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Great images of the past: “The dead ones who have always refused to die…”

By Chimdi Maduagwu

Writers are, according to Sir Philip Sidney and many other thinkers, the unacknowledged legislators of the society. I agree with them, because the sharp pen of the writer is capable of tearing into the rubrics of societal norms, mores and even laws. They can construct, reconstruct and also subtly obliterate beliefs and ways of life, generally.

They can illuminate and also cast a shadow on existing concepts. Writers are capable of putting some form of checks on the society.  We are Africans and skills in modern writing came to meet us only recently, one may say; however, a lot of achievements have been recorded ever since.

I am fascinated by the literary records of an African who did what, for want of a better expression, I join other commentators to regard as pioneering work in African writing. I mentioned him already but I now want to get closer to his dedicated contributions to the development of African writing. He is Leopold Sedar Senghor.

First, Senghor’s personality is an expression of both the success and failure of the French colonial policy of Assimilation. Success in that through this policy, he is able to transform into a Frenchman, riding through that to – attain the highest level of education available in a prestigious university – Senghor made a Ph. D (agrege); become a good Catholic Christian – like Christopher Okigbo;

become a Professor; become a Senegalese deputy in French National Assembly; attained the position of a Minister in the French Government; and become a member of the Council of Europe. These achievements are of mutual benefits to both the man and his colonial masters; and also to the man’s African society and his colonial French society. On the other hand, one can identify elements of failure, even though it may appear somehow risky.

On his part, he was turned into a Black Frenchman and almost succumbed to the danger of absolute erasure of his Africanness; in fact he was at the brinks of that before a turn in his consciousness rescued him. On the part of the colonial policy, Senghor appeared to have patiently equipped himself thoroughly with the best of values from his colonial lords, and somehow, turned against his benefactors.

The instruments he gathered from them would be his great arsenal in a successful battle with them because he would later become a writer, philosopher, politician, statesman and the first president of the Republic of Senegal. In other words, he championed the movement that culminated in the independence of Senegal, a sizeable West African state that came under effective French rule at about 1865.

There is no doubt therefore that Senghor’s fame arrived from many angles. My concern here is his achievements as a writer. He is usually associated with the doctrine and philosophy of Negritude. Just before he returned to champion the political course of his people of Senegal, he had first made a return in his personal and intellectual consciousness… as a writer, in a poem, “The Return of the Prodigal Son.”

Senghor’s change revealed that the assimilation policy was not quite a successful endeavour that transformed blacks Africans into French citizens but more of a successful socio-political entrenchment that created a gulf between what would development into the civilized and the uncivilized black people.

Intellectuals like Senghor who found themselves in France at those early days were exposed to the true nature of Western, or more precisely French civilization. To them, that civilization was not just cold, but hollow and was not comparable to the warm friendliness and homogeneous riches of the African tradition that nurtured them.

With the benefit of the knowledge of the two worlds of Europe and Africa, the likes of Senghor were able to draw comparisons.

They came with an unequivocal agreement of the superiority of African values and virtue over European ways. They demonstrated this by idolizing and extolling the virtues of Africa. They become advocates, exponents and defenders of the beauty, vibrancy and strength of Africa. Their love for the land, the culture and the peoples of Africa garnished the pages of their literary pieces.

First Senghor and his colleagues were quick to address issues that were going to completely complicate the already uncertain personality of the Africa. For instance, Senghor was fast and resolute enough to correct that his ancestors, as an African, were not “Gaulish” but African.

As a result of his new consciousness, he started creating and inserting memorable images of Africa in his poems – “funeral feasts … noise of quarrels … rhapsodies of the priests … pagan voices chanting … processions and palms and triumphal arches … dances of nubile girls … chorus of wrestlers …

shrill love cry of women etc. one may want to say that in tandem with his colleague or more still his follower David Diop, he celebrated “Africa of proud warriors and ancestral Savannahs.” He was bent on laying bare his African heritage, in an aesthetic pattern as part of his black contribution to the universal pool of civilization.

He attempted to give shape and form to the personality of the African and perhaps for the first time, the African identity became some subject of discussion. Other Black Writers like Aime Cesaire from the Caribbean Island of French Martinique and Leon Damas contributed tremendously in expanding the vision of the Blacks about themselves.

Universal Black brotherhood soon emerged with its emotion laden peculiar features. Blackness experienced a metamorphosis from something sinister to something simply elegant and beautiful. His first collection of poem, Songs of Shadow (Chants d’Ombre 1945)   established him not only as a poet, but as a philosopher and crusader of the course of a people.

It may not be fair to subject him to harsh criticism now especially if decision is taken to assess him with newer consciousness and realization. One major flaw of his creative and critical practice was his penchant for the past and precisely, the dead – who have always refused to die – (“In Memoriam.”) That gave his art a flavor of morbidity.

He was preoccupied with the past and though this helped to organize the present for the African of his time. But one wonders if he had any vision of the future. It is easy to recall that not long after the strong recognition accorded Senghor and his Negritude, questions as to the validity of the movement started springing up.

Amongst the early critics of the movement was a young Nigerian writer then, Wole Soyinka. To Soyinka, it was superfluous to continue harping on Negritude, because “a trigger does not proclaim its tigritude, it pounces.”

That statement itself is neither here nor there – of course that is quintessential Soyinka – because his poet persona in “Telephone Conversation” does proclaim, unlike a tiger, some form of ‘tigritude’. Let me conclude that no matter what the present generation may want to say or do, Senghor’s Negritude did a major job and is still available for more in the alter of arts.

 


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