Léopold Sédar Senghor
October 9, 1906 – December 20, 2001
Notable: Poet & Politician
Léopold Sédar Senghor was born in Joal, Senegal to Gnilane Bakhoum his Fulani mother and Basie Senghor his Mandinka father. Basie was a wealthy man who supported his four wives and 25 children with the proceeds of his vast landholdings and thousands of heads of cattle. Sengor was given a European first name to reflect the family’s noble status and religion while his middle name which means “the one you cannot humiliate” came from his father’s Serer culture.
Gnilane had been born into a Christian family and was a practicing Roman Catholic. When Senghor was around seven or eight years old he was enrolled at a local Catholic mission boarding school, Fathers of the Holy Spirit, where he began learning French. By the age of 13, Senghor had decided that he would enter the priesthood and enrolled in a seminary in Dakar a few years later. Yet, he was discouraged from continuing at the seminary and left to attend a secular school.
He graduated from high school with honors and distinguished himself in the study of classical languages and math. At the time, Senegal was a French colony and a teacher lobbied the colonial administration for a scholarship that would enable Senghor to continue his education in France.
Senghor arrived in Paris at the age of 22 and briefly attended the Sorbonne before moving on to the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in preparation for the École Normale Supérieure entrance exam. After completing his university studies, Senghor achieved high qualifications as a teacher which enabled him to teach at both French high schools and universities. This was quite the achievement as he was the first African to reach the rank of agrégé.
Along the way he met and befriended several future politicians and intellectuals. Senghor was one of several intellectuals from across the French-colonized Black diaspora who had immigrated to France to study in Paris. They were greeted by a society where racism was prevalent and people used the word “nègre” as an offensive term for Black people. In response, they began to develop the ideology of “négritude”, a cultural and political movement aimed at promoting pride in being Black and Black culture.
Within a few years of arriving in France, Senghor had become a French citizen and served in the French army during World War II. When France was invaded by Germany in 1940, Senghor was taken prisoner and narrowly escaped being executed after a French officer intervened on behalf of the African prisoners. He spent about two years being moved between various camps and used the time to write some of his most notable poetry. Senghor was eventually released and returned to teaching though he remained an active participant in the French Resistance.
He married his first wife, Ginette Éboué, in 1946 and became a representative of Senegal in the French National Assembly where he would serve two terms. A year later, he and his wife welcomed their first son. In 1948, Senghor published The Anthology of New Black and Malagasy Poetry in French and welcomed his second son. The marriage would end in divorce in 1955 though Senghor would remarry and have a third son.
The 1950s would see Senghor splitting his time between teaching and serving in the Assembly in France and occupying various political offices in Senegal. During this time, African nations were pushing closer to independence from colonial rule. Senghor hoped for a political future where African nations and their European colonizers would operate as equals. This was not what either side of the colonial debate wanted as European countries were not interested in equality or African progression nor did African revolutionaries have any interest in a colonial federalist government.
Independence movements continued to make their way through Africa and Senegal became independent in 1960 after leaving the Mali Federation. In September of that year, Léopold Sédar Senghor was elected as the newly independent nation’s first president. Early in Senghor’s presidency responsibilities were split with the then Prime Minister, Mamadou Dia.
The idea was that Senghor would focus on foreign relations while Dia would helm the country’s long-term development plans. Things did not go according to plan as Dia would end up spending 12 years in prison after being arrested for plotting a coup. In 1967, Senghor escaped an attempt on his life.
Senghor served as president for 20 years before resigning during his fifth term. During his presidency, Senghor adopted a form of African socialism that contained some aspects of capitalism. His efforts stabilized the economy, established a solid educational system, and allowed for multiple political parties. He also penned the country’s national anthem.
Following his resignation, Senghor moved to France where he published a memoir and additional volumes of poetry. He became the first Black person to be elected to the Académie Française, a council on the French language that dates back to 1635. Léopold Sédar Senghor died at his home in France on December 20, 2001, at the age of 95.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. 2021. “Léopold Senghor.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. December 16, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Leopold-Senghor.
- “Léopold Senghor, Politician, and Poet Born.” 2021. African American Registry. October 9, 2021. https://aaregistry.org/story/leopold-senghor-born/.
- “Léopold Sédar Senghor.” n.d. Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. Accessed March 24, 2022. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/leopold-sedar-senghor.
- Micklin, Anna. 2008. “Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906-2001).” Blackpast.org. June 14, 2008. https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/senghor-leopold-sedar-1906-2001/.
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