When reading Black Woman by Leopold Sedhar Senghor, the question of who or what it is about follows you until the end. Once I learned that Senghor served as President of Senegal, it confirmed the suspicion growing in my mind, that the poem is about not a woman as it blatantly states, but where he comes from.
Often when American teenagers are growing up, our hearts can be full of desire to travel to see places where we are not from. Home is boring and uninteresting. As soon as college gets here, we pack up our bags and head to a new city; some even begin as early as boarding school. These thoughts on ‘home’ change as we get older and feel a nostalgia for our hometowns, even a yearning to return to see what has changed. With the lines ‘In your shadow I have grown up; the gentleness of your hands was laid over my eyes.’ I believe he is referring to this underestimation of the beauty of where he comes from during his youth. It’s remarkable that, although Senghor is clearly referring to Senegal, it can relate to youth from across the globe.
From that point onwards, the poem progresses illustrating Senghor’s admiration for the beauty of his nation. However, while commenting on the beauty, he makes a general statement about the cycle of life. Life can refer to the life of a human or even the life of different governments. Senghor’s fear shines through as strongly as his admiration as he describes jealous fate bringing about new life. I believe he fears change in his nation but is acknowledging that it is coming. This is allowing the reader to place themselves into the soul of what is beautiful about Senegal. In spite of change due to colonialism, war, among others, I think Senghor hopes his nation remains internally beautiful and believes it will.
In his poem Black Woman, President Senghor is paying homage to his home country of Senegal. He uses the image of a woman to embody the country. The use of a woman (or a motherly or grandmotherly figure) to personify a nation can be seen in several different examples around the world, including Marianne in France and the elderly Wanjikũ in Kenya. Senghor also uses the woman’s physical characteristics to symbolize different aspects of Senegal: for example, when he writes “In your shadow I have grown up; the gentleness of your hands was laid over my eyes,” he means that Africa has been the place that sheltered and nurtured him during his formative years.
The metaphor of nudity in the poem is also not coincidental. By constantly referring to the “naked woman,” Senghor talks about how rich, undisturbed and natural Africa was before the advent of colonization. Among the descriptions of Africa’s pristine beauty are “firm-fleshed ripe fruit, sombre raptures of black wine” and “oil that no breath ruffles, calm oil on the athlete’s flanks, on the flanks of the Princes of Mali.” In these descriptions, Senghor is also alluding to natural resources that colonizers exploited upon arriving on the continent.
Lastly, I interpreted the final two stanzas of the poem as eerie allusions to the darkness of colonialism. When Senghor says “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,” he is saying that he will sing Africa’s praises before the adverse effects of colonialism destroys the continent in order to sustain a European-created economy, the “roots of life.” Ultimately, I read this as a political and nationalistic poem that comments on the state of Senegal and Africa before and after colonialism.
When I first read “Black Woman” by Leopold Sedhar Senghor, I didn’t want to immediately jump into the meaning behind the poem. I wanted to first read it without really questioning whether this poem was an entire metaphor or a visual description of a woman. When I began to try and interpret, there was a confusion of whether this “black woman” was either an actual figure that Senghor looked up to or a role model or inspiration to someone. I knew that this interpretation couldn’t have been that easy. Therefore, I wanted to know who the writer of the poem was and to find out his history (where he was from, his life as a writer, his family, etc).
To my surprise, I found out that Senghor was not only a writer, but a politician. He was the first president of Senegal. Reading it twice and aloud, I realized that my interpretation was incorrect. With the knowledge of Senghor also being a politician, I knew that he was talking about the country he was running and his appreciation and love for Senegal.
The first few stanzas of the poem begin with the following lines, “Clothed with your colour which is life, with your form which is beauty!” He describes Senegal as a form of beauty and how every aspect of the country is colorful and filled with so much life. This could go into the culture, people, land. On the seventh line, it gives us a better understanding of how the poem is actually describing Senegal. It states, “I came upon you, my promised land.” These following lines reveal that Senegal is his home, a place that he believed was the “promised land.” As the first president of Senegal, it doesn’t come as a surprise that he cherished or showed so much pride to the country.
“I was responsible at the same time for my body, for my race, for my ancestors. I subjected myself to an objective examination, I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics; and I was battered down by toms-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetichism, racial defects, slave-ships, and above all else, above all: ‘Sho’ good eatin’.”
Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon explores Fanon’s objectification as a black man. In this passage, he highlights how black men are seen as inferior not only due to the pigment of their skin, but based on false characteristics and a history he does not recollect or can identify as his own.
This objectification can be seen as a result of French colonial racism, political and intellectual hegemony and domination. It was these feelings of anger, hatred and objectification that Fanon expresses however that lead to négritude, a literary and ideological movement that found strength in a common black identity: an acceptance of being black, and a joint appreciation of black culture and history.
Leopold Sedhar Senghor’s poem Black Woman is an example of a négritude piece of work. In his poem, Senghor constantly refers to a black woman in the first person. He thus uses the ‘black woman’ as a metaphor for his homeland (Senegal), implying that like the black woman, his homeland is a wife, mother, and ‘promise land.’ By doing this, he is proving against the European stereotype that a ‘naked black woman’ is primitive and animalistic.
He begins the poem playing off of Fanon’s idea that he has been affected and objectified by a past he doesn’t remember. “In your shadow I have grown up.” Nevertheless, he also states that what makes a black woman beautiful is the fact that she is black. As an adult, he returns to his promise land in order to learn more.
Throughout the poem, the black woman progresses. From a lover, “Firm-fleshed ripe fruit, sombre raptures//of black wine, mouth making lyrical my mouth” to a type of goddess and promise land, “Gazelle limbed in Paradise,//pearls are stars on the night of your skin.” Although she is “under the Conqueror’s fingers,” or always under some sort of stereotype and malicious racism, Senghor embraces her as beautiful, welcoming, and everything the Europeans think she is not.
Senghor ends the poem stating that the beauty of the black woman will forever live on in his poetry. While Fanon’s view suggests that black men have no choice but to accept that they are not men but objects, authors and thinkers like Senghor promote his eventual hope of black skin being seen as equal and human.
The poem “Black Woman”, has several characteristics which make it quite typically of the Négritude, a french movement in which writers in the 30s embraced their shared African heritage to combat French post colonial racism, and that is celebrating black beauty. The poem makes several references to the “naked black woman”, and uses her a figure of beauty and mystery almost goddess like. Instead of using her nakedness as proof of savagery they are embracing it and the beauty that she is and the strong figure. The poem celebrates black women, as nuturers and strong figures who are beautiful and wise not savage and superstitious. Seneghor is celebrating her transient beauty in his poem emphasizing the characteristics the French dispared as positive ones. Essentially retooling their critisims and debasements ito praise for the black woman inherent beauty.” 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.” Here is celebrating her transient beauty, saying it’s fleeting and that jealous fate destroys it and cannot recognize it. So he immortalizes her through prose and compares her to a goddess and this poem becomes a prayer or a devotional celebrating everything that she is, her beauty and her wisdom.
What I think is very interesting about the poem is that it is a celebration of femininity and an empowering statement for women. This is especially odd in France where women could not vote until the 40s. It shows how the Négritude movement rose up and seized and celebrated their African heritage by remembering how important it was. It reminds me of Things Fall Apart, and the quote “mother is supreme”, which shows, also the worship of the earth goddess, that most African cultures celebrated and respected womanhood in a way European cultures didn’t and the Négritude movement is uncovering and celebrating that fact as well.
When someone first approaches the poem one thinks that the poem is about an inspirational woman. This is not uncommon because of the title and the describing features of a woman. But I interpreted this poem as a dedication to Senegal. The ongoing metaphor is that the nation is this beautiful, naked, black woman.
The second and third line literally say that the women is clothed in the color of life and it is beautiful. But attributing this to the nation instead of the woman, one would see that Senghor actually means that the country is full of color and life.
The next section represents growing up in the influence of Senegal’s culture and this culture covered the outside world. The following passage, is the one that literally shows that this poem is about the nation instead of the woman, when it says, “I come upon you, my Promise Land…”. Throughout the following passages there are other positive details about the nation. The ending represents that he, the author, must cherish the nation before it no longer is how it once was.
This poem mainly talks about a time before there was colonization and before other influences are seen. The author speaks to the reader about how beautiful the rawness of the society was. This is also represented by the repetition of the line “naked woman, black woman”. Naked here represents Senegal with out the knowledge and influence of the outside world, and the mention of color represents the people. A country of black people and culture that in his eyes is so beautiful.