Cher frère blanc,

Half tongue-in-cheek, bit more than half with a serious point, this poem by Leopold Senghor muses about why white people call black people “coloured”, when there is a huge range of observable colours on white people’s skin.  Of course, Senghor was right between the two worlds, first as a Senegalese representative in the French Parliament, a black man in the midst of a white-dominated institution, and then as the first President of independent Senegal, but with former white colonists still pulling a lot of the levers in his country. He must have been acutely sensitive to these matters of colour and racial identity, particularly living at a time, in the 1950s and 1960s, when unconscious and overt  prejudice was even more rampant than it is today.


I like it, and I think it is significant, that the poem is addressed to the poet’s white brother…, and the first line makes it clear that the white brother is dear to the poet.


Poeme a mon Frère blanc


Cher frère blanc,

Quand je suis né, j’étais noir,

Quand j’ai grandi, j’étais noir,

Quand je suis au soleil, je suis noir,

Quand je suis malade, je suis noir,

Quand je mourrai, je serai noir.

Tandis que toi, homme blanc,

Quand tu es né, tu étais rose,

Quand tu as grandi, tu étais blanc,

Quand tu vas au soleil, tu es rouge,

Quand tu as froid, tu es bleu,

Quand tu as peur, tu es vert,

Quand tu es malade, tu es jaune,

Quand tu mourras, tu seras gris.

Alors, de nous deux,

Qui est l’homme de couleur ?




From <>


Five lines describe how the poet remains black in every circumstance and phase of his life – at birth, when grown up, when in the sun, when sick and when dead. Then seven lines describing how the white man can be pink, red, blue, green, yellow or grey. And then the ironic pay-off, who is really the man of colour, asks the poet?


Good question, and one which aims to undermine prejudice and difference to get at the common humanity of us all.


The Poetry Dude

Et puis tu es venue par l’aube douce

What a charmingly tender poem this is from Leopold Senghor, the former President of Senegal. From the title which evokes the impossibly glamorous and beautiful image of a blond-haired black woman, through the moment of togetherness in the early morning to the final exclamation, repeated three times, of the poet’s love, this is a captivating expression of two lovers in harmony.
A la négresse blonde

Et puis tu es venue par l’aube douce,
Parée de tes yeux de prés verts
Que jonchent l’or et les feuilles d’automne.
Tu as pris ma tête
Dans tes mains délicates de fée,
Tu m’as embrassé sur le front
Et je me suis reposé au creux
De ton épaule,
Mon amie, mon amie, ô mon amie !

The first word of the first line hints at something that has gone before, that this moment is a consequence of some unstated situation or turn of events, adding to the mystery and glamour of the scene. It is dawn, and the lover arrives, flashing her green eyes, for an even greater exotic impact, offset by the yellow leaves of autumn. The girl taks hold of the poets head with delicate hands and gently kisses him on the forehead as he leans into her, cradling his head in the hollow of her shoulder. Delicate, gentle, tender, loving, this is clearly a special moment, leading to the rhapsodic exclamations of the last line, as the poet proclaims his love three times.

Lucky fellow

The Poetry Dude

Et le soleil boule de feu, déclive sur la mer vermeille.

Here is a very African love poem from Leopold Senghor, who was for many years President of Senegal. Anybody who has walked near the villages of Senegal around Dakar, perhaps down the coast at Mbour or Rufisque, or near Lac Rose, will recognise the sensations of the sun beating down, the slim and elegant pirogues going out on the water in search of fish, the strong smells and happy jostle of the village folk. And all this reminds Senghor of his love.

Et le soleil

Léopold Sédar SENGHOR
Recueil : “Lettres d’hivernage”

Et le soleil boule de feu, déclive sur la mer vermeille.
Au bord de la brousse et de l’abîme, je m’égare dans
le dédale du sentier.
Elle me suit, cette senteur haute altière qui irrite mes
Délicieusement. Elle me suit et tu me suis, mon double.
Le soleil plonge dans l’angoisse
Dans un foisonnement de lumières, dans un tressaillement
de couleurs de cris de colères.
Une pirogue, fine comme une aiguille dans une mer
immense étale
Un rameur et son double.
Saignent les grès du cap de Nase quand s’allume le
phare des Mamelles
Au loin. Le chagrin tel me point à ta pensée.
Je pense à toi quand je marche je nage
Assis ou debout, je pense à toi le matin et le soir
La nuit quand je pleure, eh oui quand je ris
Quand je parle je me parle et quand je me tais
Dans mes joies et mes peines. Quand je pense et ne
pense pas
Chère je pense à toi !

From <;

The poem continually conjures up the inebriating accumulation of sensations you can easily feel on a hot day in west Africa, the heat, the smells and the sounds, the colours and the very physical sense of the environment. The omnipresence of sensory stimulation is carried through to the omnipresence of the poet’s thoughts about his lover, whether he is laughing or crying, night or morning, in joy or sorrow. By comparison with the force of the sensations from his everyday surroundings, the love must indeed be strong to remain present in his mind.

This poem brings me back a nostalgia for Senegal, where I used to visit 25 years ago, often driving down the coast or into the interior from Dakar, perhaps as far as Tambacounda. Happy days…

The Poetry Dude

Le Prince a répondu. Voici l’empreinte exacte de son discours:

This is somewhat of an enigmatic poem from Senghor, at the crossroads of traditional African and European civilization, a crossroads with which the poet himself grappled, both in his poetic and his political endeavours. The poem is in the form of a speech from an African prince to young people who have gone to study in Europe, collecting diplomas. The speech reminds them of their African roots and traditions, and wonders if they have really gained from their European education.

The piece does not come to any clear conclusion. Perhaps the message of the Prince is to remain faithful to your own traditions but also take advantage of others, just as Senghor himself did. Cultural openness is surely more attractive than cultural xenophobia, in whatever direction.

So let’s read the message…

Le message
Léopold Sédar SENGHOR
Recueil : “Hosties noires”

Le Prince a répondu. Voici l’empreinte exacte de son discours:
« Enfants à tête courte, que vous ont chanté les kôras?
Vous déclinez la rose, m’a-t-on dit, et vos Ancêtres les Gaulois.
Vous êtes docteurs en Sorbonne, bedonnants de diplômes.
Vous amassez des feuilles de papier – si seulement des louis d’or à compter sous la lampe, comme feu ton père aux doigts tenaces!
Vos filles, m’a-t-on dit, se peignent le visage comme des courtisanes
Elles se casquent pour l’union libre et éclaircir la race!
Êtes-vous plus heureux? Quelque trompette à wa-wa-wâ
Et vous pleurez aux soirs-là-bas de grands feux et de sang.
Faut-il vous dérouler l’ancien drame et l’épopée?
Allez à Mbissel à Fa’oy; récitez le chapelet de sanctuaires qui ont jalonné la Grande Voie
Refaites la Route Royale et méditez ce chemin de croix et de gloire.
Vos Grands Prêtres vous répondront : Voix du Sang!
Plus beaux que des rôniers sont les Morts d’Élissa; minces étaient les désirs de leur ventre.
Leur bouclier d’honneur ne les quittait jamais ni leur lance loyale.
Ils n’amassaient pas de chiffons, pas même de guinées à parer leurs poupées.
Leurs troupeaux recouvraient leurs terres, telles leurs demeures à l’ombre divine des ficus
Et craquaient leurs greniers de grains serrés d’enfants.
Voix du Sang! Pensées à remâcher!
Les Conquérants salueront votre démarche, vos enfants seront la couronne blanche de votre tête. »
J’ai entendu la Parole du Prince.
Héraut de la Bonne Nouvelle, voici sa récade d’ivoire.

From <;

The Poetry Dude

Inspire-moi, Tanit la Tendre, Tanit la Tunisienne,

I don’t know if Leopold Senghor is considered a great poet, but I find his poetry beautiful in itself and fascinating for a couple of reasons. Firstly the cultural melting pot comes through very strongly, with West African mixed with French mixed with American references. Secondly, I fins it very unusual and very praiseworthy that a politician at the highest level who was a successful head of state for his country in the post-independence period for about 20 years should reveal his humanity so openly through his poetry. This was certainly not a Mobutu or an Amin.

In this poem it is the African references which dominate, but North African rather than West African. We are invited to sing and dance with Tunisian dancing girls. The sounds, smells and sights of the dancers are all here; after reading the poem, we can shut our eyes and join the scene.

Les djerbiennes

Léopold Sédar SENGHOR

Inspire-moi, Tanit la Tendre, Tanit la Tunisienne,
Quand je chante les Djerbiennes au rythme des tam-tams et tabalas.
Les voilà entrant dans la danse, vases sveltes, un vase sur la tête altière.
Les voilà longues lisses, les Djerbiennes à la tête d’or
Et les hauts dieux d’ébène pour rythmer leurs pas.
Les tam-tams dansent et les tabalas, les tam-tams sous les mains d’ébène dur.
Les voici de soie fine, les Djerbiennes, soyeuses et souples
Et déroulant rythmée leur fuite frissonnante, gracieuse.
Et montent les hosannahs dans la nuit bleue étoilée.

From <;

The danse takes place outside, under the starry night sky, perhaps in some oasis in the desert. Ebony hands make the drums ring out, and the long-legged girls, some carrying vases on their heads, dressed in silk and moving gracefully and sensuously fill the night with their dancing. Bewitching and powerful…

The Poetry Dude

Comme je passais rue Fontaine

Here is another poem from Leopold Senghor, former President of Senegal, who I think was the first African head of state to relinquish power voluntarily. A fine example and also a model for his poetics, all-round humanity and willingness to lay open his sensibilities to the whole world in his poetry.

This is a poem which captures a moment in which a moment, a sensation, in this case the sound of some jazz music coming out of a bar, evokes at the same time the sense of exile, but also a connection with the poet’s homeland. It is a bit like a Proustian involuntary memory moment (madeleine, uneven cobblestones etc.)

From the content it looks like the poem describes a moment and the feelings of Senghor’s life in Paris, before the independence of his country, Senegal, when he returned to become President.

Comme je passais

Léopold Sédar SENGHOR

Comme je passais rue Fontaine,
Un plaintif air de jazz
Est sorti en titubant,
Ébloui par le jour,
Et m’a chuchoté sa confidence
Comme je passais tout devant
La Cabane cubaine.
Un parfum pénétrant de Négresse
Voilà des nuits,
Voilà bien des jours au sommeil absent.
Réveillés en moi les horizons que je croyais défunts.
Et je saute de mon lit tout à coup, comme un buffle
Mufle haut levé, jambes écartées,
Comme un buffle humant, dans le vent
Et la douceur modulée de la flûte polie,
La bonne odeur de l’eau sous les dakhars
Et celle, plus riche de promesses, des moissons mûres
Par les rizières.

From <;

The poem describes how, walking down the rue Fontaine in Paris, the poet hears a jazz melody drifting out of a Cuban bar. The tune is plaintive and soft and seems to be aimed directly at the poet as a discreet message delivered as he is passing by. he is alert and alive to any sensation which reminds him of the homeland he loves. The melody seems to be accompanied by the perfume of a black woman, it is sensual and somewhat intoxicating.

The poet thinks of the sleepless days and nights he has spent thinking of the places he has lost. The final part of the poem takes him back to the places in his heart, with the buffalos sniffing the wind, the gentle sound of a flute, the smell of water and the rich perfume of rice ready to harvest in the rice fields.

The poem is a journey back from a place of exile and disorientation back to a place where the poet feels at home, a journey made possible by the chance of hearing a few notes of music coming out of a bar. It is at the same time a poem of alienation and a poem of belonging, and the art of the poet is to link these two ideas and express in a very moving way the experience of someone away from his homeland.

The Poetry Dude

New York ! D’abord j’ai été confondu par ta beauté, ces grandes filles d’or aux jambes longues.

Today we return to the rare and rarefied world of Presidential poetry, with a piece by Leopold Senghor. Senghor was President of Senegal in the 1960s and 1970s and also a very accomplished poet. He was one of the very few of the first generation of post-colonial African leaders to give up office voluntarily, and I like to think that was very consistent with him being a first-rate poet. This poem is about New York, from the perspective of a first time visitor from a completely different place and captures the impressions and feelings which inevitably come forth, inspired by that great city

New York
Leopold Sedar Senghor

New York ! D’abord j’ai été confondu par ta beauté, ces grandes filles d’or aux jambes longues.
Si timide d’abord devant tes yeux de métal bleu, ton sourire de givre
Si timide. Et l’angoisse au fond des rues à gratte-ciel
Levant des yeux de chouette parmi l’éclipse du soleil.
Sulfureuse ta lumière et les fûts livides, dont les têtes foudroient le ciel
Les gratte-ciel qui défient les cyclones sur leurs muscles d’acier et leur peau patinée de pierres.
Mais quinze jours sur les trottoirs chauves de Manhattan
– C’est au bout de la troisième semaine que vous saisit la fièvre en un bond de jaguar
Quinze jours sans un puits ni pâturage, tous les oiseaux de l’air
Tombant soudain et morts sous les hautes cendres des terrasses.
Pas un rire d’enfant en fleur, sa main dans ma main fraîche
Pas un sein maternel, des jambes de nylon. Des jambes et des seins sans sueur ni odeur.
Pas un mot tendre en l’absence de lèvres, rien que des coeurs artificiels payés en monnaie forte
Et pas un livre où lire la sagesse. La palette du peintre fleurit des Cristaux de corail.
Nuits d’insomnie ô nuits de Manhattan ! si agitées de feux follets, tandis que les klaxons hurlent des heures vides
Et que les eaux obscures charrient des amours hygiéniques, tels des fleuves en crue des cadavres d’enfants.


Voici le temps des signes et des comptes
New York ! or voici le temps de la manne et de l’hysope.
Il n’est que d’écouter les trombones de Dieu, ton coeur battre au rythme du sang ton sang.
J’ai vu dans Harlem bourdonnant de bruits de couleurs solennelles et d’odeurs flamboyantes
– C’est l’heure du thé chez le livreur-en-produits-pharmaceutiques
J’ai vu se préparer la fête de la inuit à la fuite du jour. Je proclame la Nuit plus véridique que le jour.
C’est l’heure pure où dans les rues, Dieu fait germer la vie d’avant mémoire
Tous les éléments amphibies rayonnants comme des soleils.
Harlem Harlem ! voici ce que j’ai vu Harlem Harlem !
Une brise verte de blés sourdre des pavés labourés par les Pieds nus de danseurs Dans
Croupes ondes de soie et seins de fers de lance, ballets de nénuphars et de masques fabuleux
Aux pieds des chevaux de police, les mangues de l’amour rouler des maisons basses.
Et j’ai vu le long des trottoirs, des ruisseaux de rhum blanc des ruisseaux de lait noir dans le brouillard bleu des cigares.
J’ai vu le ciel neiger au soir des fleurs de coton et des ailes de séraphins et des panaches de sorciers.
Écoute New York ! ô écoute ta voix mâle de cuivre ta voix vibrante de hautbois, l’angoisse bouchée de tes larmes tomber en gros caillots de sang
Écoute au loin battre ton coeur nocturne, rythme et sang du tam-tam, tam-tam sang et tam-tam.


New York ! je dis New York, laisse affluer le sang noir dans ton sang
Qu’il dérouille tes articulations d’acier, comme une huile de vie
Qu’il donne à tes ponts la courbe des croupes et la souplesse des lianes.
Voici revenir les temps très anciens, l’unité retrouvée la réconciliation du Lion du Taureau et de l’Arbre.
L’idée liée à l’acte l’oreille au coeur le signe au sens.
Voilà tes fleuves bruissants de caïmans musqués et de lamantins aux yeux de mirages. Et nul besoin d’inventer les Sirènes.
Mais il suffit d’ouvrir les yeux à l’arc-en-ciel d’Avril
Et les oreilles, surtout les oreilles à Dieu qui d’un rire de saxophone créa le ciel et la terre en six jours.
Et le septième jour, il dormit du grand sommeil nègre.

From <;


The poem begins with a first stanza describing the poet’s initial awe and wonder at the New York of skyscrapers, bright lights, long-legged women bustling through the streets and then, after two weeks this turns into a sort of alienation as the poet begins to miss the sights and sounds of his African countryside. He misses the pastures, the wells, the children, the slow pace of life and Manhattan suddenly seems soulless and inhuman.

The second stanza evokes his discovery of Harlem, a district of New York where the trombones play, where the soul re-emerges with the night life, jazz and the preponderance of black people. The poet conveys his joy at finding this place which is full of love, music and solidarity, and which reminds him of the beat of the African tam-tam drum. Alienation has now given way to a sense of belonging.

The third stanza is a cry of joy and hope that the influence of blacks can conquer all of New York and infuse it with vibrancy, music and the African soul. People just have to open their eyes to the rainbow of colour and their ears to the music of saxophones giving access to the divine, and New York will be reborn as a heaven on earth.

The poet thus celebrates the possibility of the triumph of the African spirit in the most iconic city in the USA, and, as such, it is a poem of hope and reconciliation. And joy. All qualities which are admirable in a political leader; the world would be a better place of there were more like Senghor.

The Poetry Dude