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

Je repasse ta lettre, a l’ombre du ciel bleu du parasol

This is a fine poem by Leopold Senghor which combines evocative imagery from his native Senegal in west Africa with a sense of longing for lost love and a tribute to the power of poetry. A heady mix indeed, and I think Senghor pulls it off.

Je repasse


Je repasse ta lettre, à l’ombre du ciel bleu du parasol.
À mes pieds, la mer molle se froisse rythmique à l’arène
Le chant s’essore. La mer jusqu’à la passe est pareille à tes yeux de sable et d’algues
Jusqu’à la masse profonde du large, où fleurissent tous les miracles
Sous les cris blancs des mouettes, l’écume des longues pirogues.

Sur la plage rythmique, les canards sauvages en groupe songent, immobiles muets.
Je songe à mon enfant dernier, l’enfant de l’avenir
Aux cils de palmes, aux yeux de puits sans fond.
Ses cheveux plats fulgurent de fauves éclairs.
Où est donc la fille de mon espoir défunt, Isabelle aux yeux clairs ou Soukeïna de soie noire ?
Elle m’écrirait des lettres frissonnant d’ailes folles
D’images coloriées, avec de grandes bêtes aux yeux de Séraphins
Avec des oiseaux-fleurs, des serpents-lamantins sonnant des trompettes d’argent.
Car elle existe, la fille Poésie. Sa quête est ma passion
L’angoisse qui point ma poitrine, la nuit
La jeune fille secrète et les yeux baissés, qui écoute pousser ses cils ses ongles longs.
Et tu demandes :
— Mais pourquoi cette brume et ces mirages au fond de tes yeux étales ?
— La mer est belle et l’air est doux, comme jadis sur les bords des Grands Lacs

From <;

The first five lines set the scene; the poet is reading a letter from his loved one, while sitting on the beach, listening to the sounds of the sea and the gulls, and the wake of the fishing canoes. He connects the sea with his lover by comparing it to her eyes. I have seen fishing canoes drawn up on the beach in Senegal with seabirds circling overhead in the hope of picking up a fish, so this stanza brings back memories.

As the poet sits on the beach his mind wanders, he thinks of his child, he thinks of his former lovers and he thinks of his love for poetry, which is his ultimate passion. And all of these thoughts are connected to the poet’s surroundings by the sea which reinforce his feelings and emotions. The poem is atmospheric and quite beautiful in its allusiveness and attachment to the places loved by the poet.

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