All presidents should be poets. When Senegal elected its first president in September 1960, it did not select a military dictator or communist revolutionary. Following centuries of European rule, Senegal elected a poet. Léopold Sédar Senghor became Senegal’s first president after he successfully convinced President Charles de Gaulle of France to grant the country independence. Yet this inspirational story of Senegal’s liberation was not limited to the new republic. It was part of a larger effort for negritude and African liberation. Senghor was not only a key intellectual force of the negritude movement; he was a pivotal player in proving that its principles could be practiced effectively. Senegal’s liberation from France, its functioning democracy, and subsequent peaceful transfers of power, served as a model for the rest of Africa. Most importantly, it showed the world that Africans deserved to stand on equal footing alongside their former colonizers as citizens, not subjects. With the special sensitivity of a poet, Senghor proved through poetry and politics that intellectual movements can have liberating results.
The larger effort for negritude is essential for understanding the liberation of Senegal in 1960. Negritude is a framework and literary theory that denounces colonialism and promotes a Pan-African racial identity. It aims to encourage and strengthen the innate characteristics, values and aesthetics shared by all people of African descent worldwide. Intellectuals involved in this movement, including Senghor, intentionally incorporated the pejorative French term “negre”, which was previously used solely in a racial context, and transformed it into a method for Pan-African empowerment. Negritude emphasizes African history and culture, arguing that it is capable of standing alongside the cultures of other countries as equals, including those that colonized them. It spawned almost simultaneously with the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. Similar to African American sentiment at the time, the inspiration for negritude derived from the dissatisfaction Senghor and his fellow Africans felt about the black experience in France.
Educated at the Lycèe Louis-le-Grand at the Sorbonne in Paris on a full scholarship, Senghor was instructed to supplant the paganism and barbarism in his soul with Christianity and civilization. Through this education, he gained a deep personal awareness of the racism and western imperialism that plagued not only his schooling, but the modern world. These experiences encouraged Senghor and his colleagues to develop the negritude framework, and use its principles and rhetoric to empower black people in French lands, including Senegal. In 1948, Senghor created a poetic anthology, Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache, which served as a manifesto for the movement. In the wake of the anthology’s publication, the eyes of the western world were enlightened to a distinct African identity, culture and history. No longer were African communities comprised of the conquered and colonized people long considered inferior, but connected individuals with a rich past and stunning uniqueness.
By liberating the minds of the western world, Senghor helped pave the way for Senegal’s liberation from French rule. This rule had relied on executing a policy of assimilation, whereby the government intended to cross-pollinate cultures to bind France and her colonies together in an idyllic and unbreakable whole. In time, French academic circles rejected the policy, not only because of the unpractical goal of assimilating native Africans into the French system as refashioned Frenchmen, but also because it was ultimately viewed as undesirable. “Association” replaced “assimilation” due to the alleged cultural incompatibilities between the races. This policy conversion conformed with the growing widespread western belief in the intellectual inferiority of the black man.
French perspectives changed following World War II and its defeat to the Nazis. The shattered remnants of France’s former empire were linked as semi-autonomous nations in a wider association known as the French Union. French African colonies for the first time in history were permitted to conduct local democratic elections. Although French governors effectively possessed the political power, many historians argue that this decision embarked colonies like Senegal on a path towards independence.
Perhaps France implemented a decolonization policy out of practical and political necessity, but history should not underestimate the liberating fire behind Senghor’s poetic writings and the negritude movement that served as fuel. As decolonization became more of a reality across Africa in the 1950s, many new African leaders assumed power amongst violence and civil unrest, especially in many of the former British colonies, such as Uganda. Senghor, however, was neither militant nor Marxist. While he did not directly experience oppression and imprisonment like some, Senghor witnessed injustices in France and across the African colonies following World War II. Even with these experiences, however, he never developed confrontational positions or radical ideas. Nor did he identify with the militant and Marxist leaders appearing across the African continent at the time, including Mobutu Sese Seko (Democratic Republic of the Congo leader who freely killed opposition leaders in broad daylight) and the infamous Idi Amin (Ugandan leader who is estimated to have killed around 300,000 people).
Contrary to his counterparts, Senghor embraced a policy intended to appease France, but also secure individual rights for the Senegalese. His political slogan, “To assimilate, not be assimilated”, was as cooperating as it was liberating. It aimed to apply the negritude principles Senghor had poetically described in his 1948 anthology. This political approach recognized Senegal autonomy, but adroitly towed the political line with the French. Even once he was elected as the first president of Senegal, Senghor never directed combative rhetoric toward his country’s former colonizers. He focused his attention instead on lofty democratic ideals, and approached the office as the academic and poet he was, dissecting problems to their core and attempting to empathize with the people. Some may critique his apparent disinterest in the practical realities of governing, but nobody could contest his steadfast resolve and fortitude. For when a trusted ally attempted to overthrow Senghor’s government, the poet president acted swiftly yet gracefully, preventing a military coup by arresting the perpetrator, but imprisoning him only after a full trial.
Further, when Senghor sensed the political tides turning against him in the early 1980s, he did not murder opposition leaders or cling to power. He resigned. By doing so, Senghor became the first African president to relinquish power voluntarily. When his successor followed suit some twenty years later, it was evident that the sovereign democracy Senghor helped liberate from colonial chains was unwavering and deeply rooted. Senghor had worked successfully to propel previously imperial subjects to positions of equality alongside their colonizers.
As history has illustrated, there are many means for achieving liberation, and arguably, the achievement is relative. Idi Amin, for example, probably viewed his mass executions of Christian tribes as liberating for his supporters because they removed perceived threats. Others may contend that war is necessary for liberation. Senghor performed none of the above. Although the conditions for Senegalese independence permitted diplomacy and negotiation, Senghor never even attempted to resort to alternative or more aggressive means. Instead, he forged bonds with Senegal’s colonizers, gave political power to the people through democracy, and fought for them with love, not war.
A driving force behind Senghor’s ability to fight for Senegal’s liberation was the negritude movement he helped to establish decades prior. This liberating instrument unified Africans even beyond Senegal’s borders, defining the African identity and placing it on equal footing with the whiter western world. When the world was finally willing to accept African culture, tradition, and history as distinct and unique, Senghor seized the opportunity for Senegal. Through his actions, he set an example for Africa and the world that fighting with principles and peace can lead to liberation. In a modern world rife with divisiveness and aggression, poets and politicians alike could gain from studying Senghor’s expressive style and application. As this poet president demonstrated, high emotional intelligence is beneficial for any artist or leader. Perhaps more presidents should be poets.