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Saturday, 20 February 2016

Vanity by Birago Diop

Literary Analysis (Summary)

Vanity by Birago Diop exposes the negative effects of the acculturation of some West African countries through the French policy of assimilation during the colonial period. Assimilation was a major policy of French colonial administration in the 19th – 20th century in West Africa. The policy was designed by France to implant French culture and civilization on the local people in its colonies.

This all-round policy involves the complete absorption of the French language, institutions, laws and customs with the aim of transforming Africans to real French men. In other to create black Frenchmen out of these Africans, it requires the black Africans to neglect their cultural heritage and beliefs because they are deemed barbaric and ungodly. Thus, they are clothed with French civilization. With their complete conversion to European culture, they enjoy certain privileges of full citizenship, especially the inhabitants of the four communes of Senegal.

The privileges citizens of French West Africa enjoyed include limitless access to higher education in France. Most French African elites were educated in France. Among them were Leopold Sedar Senghor, David Diop, Leon Dames and Vanity’s poet, Birago Diop. This stems from the fact that majority of the educated French Africans were desirous to become French citizens. So, they abandoned their ancestral ways in a wild pursuit for western civilization.

After years of education, enlightenment and exposure, these French African students realized the negative consequences of the French colonial policies. Their land was made to produce raw materials particularly to feed French industries. Thus, they were culturally and economically exploited. Among the black francophone students in Paris, there was a spontaneous awakening of race consciousness. This gave birth to Negritude, an ideological and intellectual movement in the 1930s to 1940s among French black writers in Paris. They realized the pride in blackness and rejected French imperialism with its enslaving policies. They revolted against the subtle annihilation of their African heritage and collective identity, challenging racial hierarchy. That is the bedrock upon which the poem is based. The poet opines that the wild chase of the African educated few to embrace western civilization at the expense of their rich culture is mere vanity. Vanity upon vanity, the bible says, is vanity.

The poem introduces the poet in a melancholic and thoughtful mood about a burning issue that is devastating his society. This telling issue that is spoken in silent tones, if not given adequate attention, may backfire in the future. When this happens, “Who will hear our voices without laughter?” In other not to become laughing stocks for not doing the needful at the appropriate time, the poet is calling for a public deliberation on this anomalous issue before it goes out of hand. If it is not tamed as and when due, their agitation would just be “sad complaining voices of beggars”. By labeling them “beggars”, the poet is ridiculing the deprivation and susceptibility of francophone colonies in Africa with their overdependence on France for political and socio-economic survival. They holistically rely on economic reinforcement from France, and the latter in its infinity mercies, dispenses its recycled and substandard products to its adopted citizens.

In the second stanza, the poet foretells the despicable state of the people if they refuse to change their ways. They would “cry roughly” of an “ever increasing” pain with no pity from sympathizers and mockers. They would be scorned “by the laughter of big children” who will watch their “large mouths” with utmost jest.

In the third stanza, the poet talks about the clamour which is yet to be addressed. The poet rhetorically asks if anyone would listen to their “pitiful anger” when they have failed to attend to the challenges bedeviling their collective existence. The poet compares this challenge to “a tumour”, an abnormal growth of tissue, in their sore throat. This particular issue that has not been nipped in the bud has grown so deep and large to become an affliction in their lives.

In the fourth stanza, the poet envisages the future when the elites die (our dead) and come face to face with their ancestors (their dead) in the spirit world. They would remember their warnings and regret not ever listening to “their clumsy voices”. Their forefathers had cautioned them against abandoning their culture and heritage for western civilization. African elders are full of wisdom and have seen the future ahead of the educated young ones who have jettisoned the African ways because the imperialist branded them primitive. So, they make “wild appeals”, but the educated elites turn deaf ears to “their cries”.  The forefathers “have left on the earth their cries” even with warning signs everywhere, but the people are blind and deaf and could “see nothing” in the gradual extinction of their black heritage. Thus, they are referred to as “unworthy sons” for trading their rich cultural legacy and beliefs for western lifestyle.

The last stanza ends on a pessimistic note. Since they have refused to heed to the wise teachings and warning signs of their forefathers, they will weep and wail exceedingly about the agonizing torments they are passing through with no one to soothe their “sobbing hearts”.

This poem of lamentation, as it is, ends in hopelessness and dejection over the disobedience of the myopic African elites to the pleas of their progenitors. This last stanza is a summary of the other as it emphasizes the cloudy future awaiting the errant Africans.

The negative effects of colonialism
Pride in blackness
The vanity of life
Sorrow and doom
The wisdom of African elders
The annihilation of African heritage
Experience is the best teacher


The poem is written in 30 lines with unequal stanzas. There is an elaborate use of rhetorical questions which are being repeated for emphasis sake. These rhetorical questions are mockery of the precarious situation the French Africans would face due to the rejection of their culture. In fact, the rhetorical questions and repetitions summarise the poet’s main preoccupation.

“Who then will hear our voices without laughter?”
“What eyes will watch our large mouths?”
“What heart will listen to our clamouring?”
“In the black depth of our plaintive throats?”
“Just as our ears were deaf”
“In the air, on the water, where they have traced their signs”

Then again, one could observe in the poem how the poet appeals to the sense of sight, touch, smell, taste and hearing. He also makes constant reference to different parts of the body: “mouths”, “eyes”, “heart”, “ears” and “throats”. This goes a long way to reveal how the message from their ancestors permeates their whole body. Still, they do not heed to the enclosed warning in their cries. “Their cries” is repeated in the 18th, 20th and 26th lines to show the depth and significance of their forefathers’ warning.

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