Léopold Sédar Senghor

From The Writer's Almanac:

The poet and politician Léopold Sédar Senghor was born in 1906 in the town of Joal, Senegal, when Senegal was still a French colony.

He was educated at a Catholic seminary and he grew up wanting to be a priest. But he ended up far away, studying philosophy and poetry at the Sorbonne in Paris, achieving the highest honors possible. He held a series of teaching jobs, and he was teaching near Paris when he was drafted into the French army. He served in an all-African unit, and in June of 1940 they were captured by the Germans. All the men were lined up against the wall to be executed, but Senghor had them all call out "Vive la France, Vive l'Afrique Noire" — "Long live France, Long Live Black Africa." The Germans were confused, and a French prisoner convinced them that executing so many black men like that would be shameful, and would dishonor the German race. So they let them live and put them in prison camps, where Senghor was held for almost two years. He wrote poem after poem, and learned German well enough to read Goethe in the original.

After his release, he went back to teaching and to writing. He moved slowly into politics, first representing Senegal in the French National Assembly, where he became convinced that Senegal needed its own government. He took more and more active political roles, and when Senegal gained its independence in 1960, Senghor was elected its first president, a role that he held until 1980. His books of poetry include Shadow Songs (1945), Nocturnes (1961), and Major Elegies (1979). He died in 2001 at the age of 95.


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