Léopold Sédar Senghor (9 October 1906 – 20 December 2001) was a Senegalese poet, politician, and cultural theorist who for two decades served as the first president of Senegal (1960–1980). Senghor was the first African elected as a member of the Académie française. Before independence, he founded the political party called the Senegalese Democratic Bloc. He is regarded by many as one of the most important African intellectuals of the 20th century.
He graduated from the University of Paris, where he received the Agrégation in French Grammar. Subsequently, he was designated professor at the universities of Tours and Paris, where he taught during the period 1935–1945.
Senghor decided to start his teaching years at the Lycée René-Descartes in Tours; he also taught at the Lycée Marcelin Berthelot in Saint-Maur-des-Fosses near Paris. He also studied linguistics taught by Lilias Homburger at the École pratique des hautes études. He studied with prominent social scientists such as Marcel Cohen, Marcel Mauss and Paul Rivet (director of the Institut d’ethnologie de Paris). Senghor, along with other intellectuals of the African diaspora who had come to study in the colonial capital, coined the term and conceived the notion of “négritude”, which was a response to the racism still prevalent in France. It turned the racial slur nègre into a positively connoted celebration of African culture and character. The idea of négritude informed not only Senghor’s cultural criticism and literary work, but also became a guiding principle for his political thought in his career as a statesman.
In 1939, Senghor was enrolled as a French army enlisted man (2ème Classe) with the rank of private within the 59th Colonial Infantry division in spite of his higher education and his later acquisition of the French Citizenship in 1932. A year later, during the German invasion of France, he was taken prisoner by the Germans in la Charité-sur-Loire. He was interned in different camps, and finally at Front Stalag 230, in Poitiers. Front Stalag 230 was reserved for colonial troops captured during the war. German soldiers wanted to execute him and the others the same day they were captured, but they escaped this fate by yelling Vive la France, vive l’Afrique noire! (“Long live France, long live Black Africa!”) A French officer told the soldiers that executing the African prisoners would dishonour the Aryan race and the German Army. In total, Senghor spent two years in different prison camps, where he spent most of his time writing poems. In 1942 he was released for medical reasons.
He resumed his teaching career while remaining involved in the resistance during the Nazi occupation.
He spent the last years of his life with his wife in Verson, near the city of Caen in Normandy, where he died on 20 December 2001. His funeral was held on 29 December 2001 in Dakar. Officials attending the ceremony included Raymond Forni, president of the Assemblée nationale and Charles Josselin, state secretary for the minister of foreign affairs, in charge of the Francophonie. Jacques Chirac (who said, upon hearing of Senghor’s death: “Poetry has lost one of its masters, Senegal a statesman, Africa a visionary and France a friend”) and Lionel Jospin, respectively president of the French Republic and the prime minister, did not attend. Their failure to attend Senghor’s funeral made waves as it was deemed a lack of acknowledgement for what the politician had been in his life. The analogy was made with the Senegalese Tirailleurs who, after having contributed to the liberation of France, had to wait more than forty years to receive an equal pension (in terms of buying power) to their French counterparts. The scholar Erik Orsenna wrote in the newspaper Le Monde an editorial titled: “J’ai honte” (I am ashamed).