POET’S PROFILE – LEOPOLD SEDAR SENGHOR
The greatest of the Francophone African poets you will ever read is Leopold Sedar Senghor. He was born in Senegal, in 1906, and 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 acclaimed as the father of Negritude (from Negro), a philosophy that affirms the black identity and touts the black man’s values as something to celebrate and be proud of. His poetry shows it in abundance.
Senghor was 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 was president until 1980.
His poetry revealed the contrast between the French way of life being foisted on French African colonies under a purported Policy of Assimilation and the original unblemished values of the African. In this light, he was either always too busy praising Negritude or denouncing the French ideal. This poem comes from his publication, Chants d’Ombre (Songs from the Shadow). I hope I got my French right there.
I WILL PRONOUNCE YOUR NAME
I will pronounce your name, Naett, I will declaim you, Naett!
Naett, your name is mild like cinnamon, it is the fragrance in which the lemon grove sleeps
Naett, your name is the sugared clarity of blooming coffee trees
And it resembles the savannah, that blossoms forth under the masculine ardour of the midday sun
Name of dew, fresher than shadows of tamarind,
Fresher even than the short dusk, when the heat of the day is silenced,
Naett, that is the dry tornado, the hard clap of lightning
Naett, coin of gold, shining coal, you my night, my sun!…
I am you hero, and now I have become your sorcerer, in order to pronounce your names.
Princess of Elissa, banished from Futa on the fateful day.
Very few lyric poems are filled with so much self-indulgence. Senghor is deliriously and starry-eyed, singing the praise of a lady he names as Naett. It is important to read Senghor’s poetry with Negritude themes as many commentators have likened Naett to Africa, to whom he writes this letter from France. To declaim someone (line 1) is to mention their name theatrically, poetically. Well, this is a poem. So in mentioning her name, Senghor says “Naett” dreamily as one who is totally consumed. Undisplaced, his love for Africa was as strong.
From lines 2-8, Senghor likens the name Naett to a host of natural breath-takers. Mind that he is not even praising the lady herself yet but only her name. In line 2, her name is like cinnamon, an aromatic spice and fragrance. He is a lover of the savannah, the African plains, and to him, her name is like it (line 4) when the African midday sun causes it to blossom. Her name is compared to dew (line 5), that early morning remnant of night mist and also to the short dusk (line 6), very welcome respite from the heat of day. Her name evokes power, as of a dry tornado (line 7) and inspires him to confess his love for blackness, something that Western literature is mute on. He calls her shining coal, my night (line 8): strange references for beauty. Does night entice? But it is black and he likes it. Does coal shine? No, but Senghor’s coal is of another beauty. His sun! Africa and Blackness! Negritude!
In the last two lines, her name has transformed him into a sorcerer (line 9). For her only. And this is important because the African sorcerer deals in invocation, incantation and chanting. He mentions the names and sings in praise of his divine spirit. And to him, nothing can help him “to pronounce your names” better than being a sorcerer. Note that, he has never said she had names until now. And now, as a sorcerer, he proceeds to call her Princess of Elissa, banished from Futa on the fateful day (line 10). Futa was a West African kingdom that had its capital as Futa Djallon and blossomed around present-day Guinea. She was banished from there. African royalty, if indeed she was a princess, were banished for serious crimes, for example, falling in love with a commoner when a prince is the allowed. Could Senghor’s love have cost the girl a kingdom? We will never know. If Naett is Africa, how would this sentence translate? I am lost, really.