A Life of Leopold Sedar Senghor

By Janet G. Vaillant

Harvard University Press. 388 pp. $29.95

ON THE EVE of the First World War a prosperous Senegalese peanut trader sent for the lively fifth son of his fourth wife, and put an end to the youngster's pastoral idyll with his mother's family in the bush. Diogoye Senghor placed the 7-year-old Sedar in a boarding school with the missionary fathers at Ngazobil, on the southern coast. Intending simply to prepare this son to join others in the family business, the elder Senghor set in motion an unlikely chain of events.

The child took to his new life with enthusiasm, and soon stood first in his class, acquiring the French language and Catholic religion. At 17, wanting to become a priest, he was sent to seminary at the capital, Dakar. Later he moved on to a small secular lyce'e serving the children of French colonials. Noted for his friendliness, self-discipline and hard work, Sedar soon rose again to the top of his class. Indeed, the French lyce'e director threatened to resign if this rare and most gifted African student did not receive a government half-scholarship to go on to higher education in France.

With matching support from an older half-brother, Senghor left for France in 1928, at age 21. By 1935 he had become the first black African agre'ge' d'universite' (equivalent to an American PhD.), taking his degree in French language and grammar. By the late '30s, he had become a leader in the cultural and intellectual ferment of African, West Indian and Malagasy students that resulted in the movement known as ne'gritude. In his poetry and essays Senghor became the chief theoretician of this French-language movement of black awareness. Briefly a French soldier and a German prisoner during World War II, the young lyce'e professor developed during the post-war decade into not only a recognized poet and writer but also a master politician and strategist of the West African independence movement.

When the effort to avoid the balkanization of Francophone West Africa by establishing a federation proved unworkable in January 1961, Senghor was elected president of the newly independent Republic of Senegal. Several times re-elected, he served 20 difficult years and resigned in 1980, leaving Senegal one of the most stable and democratic, though not the richest, nations in Africa. In 1984, at age 76, in recognition of his contributions to French cultural life, Leopold Sedar Senghor became the first black African and one of the rare foreigners elected to the French Academy.

The story of how this child of illiterate parents became an internationally known poet, politician and Academy member is brilliantly researched, analyzed and told in this superb intellectual and, in its closing portion, political biography by Janet G. Vaillant. Chapter by chapter, she fills in the known outlines of Senghor's life with vital background and a telling feel for the interpretive detail. Her book is the product of extensive study, travel, personal interviews and meditation undertaken over a number of years. Most interviews are from the early 1970s, when key people who knew Senghor as a child and young man were still alive. An abundance of material unfamiliar to most Americans is set forth with exceptional clarity.

For Leopold Sedar, born late in his father's life, Diogoye ("the Lion") was a powerful but distant parent. The respected head of a large extended clan, and a successful businessman, Diogoye could not read or write "beyond the crucial ability to add figures." During Sedar's school years at Ngazobil, it was his half-brother Rene's household nearby that became his home and retreat. From about age 12, the key woman in Sedar's life was his much older sister-in-law, Helene. She shared his religious feelings, his love of French books and culture, and fostered his scholarly ambition. As a young girl at the turn of the century, Helene had been raised in the coastal town of St. Louis. She attended the finest French school in the colonies, at 15 becoming the first African woman to pass the brevet, then the highest examination administered in Senegal. Each year it was Helene who won all the academic prizes, as Sedar would later. Though the governor himself offered this promising young woman a scholarship to study in France, her parents had adamantly opposed the idea. Her own ambitions sublimated, after her marriage Helene became instead "the confidante and teacher," and certainly the inspiration of Sedar's youth.

Vaillant's perceptive research also illuminates Sedar's post-graduate years in Paris at the elite Lyce'e Louis-le-grand: the heavy and highly regimented academic schedule, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., the barracks-like dormitories. If Louis-le-grand cemented Sedar's French classical education, it also gave him the opportunity to know well such French peers as his deskmate, Georges Pompidou, destined to be a lifelong friend. Pompidou and one or two others introduced him to the theater, concert halls, museums and, on vacations and holidays, to the intimacy of French family life.

Even early in his Paris years, Senghor was absorbing practical lessons on political life. As a student he was a frequent Sunday guest of Blaise Diagne and Lamine Gueye, Senegalese who were French citizens and delegates to the French National Assembly. But the skills that enabled Senghor to emerge as a political leader are, as Vaillant shows, essentially those of Serer tribal culture. Leadership among the Serer goes to the person able to balance interests and work out compromises agreeable to several different groups. It calls for the ability to lead through persuasion. That Senghor, a Catholic in a country 85 percent Muslim, and from its smallest tribal group, succeeded in governing through the first 20 difficult years of independence was in itself a triumph.

With Senghor's move to the Sorbonne in 1931 and to a private room at the Cite' Universitaire, came the leisure to meet new people and undertake new activities as well as for serious introspection. Like his West Indian friends Leon Damas and especially Aime Cesaire, for the next several years Senghor would wrestle with the "question of his identity and his place in the world."

He had been raised on the Enlightenment and the ideals of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity. At the same time he encountered what Vaillant calls "a darker current." "The French . . . spoke as if civilization and French civilization were one and the same thing." Their "cultural arrogance" extended to certain so-called "scientific truths." During Senghor's formative years the Larousse Dictionary still defined Negro as "a race of black men inferior in intelligence to the white race, called Caucasian." Even at Louis-le-grand in Paris, where Senghor stood high on the honor roll, he heard a graduation speaker exclaim on the subject of the French Empire: "You will love these big children, the Blacks, and . . . the Yellow people as parents love their children, as the master loves his pupils."

YET THERE WERE liberating influences as well. Senghor was drawn to a circle of West Indians in Paris that published a little magazine called La Revue du monde noir ("The Review of the Black World"). From Alain Locke's 1925 anthology, The New Negro, it reprinted poems by Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes -- the Harlem Renaissance group. Their attitude was summarized in Hughes's declaration: "We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame."

There was also the work of new European scholars, the German Leo Frobenius and the Frenchmen Maurice Delafosse and Robert Delavignette, affirming the richness, importance, antiquity and value of African cultures.

Vaillant discovers in this period a Senghor outwardly methodical, orderly and disciplined, a Senghor unfailingly cordial, dignified and financially generous with friends. Inwardly, as his letters, early poetry and health record reveal, he was undergoing bleak spells, periods of grave financial uncertainty, depression and psychosomatic illness, in his quest for a more balanced sense of self. Only tremendous patience and self-mastery kept him going through these times.

He had felt French, Vaillant shows, but attracted though he was by French life and culture, Senghor found his life compartmentalized. As French and African he was experiencing a "double-consciousness" similar to that that W.E.B. Du Bois had expressed as Negro and American: "One ever feels his twoness . . . two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

The inner turmoil Senghor, Cesaire and Damas experienced first led them to self-expression through poetry, "literary work," as Senghor later put it, "morally . . . physically and metaphysically lived right up to the edge of madness." For Senghor the very act of writing poetry, an outlet for feelings that were the opposite of his apparent self, was healing. The poetry was marked by reverie, fantasies of the African past and a retreat to what he called the Kingdom of Childhood, idealized memories of a remote and peaceful village life under the tutelage of his shepherd uncle. A Senegalese physician friend who knew Senghor in the 1930s saw a "mystical fervor" in Senghor's "exaltation of Negro-African culture," and thought it the product of "a basic and desperate need." Poetry was the avenue through which Senghor achieved a vital equilibrium between his African and European selves.

Senghor's choice, to join other blacks of African descent in creating a new type of black identity rather than accept inferior status as a second-hand Frenchman, Vaillant writes, "was the most important decision he ever made." His writing, both poetry and prose, reflect both the process and the decision.

Senghor's four volumes of essays (1937 to 1988) are preoccupied with a few central and remarkably consistent ideas. Ever the diplomat, even his most radical notions are set forth in logical, sober and scholarly language. For Senghor the word ne'gritude (literally Negro-ness, or black-ness) has sometimes been "a shorthand term for a theory of group identity," sometimes "a synonym for black African sensibility and culture." Always it is part of a humanism and a faith akin to Teilhard de Chardin's, through which Senghor optimistically foresees "a grand moment of give and take," a meeting place in which black peoples and those of other cultures will exchange their gifts with one another.

Senghor sees, on the one hand, black African societies which use the "senses, intuitive reason and empathy" to create nurturing communities in harmony with nature, while European societies, with "great technical and material power . . . bought at the price of an emotional and spiritual impoverishment," now threaten the very survival of life on this planet.

In a chapter on "Negritude and African Socialism," Vaillant gives a subtle and detailed analysis of Senghor's complex thought and its evolution in his published writings of more than five decades. The closing chapters of Black, French and African, while not definitive, outline the independence movement, the issues, events and personalities at work during the course of Senghor's presidency. A life clouded by personal tragedy -- the premature deaths of two of his three sons -- a life with its share of failures and disappointments, yet crowned by remarkable achievements.

Black, French and African takes for its epigraph W.E.B. Dubois' 1903 statement: "The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line." Leopold Sedar Senghor, Vaillant writes, "is among those who have faced that line most directly, felt it, suffered it, challenged it, and transcended it. His testimony seems destined to endure, not because he was typical of his time, but because he is one of its most gifted interpreters."

Ellen Conroy Kennedy is the author of "The Negritude Poets."