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Tue, 10.09.1906

Léopold Senghor, Politician, and Poet born

Léopold Senghor

*Léopold Senghor was born on this date in 1906.  He was a Black Senegalese poet, politician, and cultural theorist. 

Léopold Sédar Senghor was born in the city of Joal, south of Dakar, capital of Senegal.  His father, Basile Diogoye Senghor, was a businessman and merchant who owned thousands of cattle and vast lands, his mother and the third wife of his father, a Muslim of Fula origin who belonged to the Tabor tribe, was born near Djilas to a Christian family.  His Serer middle name Sédar comes from the Serer language, meaning "one that shall not be humiliated" or "the one you cannot humiliate."  

At the age of eight, Senghor began his studies in Senegal at the Ngasobil boarding school of the Fathers of the Holy Spirit. In 1922 he entered a seminary in Dakar. After being told that religious life was not for him, he attended a secular institution. By then, he was already passionate about French literature. He won distinctions in French, Latin, Greek, and Algebra. With his Baccalaureate completed, he was awarded a scholarship to continue his studies in France.  Senghor's first marriage was to Ginette Éboué.  They married in September 1946 and divorced in 1955. They gave birth to two sons: Francis in 1947 and Guy in 1948. His second wife, Colette Hubert from France, became Senegal's first First Lady upon independence in 1960. Senghor had three sons between his two marriages.  

In 1928 Senghor sailed from Senegal for France, beginning, in his words, "sixteen years of wandering."  He graduated from the University of Paris, receiving an Agrégation in French Grammar. Subsequently, he was designated professor at the universities of Tours and Paris, where he taught during 1935–45.  Senghor started his teaching years at the lycée René-Descartes in Paris.  He also studied linguistics with prominent social scientists.

Senghor, along with other intellectuals of the African diaspora who had come to study in the colonial capital, coined the term and conceived the notion of "négritude," which was a response to the racism still prevalent in France. It turned the racial slur nègre into a positively connoted celebration of Black African culture and character. The idea of négritude informed Senghor's cultural criticism and literary work and became a guiding principle for his political thought in his career as a statesman.  

In 1939, Senghor was enrolled as a French army enlisted man with the rank of private within the 59th Colonial Infantry division despite his higher education and his 1932 acquisition of French Citizenship. A year later, in 1940, during the German invasion of France, he was taken prisoner by the Germans in la Charité-Sur-Loire. He was interned in different camps and finally at Front Stalag 230 in Poitiers. Front Stalag 230 was reserved for colonial troops captured during the war. German soldiers wanted to execute him and the others the same day they were captured, but they escaped this fate by yelling Vive la France, Vive l'Afrique Noire! ("Long live France, long live Black Africa!") A French officer told the soldiers that executing the African prisoners would dishonor the Aryan race and the German Army. Senghor spent two years in different prison camps, where he spent most of his time writing poems. In 1942 he was released for medical reasons.  He resumed his teaching career while remaining involved in the resistance during the Nazi occupation.  

Once the war was over, Senghor was selected as Dean of the Linguistics Department with the École nationale de la France d'Outre-Mer, a position he would hold until Senegal's independence in 1960.  While traveling on a research trip for his poetry, he met the local socialist leader, Lamine Guèye, who suggested that Senghor run for election as a member of the Assemblée Nationale française. Senghor accepted and became député for the riding of Sénégal-Mauritanie when colonies were granted the right to be represented by elected individuals. They took different positions when the train conductors on the line, Dakar-Niger, went on strike. Guèye voted against the strike, arguing the move would paralyze the colony, while Senghor supported the workers, which gained him great support among Senegalese.  During this time, he met and mentored Bruce M. Wright, who, as a Black poet, would become a federal judge in New York. 

In 1947, Senghor left the African Division of the French Section of the Workers International (SFIO), which had given enormous financial support to the social movement. With Mamadou Dia, he founded the Bloc démocratique sénégalais (1948). They won the legislative elections of 1951, and Guèye lost his seat.  Re-elected deputy in 1951 as an independent overseas member, Senghor was appointed state secretary to the Council's president in Edgar Faure's government from 1 March 1955 to 1 February 1956. He became mayor of Thiès, Senegal, in November 1956 and then advisory minister in Michel Debré's government from July 23, 1959, to 19 May 1961. He was also a commission member responsible for drafting the Fifth Republic's constitution, a general councilor for Senegal, a Grand Conseil de l'Afrique Occidentale Francaise member, and a member of the parliamentary assembly of the European Council.  Since the African countries did not favor federalism, he decided to form, along with Modibo Keita, the Mali Federation with former French Sudan (present-day Mali). Senghor was president of the Federal Assembly until it failed in 1960.  Afterward, Senghor became the first President of the Republic of Senegal, elected on September 5, 1960.

He is the author of the Senegalese national anthem. The prime minister, Mamadou Dia, was in charge of executing Senegal's long-term development plan, while Senghor was in charge of foreign relations. The two men quickly disagreed. In December 1962, Mamadou Dia was arrested under suspicion of fomenting a coup d'état. He was held in prison for 12 years. Following this, Senghor created a presidential regime.  In 1964 Senghor published the first volume of a series of five, titled Liberté. The book contains a variety of speeches, essays, and prefaces.  On March 22, 1967, Senghor survived an assassination attempt. The suspect was sentenced to death for treason and executed on June 1967.  In December 1980, Senghor resigned at the end of the year, before the end of his fifth term. Abdou Diouf replaced him as the head of the country.  In 1982, he was one of the founders of the Association of France and developing countries. Their objectives were to bring attention to the problems of developing countries in the wake of the changes affecting the latter.  

He was elected a member of the Académie française in 1983, the first Black African to sit at the Académie.  The entrance ceremony in his honor took place in March 1984 in the presence of French President François Mitterrand.  In 1993, the last and fifth book of the Liberté series was published: Liberté 5: le dialogue des Cultures.  Léopold Senghor spent the last years of his life with his wife, Colette Hubert, in Version, near Caen in Normandy, where he died on December 20, 2001. His funeral was held in Dakar. Jacques Chirac (who said, upon hearing of Senghor's death: "Poetry has lost one of its masters, Senegal a statesman, Africa a visionary and France, a friend") and Lionel Jospin, respectively, president of the French Republic and the prime minister, did not attend.

Their failure to attend Senghor's funeral made waves as it was deemed a lack of acknowledgment for what the politician had been in his life. The analogy was made with the Senegalese Tirailleurs. After contributing to the liberation of France, they had to wait more than forty years to receive an equal pension (in terms of buying power) to their French counterparts. Although a socialist, Senghor avoided the Marxist and anti-Western ideology that had become popular in post-colonial Africa, favoring maintaining close ties with France and the Western world.  Seat number 16 of the Académie was vacant after the Senegalese poet's death. He was ultimately replaced by another former president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.  

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