Before he was the president of independent Senegal in 1961, Léopold Sédar Senghor was an academic. A poet who captured the daily and rare occurrence of life, he is credited as one of the biggest African intellectuals.
Born in 1906 in Jaol, Senegal, Senghor had a dream to become a teacher-priest. He, however, abandoned priesthood when he turned 20, leaving the seminary for the Lycee secondary school in Dakar.
He excelled in his studies, earning a partial scholarship to Lycée Louis-le-Grand and at the Sorbonne in 1928. In 1935, he became the first African agrégé, the highest rank of a qualified teacher in the French school system. With this credential, he was able to teach at both secondary and university levels.
While in Paris, Senghor, together with Aimé Césaire and Léon Damas, initiated Négritude, a cultural and literary movement that aimed at asserting the distinctive African characteristics, values, and aesthetics.
The three were dissatisfied by their experience (and that of many others) as black people in France. Senghor used the movement to show the universality of the black experience, advocating for the promotion and expression of African cultures and values.
His academic experience was cut short by the onset of World War II, for which he was drafted in 1939. Most of his poems were written when he was captured in 1940 and put in Nazi concentration camps for two years.
Later in 1947, Senghor was instrumental in the establishment of the Présence Africaine, journal, which focused on publishing works by African writers. He also edited an anthology of French-language poetry by black Africans in 1948.
His published books include the Chants d’ombre (Songs of Shadow, 1945;), Hosties noires (Black Offerings, 1948), Éthiopiques (1956), Nocturnes (1961), and Élégies majeures (Major Elegies, 1979). Some of his poems were also featured in the 1990 publication, Oeuvre poétique.
He used his poetry to highlight the duality in his life- coming from a Christian-Muslim background, and being an African in France. He also tackled some of the personal aspects of his life, including his death, even penning an epitaph.
Below is the poetic epitaph by Senegal’s first president.
When I’m dead, my friends, place me below Shadowy Joal,
On the hill, by the bank of the Mamanguedy, near the ear of Serpents’ Sanctuary.
But place me between the Lion and ancestral Tening-Ndyae.
When I’m dead, my friends, place me beneath Portuguese Joal.
Of stones from the Fort build my tomb, and cannons will keep quiet.
Two oleanders – white and pink – will perfume the Signare.