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Friday, 24 November 2017

Black Woman by Leopold Sedar Senghor

Naked woman, black woman
Clothed with your colour which is life, with your form which is beauty!
In your shadow I have grown up; the gentleness of your hands was laid over my eyes.
And now, high up on the sun-baked pass, at the heart of summer, at the heart of noon, I come upon you, my Promised Land,
And your beauty strikes me to the heart like the flash of an eagle.

Naked woman, dark woman
Firm-fleshed ripe fruit, sombre raptures of black wine, mouth making lyrical my mouth
Savannah stretching to clear horizons, savannah shuddering beneath the East Wind’s eager caresses
Carved tom-tom, taut tom-tom, muttering under the Conqueror’s fingers
Your solemn contralto voice is the spiritual song of the Beloved.

Naked woman, dark woman
Oil that no breath ruffles, calm oil on the athlete’s flanks, on the flanks of the Princes of Mali
Gazelle limbed in Paradise, pearls are stars on the night of your skin
Delights of the mind, the glinting of red gold against your watered skin
Under the shadow of your hair, my care is lightened by the neighbouring suns of your eyes.

Naked woman, black woman
I sing your beauty that passes, the form that I fix in the Eternal,
Before jealous Fate turn you to ashes to feed the roots of life.


 Leopold Senghor, born in Joal, Senegal in 1906 is one of the greatest Francophone African poet that ever lived. He was schooled both in Dakar and in Paris, France. He was the first West African to graduate from the Sorbonne (a part of the University of Paris, founded in 1253 that contains the faculties of science and literature) and teach in a French university.

He is said to be the father of Negritude (from Negro), a philosophy that affirms the consciousness of and pride in the cultural and physical aspects of the African heritage and derives joy in the state of being black while portraying the black man’s values as something to celebrate and be proud of. His poetry shows this in abundance.

Leopold Senghor was a catholic who planned to become a priest, but later became a statesman. He fought with the French in the Second World War and became a prisoner of war in then Nazi Germany. He became the Deputy for Senegal in the French Constituent Assembly, President of the Council of the Republic and Counselling Minister at the office of the President of the French Community. In 1960, he became the President of the Federal Republic of Mali and later in the same year, the President of an Independent Republic of Senegal. He championed the Negritude Movement in African Literature and was in the forefront of the cultural and political developments which are: Chants d' Hombre; Hosties Noiroes; Chants pour Naeth, Ethiopiques, and Norcturnes.  He was president of Senegal until 1980, when he retired from active politics.

This poem was written when Senghor was in exile in France. The need to define, defend and promote the concept of womanhood especially black womanhood and accord women their rightful place in the society is perhaps a major factor which contributed to the celebration of womanhood by Senghor. The celebration of the black body of an African woman was rare and  unheard of in Literature and Art that the poem when published became revolutionary in its implications.

Black Woman is an outstanding and exquisite ode to a black woman, sister or daughter and most importantly Africa, his motherland, Senegal to be precise which could love and be loved just like a woman, mother or a lover. Black woman is a negritude poem published in Chants d' Ombre in 1945.
Leopold Senghor personifies Africa as every woman he loves.

The first stanza expresses the love and adoration the poet has for the black woman not only for her "colour which is life" or her "form which is beauty", but also for her gentleness and ability to give and sustain life. Here, Africa is seen as a maternal figure or mother in whose shadow the poet has grown. Senghor has grown up under her shadow and his spirit has been nourished by her. "The gentleness of your hands was laid over my eyes," shielding the poet until he comes upon his "Promised Land". He finds so much beauty that  her beauty strikes him "to the heart like the flash of an eagle." Because her true beauty lies in her natural self.

The European stereotype sees the N├ęgritude fashion of partial or total nudity as lack of sophisticated culture, and turns it into a negative attribute which has made most Africans try to alter their skin colour in the bid to be sophisticated. Dark skin is here praised as a vital kind of clothing in and of itself

In the second stanza, she is seen as a lover, a woman whose flesh is like that of a ripened fruit. Landscape images, natural fruits and wonderful objects are compared to the beauty of the black woman, none of which could do her justice. The poet compares her to the infinite Savannah that shudders beneath the caresses of the east wind. She is like a tight, well-sculpted drum that resounds under the fingers of a valiant conqueror; a woman whose resonant contralto voice becomes the spiritual anthem of the loved one. Words like black, dark and naked have been used to connote negative and evil things previously but in the second stanza, they are imbued with attraction, adoration and employed as terms of praise used to describe the perfect form of the black woman.

In the third stanza, she is compared to everything graceful and elegant. She almost a goddess. Her skin he says is smooth, beautiful and well oiled like that of an athlete or the princes of Mali. He goes on to say she is elegant and graceful like a gazelle adorned with heavenly ornaments. Her skin is further described as pearls and glinting red gold while her hair and eyes have the power to set Senghor free from all his cares and worries.

In the final stanza, the beauty of the African woman before the invasion of the Whiteman and colonization took its toll on her and Africa surpasses perfection.

Senghor concludes on a philosophical note that he would keep alive the African woman's transient beauty eternally and permanently in his poetry.

The poet refers to Africa as his "Promised Land", that abounds and flows  with milk and honey. Africa is not only a mother who nurtures and sustains but the epitome of beauty and perfection devoid of any Western influence until colonization. It is important to note Leopold Sedar Senghor usually refers to Africa as a black woman in most of his poems.

The poem is written in a free verse, without regard for metrical patterns or rhyme scheme. It is written in four stanzas of eighteen lines. The sentences are long and verbose.


Metaphor: The dominant figure of speech in the poem is metaphor. In lines 4,7,9,12,13, the black woman is referred to as: the Promised Land, ripe fruit, Savannah, oil and gazelle.

Simile: Line 5. "Your beauty strikes me to the heart like the flash of an eagle."

Repetition: Lines 1 and 6 are repeated.

Apostrophe: The poet addresses his object of praise as though she were present.

Symbols: Several symbolic words are used to evoke emotions , beauty and perfection.

DICTION: Every word used  is symbolic and deliberate.  Words termed derogatory are converted to praise terms in the poem.

TONE: The tone is of awe, adoration and appreciation of the beauty of African woman and  Africa.


The beauty of the African woman.
The beauty of Africa.
The nurturing role of Africa.
The abundance of Africa.
The Africa woman as a source of and sustainer of life.
The purity of the African woman.
The negative effects of colonization.

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