Black Woman by Leopold Sedar Senghor Summary/Analysis, Background, Setting, Theme and Figurative Expression

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Naked woman, black woman

Clothed with your colour which is life
with your form which is beauty!

In your shadow I have grown up; the
gentleness of your hands was laid over my eyes.

And now, high up on the sunbaked
pass, at the heart of summer, at the heart of noon,
I come upon you, my Promised Land,
And your beauty strikes me to heart
like the flash of an eagle.

Naked woman, dark woman Firm-fleshed ripe fruit, sombre raptures
of black wine, mouth making lyrical my mouth
Savannah stretching to clear horizons,
savannah shuddering beneath the East Wind's
eager caresses.

Carved tom-tom, taut tom-tom, muttering
under the Conqueror's fingers.

Your solemn contralto voice is the
spiritual song of the Beloved.

Naked woman, dark woman

Oil that no breath ruffles, calm oil on the
athlete's flanks of the Princes of Mali
Gazelle limbed in Paradise, pearls are stars on the
night of your skin.

Delights of the mind, the glinting of red
gold against your watered skin.

Under the shadow of your hair, my care
is lightened by the neighboring suns of your eyes.

Naked woman, black woman,
I sing your beauty that passes, the form
that I fix in the Eternal,

Before jealous fate turn you to ashes to
feed the roots of life.

— Leopold Sedar Senghor 

 

Background 

“Black Woman” is written by an African poet named Leopold Sedar Senghor who has overtime though of how to beautify the blackness of a black woman as against what has been hold against it in past time of black symbolizing evil, fear, dread and so on, this poem is basically in counter reaction against the very poems that has been written by lot of white writer praising the whiteness of white woman. Writers like Dante, Boccaccio,  and Yeats have devoted part of their writings to the elaborate description of the aesthetics of the white woman: her white and elegant hands, the face’s whiteness, its radiance as that of the sun, its dazzling, as the moon, etc. Over time, a woman’s beauty was to be seen in terms of her whiteness, candour, glory and emotion incandescence. However, Senghor’s poem published in 1936 was the first time an African was devoting poems to the beauty of the African woman when this had never been thought about. Senghor derived the impetus from the Harlem Renaissance movement of African-American writers of the 1920s in New York. He was to promote this self-assertion using the medium of negritude, a term first used by Aimé Cesaire in a 1932 poem. “Black Woman” was thus a revolutionary poem, published at a time not too many people were ready for it. It thus became Senghor’s most cited poem, largely because of its ideological content and because the black woman was for the first time eulogized. with this new evolution by Senghor, many other writers have follow suit as to appreciation of the beauty of the skin of a black woman.

Setting

The setting of a place is the time and place where the literary work of art has been carried out, the setting of the poem is Africa. However, when the poet entitles his poem Black Woman he is referring to the black woman, whether she is in Africa or elsewhere, say in the Americas or the Caribbean. The home of all blacks is Africa. As pointed out earlier, Senghor broke new grounds. Rather than write a poem and praise the white woman, he devoted a poem entirely to one black woman which eventually is to, and for all African females. Africa, as earlier said, is the poem’s scene in terms of time and physical locale. The poem is set in the 1920s and 1930s when no thought was spared for the black woman in matters of appeal or charm. All features which should have been used to paint her ugliness and nastiness become rehabilitated /and given positive valuations. Rehabilitated are such terms as “naked”, “black” “shadow”, dark??. ‘”somber raptures”, “mouth”, “tom-tom”, “solemn contralto voice”, “spiritual song” (which reminds one of Black American spirituals), “oil”, “flanks”, “night of your skin”,. “watered skin” “shadow of your hair”, “suns of your eyes” etc. Ordinarily, the above words and expressions would have meant very little, but the poet uses them to describe, and cause the admiration for the image of the black woman.

The images used in the poem remind us of natural events such as animals, the bush (“savannah”‘), ripe fruit, black wine, East Wind (the elements) paradise, pearls, red gold, sun-baked pass (a route in a mountainous area) etc. As a consequence, the scene is largely of the thicket, “heart of summer”, “flash of an eagle”, “‘sun-baked pass”, “somber raptures” and a specific land which the poem identifies as “my Promised Land. The black woman’s beauty may be ephemeral, but it is conceived in the other world which suggests some kind of permanence. The poetic persona has to praise this beauty quickly, while it lasts, before probably through cremation (burning of a corpse) it is turned to ashes to serve as manure “to feed the root of life”. This also would symbolize the fact that Africans needs to appreciate what they have as not to throw out what has been endowed to them by nature away all because of having option (The white way)

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Subject Matter/Summary

Senghor stance here is to praise the beauty of the black woman who is nothing but an epitome of beauty.Either the woman is actually “naked” or she has been undressed by the poetic persona’s eyes. The black woman is “clothed” with her colour of black, with shapely beauty. When the poet says “in your shadow I have grown up”, our mind engages a mother who has looked after a child from infancy to adulthood during which “the gentleness of your hands was laid over my eyes.” Every segment of the poem is addressed to “Naked woman, black woman.” When it is not “black woman,” it is “dark woman” which may be a shade of blackness. The black woman in question is “firm-fleshed ripe fruit” akin to the “raptures of black wine,” akin to “mouth making lyrical my mouth.” That is a tasty wine. This “naked woman” has
a “solemn contralto voice” just like a “spiritual song” sung by “the Beloved.” The woman is a “gazelle limbed in paradise.” The poet sings of a “beauty that passes,” the beauty can only be found in the world beyond. Only “jealous Fate” will turn this beauty “to ashes to feed the roots of life.”

Lines 1-5

The black woman is naked. This naked woman must be totally so because we are informed that she is “clothed with your colour” which is the colour of life with a beautiful shape. It is in the “shadow” of this woman that the poetic persona grew up; “the gentleness of your hands” (1. 3) may have smothered his face as a child, evincing care and concern.

Lines 6-10

The poetic persona has turned mature; it is “at the heart of summer,/at the heart of noon” (I. 6-7). He
comes upon his “Promised Land” (Africa) (I. 8), at the climax of her beauty which strikes him “to the
heart like the flash of/an eagle” (I. 9-10).

Lines 11-19

The poetic persona invokes “Naked woman, dark woman” (1. 11). The woman has moved from being “black” to being “dark.” Each colour is a shade of the other and thus means the same. The “naked woman” is metaphorically a “firm fleshed ripe fruit’, akin to the “somber raptures of black wine”, (L. 12) epitomized by “mouth making lyrical my mouth” (I. 13). This is sensual, provocative, if not downright erotic. The image is that of a vast space of the “savannah stretching to clear horizons, savanna/shuddering beneath the East Wind’s eager caresses” (I. 14-15). It is a savannah village, probably Senghor’s Joal in Senegal where “carved tom-tom, taut tom-tom” (1.16) announces that a battle has been won. Our attention is drawn once again to the black woman with her “solemn contralto voice” which sings “the spiritual song of the/Beloved” (W. 18-19).

Lines 20-24

The naked woman’s beauty is further heightened by referring to “oil that no breath ruffles” (1. 21). The oil the naked woman spots is compared to the type that issues from “the athlete’s flanks” or from “the flanks of the Princes of Mali” (I. 22). The ‘flanks refers to the meat located between the end of the rib region and the hip. This portion is usually oily when cooked. The “dark woman” is “gazelle limbed” created in “paradise” just as “pearls are stars on the night/of your skin” (W. 24-25). The “pearls” may be referring to the ornaments on the body of the “naked woman, dark woman.”

Lines 25-28

The naked woman causes “delights of the mind” (1. 25) in the same way that “red gold” glints and adorns the woman’s watered skin” (1. 26). An essential dimension of her beauty is “the shadow of her] hair” (2. 27) which is also deeply dark or black. Her eyes are compared to “suns” said to be “neighboring” (4. 24) because they happen to be juxtaposed (i.e. set side by side) the way the (eyes) are located on the human face.

Lines 29-33

The poet returns to the use of “black woman” as an apostrophe to whom he sings. Because the woman is mortal, her beauty “passes” although her form and shape is eternally crafted. Her beauty corresponds to those of creatures in another world. The poetic persona wants to have enough of the “black woman” as quickly as possible “before jealous Fate” turns her “to ashes to feed the/roots of life” (I. 33).

Themes

1. The Natural Beauty of Africa 

As pointed out earlier, beauty had not been associated with the African woman. But as negritude had tried to establish, the black woman is beautiful. The entire poem is devoted to the beauty of the black female. To be able to do this, the woman had to be totally naked or metaphorically undressed by the poetic persona’s eyes. The poet does not seem to be addressing this poem to a particular woman as those he devoted to Naett or the woman he makes reference to in the poem, “I Will Pronounce Your Name.” With respect to “Black Woman,” the reference to woman is in the generic sense of the word from the perspective of the African. The poet describes her colour, shape, shadow and the gentleness of her hands. Elements of beauty are evoked in “sun-baked pass”, the ‘heart of summer” and “the heart of noon.” The reference to “Promised Land” suggests the poet may also be talking about Africa herself as is
common in negritude poetry. Other references to African beauty are “firm-fleshed ripe fruit’, “somber raptures of black wine” “mouth making lyrical my mouth”, “East Wind’s eager caresses” “‘solemn contralto voice”, “the Beloved”, “calm oil on the athlete’s flanks”, “gazelle limbed in paradise”, “pearls are stars on the night/of your skin”, “glinting of the red gold’, “watered skin”, “neighboring suns of the eyes” etc. As already mentioned, these elements of beauty could be referring to the African land as well. However, what is obvious and direct are the nakedness and blackness of the African woman.

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2. Blackness as Epitome of beauty

Before Senghor’s poem of the 1930s, blackness was not a subject of anything- be it aesthetics, psychology, humanism or even history. In Senghor’s poetry, blackness for the first time became a subject of aesthetics because it (blackness) required to be rehabilitated. Many words and expressions which reflected blackness were for the first time given prominence. For instance, the naked woman is said to be “clothed with your colour which is life” (1. 2). In other words, blackness is here recognized as the ‘colour of life.’ Both the woman’s colour and her shadow are also recognized; her beauty “strikes me to the heart like the flash of/an eagle” (I. 9-10). Eagle is a bird of beauty and elegance. The “wine” that has “raptures” is “black” and leaves the “mouth making lyrical my mouth” (I. 13). Savannah is an African landscape feature; because of its vastness, it stretches “to clear horizons” (1. 14) which enables “the East Wind’s eager caresses” (I. 15) to roam freely. The beating of the “carved tom-tom, taut tom-
tom” (L. 16) is let loose across the savannah area. The tom-tom is a small drum often held under the armpit of its beater. Here it is “the Conqueror’s fingers” that beat it, when a war is to be declared or when one has been won. Blackness is also noticeable in “Under the shadow of your hair” (1. 27) and “the neighboring suns of your eyes” (1.28). After all Africans are known for good neighborliness as evinced by the nearness of the human eyes.

 

3. The Womanness of African Land

In the poem, the black woman could pass for the African land. It is naked and laid bare by many years of exploitation by colonization. It is a beautiful land whose soil is black as well. It is “clothed with your colour which is life, with your form/which is beauty!” (I. 2-3) The protagonist grows up “in your shadow” possessing “the gentleness of your hands” (11.4-5). The sun is intense, “high up on the sun- baked pass at the heart of/summer’ (I. 6-7). The African land is the “Promised Land” whose beauty “strikes me to the heart like the flash of/an eagle” (11.9-10). The land bears “firm-fleshed ripe fruit’ from which “black wine” is brewed; some quantity of this “black wine” would “make my mouth lyrica!” with song or even speech. The poet’s Serere tribal land is a “savannah stretching to clear horizons, savannah/shuddering beneath the East Wind’s eager caresses” (I. 14-15). The “carved tom-tom, taut tom-tom” is no where known as in Africa, beaten by “the Conqueror’s fingers” after or before the commencement of an internecine war. The soil” and the “calm oil” issue from the land of intense sun; it is also the land of “gazelle limbed in paradise” (1. 23) whose stars are “pearls on the night of your skin” (11. 23-24). The Africanness of this land is accentuated “under the shadow of your hair” (1. 27) and “the neighboring suns of your eyes” (I. 28). The sun’ in this poem pluralized, also recalls Africa, the home of intense tropical sun and heat.

4. A successful “anti-racist racism’

A negritude poem is one in which everything African is praised so that Africa can attract respect. The reason for it is that before negritude, everything African was cajoled and criticized as unwholesome. In order to reverse what was then in vogue, there was a need to reverse the negative image of Africa. A French philosopher by name Jean-Paul Sartre called this effort *anti-racist racism’. While a poem like “Black Woman” is anti-racist, it is also a promotion of racism, this time against the whites. However, Senghor must have felt well for his poem to have been effective and achieved the purpose it had sought to achieve The poet centres his work on a black woman who is naked. Not on one that wears anything. This is to present her as she was created because adornments such as clothing could exaggerate a woman’s beauty or even suppress it. Rather than be clothed with an apparel, this one is “clothed with your colour
(black) which is life, with your form which is beauty!” (I. 2-3) Form is the figure, the shape. The poet invokes her “shadow” which is also black. It was out of this shadow that “I have grown up” (1. 4). That is, the poet-protagonist was catered for by this shadow, probably the mother’s. He further remarks that “the gentleness of your hands was laid over my eyes” (I. 4-5). Both the “heart of summer” and “the heart of noon” (I. 6-7) are terms of beauty and credited to “naked woman, black woman.” The poet praises the black woman’s beauty as striking him “to the heart like the flash of/an eagle” (W. 9-10).

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This black woman is “firm-fleshed ripe fruit” akin to the “somber raptures of black wine’ (. 12). Not red wine or white wine! The poet goes on to describe her environ – the savannah – which is cuddled by “the East Wind’s eager caresses” (I. 15). The tom-tom issues African music throughout the “savannah stretching to clear horizons” (I. 14). The woman’s voice issues in a “solemn contralto”. (1. 18) in the well-known feminine voice. All other descriptions of the black woman as “oil that no breath ruffles” or “calm oil on the athlete’s flanks” (11. 21-22); “gazelle limbed in paradise” (L. 23) “paradise” (1 23), “delights of the mind” (, 25), “the glinting of red gold” (1, 25); “Watered skin” (L. 26) etc, are aesthetic terms, terms of, and about beauty which demand or yield admiration. As a poet, he sings of
the Black Woman’s “beauty that passes” even as the “form” (of this beauty) has been derived from the Eternal”, the other world. The poet assures that he will praise this before him like one in a haste “before jealous Fate turn you to ashes to feed the/toots of life” (11. 32-33). Thus the poet recognizes the Black Woman’s mortality which is the lot of all human beings – white or black.

Language and Style

l. Rejection of European standards of beauty

Through the use of an impassioned language, Senghor rejects the European standards of beauty, and instead creates his own. A beautiful woman has to be judged from her total nakedness when she has no clothes on. This appears an uncanny suggestion or a desire to be erotic! However, the fact is that Senghor’s idea of beauty is to be realized most fully when the woman is assessed from nature. Black is the colour which should matter because it is the colour of life; it is also the “form/which is beauty!” The poet promotes all attributes of the black woman and of Africa such as “shadow” (mentioned twice in the poem), “sun-baked pass’ (Africa being the land of sunshine). The “heart of summer” and “the heart of noon?, each points to what the sun can do at these times. The poet emphasizes ripeness and maturity as when he refers to “firm-fleshed ripe fruit”,  “somber raptures of black wine” “taut tom tom”. “contralto voice”, “oil that no breath ruffles”, “calm oil”, “gazelle limbed in paradise”, “the glinting of red gold’,
the “neighboring suns” etc. These are some of the bases upon which an African woman’s beauty is to be judged. Notice also that the poet makes reference to “naked woman, black (or dark) woman” several times which shows that he is not keen about the beauty of any other human species.

2. Sensual imagery

The poem has images that evoke pleasurable and/or erotic sensations. Even the reference to “naked woman” already recalls sensuality; she is “clothed with your colour” which reinforces the nakedness. There is “the gentleness of your hands” which smothers his eyes. One of the most effective uses of sensuality in the poem is for the poet to have remarked thus: “And your beauty strikes me to the heart like the flash of/an eagle’. Other sensual images include,
“firm-fleshed ripe fruit’, “mouth making lyrical my mouth”, “East Wind’s eager caresses”,
“‘taut tom-tom”. “contralto voice”. “spiritual song of the/Beloved’, “calm oil”, “the athlete’s/flanks”, “gazelle limbed”. “pearls are stars” “delights of the mind”; “the glinting of red gold against/your watered skin” etc. The poet also refers to the woman’s beauty as having a shape (“form”) which is other-worldly and refers to “Fate” as being “jealous” as men could be if they share a woman with another man or know that she is available to their rival.

3. Ambiguity and abstraction

Ambiguity is a word or sentence that is open to more than one interpretation, explanation or meaning, especially if that meaning, for instance, cannot be determined from its context. Similarly, an abstraction is the act of generalizing features and characteristics, an idea of an unrealistic or visionary nature. Abstractions in a piece of poetry would be imprecise, occasionally making what is said to be ambiguous or making meaning contained therein to be double-deckered. How, for instance, may one who is naked “clothed with your colour which life…”? Has life a colour? The expression, “In your shadow I have grown up” either means “I grew up while sitting or learning under your shadow” or “Your shadow has enabled me to grow up.” The poet describes the naked woman as ” “my Promised Land.”

 

Refences : BK’s Summary Literature for student

Comprehensive Literature text for SSCE

Exam Focus

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