unions in the rural areas and developed village-level training programs based on local leadership.  He asked Louis-Joseph Lebret, a French Dominican monk to carry out the studies which led to Senegal’s first five-year development plan. Lebret was one of the Catholic intellectuals that Senghor had known in France and who had been the leader of humanist economic planning first in France and after the Second World War in Brazil, Lebanon, South Vietnam as well as in Senegal. A book by Lebret Mystique d’un Monde Nouveau (The Spirit of a New World published in 1940) had stressed the idea of “the common good” or “the common welfare” and had had a deep impact on Catholics in the resistance movements and in the MRP — the liberal Catholic Party created at the end of the war.

Although Negritude remained the ideology with which Senghor is most associated and which he continued to uphold in organizing Pan-African conferences of artists and thinkers, after 1955 he focused his thinking on the “civilization of the Universal” and the application in Africa of the philosophy of the French Jesuit palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  Senghor was introduced to the thought of Teilhard de Chardin in the mid-1950s by Theodore Monod, the director of IFAN located in Dakar, the leading West African research institute in both the natural and the social sciences.  Monod was a biologist with wide interests. He was a Protestant, his father and uncles having been leading liberal Protestant clergy.  Monod had already quoted Teilhard  in an article in Presence Africaine in 1950.  In the early 1950s, Teilhard de Chardin was living in New York City, more-or-less in Church-imposed exile. He had spent most of his working life in China doing research on the remains of pre-historic man — best remembered for his work on “Pekin Man”. Teilhard’s view of a Cosmic Christ, of a new evolutionary stage on human consciousness, of the earth as a single organism brought fear to the dogmatists of his day.  The Jesuit Order prohibited him from publishing or teaching. Since he spoke little English, the Jesuit authorities felt he would be harmless in New York, and Teilhard lived there in relative obscurity until his death.  Direct obedience to the Pope and discipline are characteristics of the Jesuit order, and he accepted the ban on publishing his writings.

However, his unpublished manuscripts circulated in a relatively small circle, especially among Protestant such as Theodore Monod who had no interest in reporting Teilhard to Catholic Church authorities. Copies of all Teilhard de Chardin’s manuscripts were given to a Dutch Protestant who had been the Netherlands Ambassador to China during World War II. Teilhard believed that obedience ended with death. Thus after his death on Easter Sunday 1955, his manuscripts started to be published in France. Teilhard was unable to explain or defend his writings, but his influence has grown steadily.

In Teilhard de Chardin, Senghor found a way to develop a synthesis of the Christian concept of God who is both the source and the aim of life with the African concept of a universal vital force in all creation.  This vital force is the base for the essential oneness of all life, life coming from a common source, evolving through a multitude of different shapes and forms but called upon to become aware of its oneness through a planetary consciousness.

Teilhard de Chardin also provided a framework for a way to understand the contribution of African society and culture to world civilization. “All that rises, converges” is a key concept in Theilhard’s thought. Senghor has been described as the poet and theorist of synthesis against apartness. It is not clear what Senghor’s philosophical approach has had on current Senegalese political thinking, however, the seeds have been sown. For the majority of the Senegalese, Senghor was the man who knew when to step aside — one of the few West African leaders not to have been overthrown by a military coup. In 1980, after 20 years of presidency, Senghor left a multi-party democracy in place with Senegal playing an important role in African and UN efforts. Other Senegalese leaders now face the challenges of development and the search for common welfare.


For a good selection of Senghor’s writings translated into English see: John Reed and Clive Wake (Eds.) Senghor: Prose and Poetry (London: Oxford University Press, 1965).

For Senghor’s political thinking on the eve of becoming President of Senegal see Nationhood and the African Road to Socialism (Paris, Presence Africaine, 1962).

For his appreciation and application of the thought of Teilhard de Chardin, see L.S.Senghor Pierre Teilhard de Chardin et la Politique Africiane (Paris : Le Seuil, 1962).


Rene Wadlow:

Representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizens.

Member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 19 Jul 2010.

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