The subversion and empowerment of Léopold Sédar Senghor’s “Black Woman”

Written by Hope Olagoke 

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Illustrated by Sâde Popoola @shadz_art

Poetry (either reading or writing it) had always been a form of artistic expression I tried to evade – a habit I picked up from secondary school as I found poems often ambiguous. My swift decision to major in English and literary studies in university lacked a reminder that I would have to deal with poems throughout my degree. A course I took in my junior year of university introduced me to Négritude, a cultural and literary movement that laid importance on embracing African heritage and identity. Therein, Léopold Sédar Senghor’s “Black Woman” was recommended as a Négritude poem written by one of the reputable figures, who pioneered this significant cultural movement. Thus, I discovered the masterpiece that would not only ignite my love for poetry, but also awaken my sense of self as African and, above all, as a Black Woman. 

Being raised in Nigeria, I noticed that certain cultural practices had normalized a devaluation of African identity: the idolization of Western values still plagues Nigerian society as a colossal effect of colonialism. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Eurocentric beauty standard still permeates the Nigerian consciousness. The Western standard of beauty and femininity which includes fair skin, slim body types, straight or wavy hair, and certain features, such as a narrow nose or high cheekbones, is what Senghor rejected in “Black Woman”.  At the time the poem was written, beauty and the worthiness of a culture was seen through a Eurocentric lens. Senghor renounced this approach with his appreciation of Black women and his reiteration of the worthiness of African culture (Ayodeji). Moreover, popular phrases like “Black is Beautiful” were created by Braithwaite, his brother and AJASS co-founder, Elombe Brath, as a form of protest against this prejudice (Jackson).

“Black Woman” was originally published in 1945 and was first written in French as “Femme Noir”, before being translated into English. The poem consists of thirty-three lines and seven stanzas and eulogizes the physical features of Black women as a metaphorical appraisal of African heritage. Prior to a discussion in class on the historical context behind the poem, I was allured by its content and title. My favorite line in stanza 1 reads: “clothed with your colour which is life with your form which is beauty!” (2 -3). I marveled at Senghor’s idolization of women who looked like me, especially in a time when it was pervasive for Black women to be derided for their looks as opposing the Eurocentric beauty standards. However, I was unimpressed when in class the poem was only studied as a symbol for the appraisal of Africa rather than of the qualities of Black women as described in the poem. 

A case in point, hair texture and skin color are two features I have been scorned for in my lived experiences in Nigeria. The poem “Black Woman ” eulogizes dark-skinned women as the poetic persona states: “Gazelle limped in paradise, pearls are stars on the night of your skin” (23 -24). In a country like Nigeria, where colorism is prevalent, growing up as a dark-skinned girl meant derogatory comments from familiar and unfamiliar faces on how I would look better if I were to be light-skinned. As a result, I started bleaching my skin from my teenage years until my third year of university. This is a shared experience among many Nigerian women, as research conducted by WHO has shown that Nigeria, with a rate of 77%, has the highest rate of women who bleach their skin (Shobayo).

The voluminous and coarse nature of Black women’s hair is also appreciated in the poem: “Under the shadow of your hair, my care is lightened by the neighbours suns of your eyes” (27 -28). Afro-textured hair is stereotyped and stigmatized around the world: even where there is protection against race-based hair discrimination, Black women bear the brunt of the burden when it comes to hair bias (Asare). Here in Nigeria, when visiting the hair salon, I still get unsolicited remarks from stylists on how I should consider perming my hair so that it would be easier to handle. Certain stylists go as far as refusing to work for clients with natural hair. However, over the years there has been social awareness positively impacting the perception of Black hair, with Instagram showing 21.8 million “natural hair” posts (Griffin). This is a significant milestone for us as Black people.

In my final year of university, I learnt about Womanism, a strand of feminism with Black women as its focal point. Alice Walker, a champion of this movement, delves into the challenges faced by Black women in her novel The Color Purple. Amidst the protagonist’s struggle with the male characters in her life, Walker also explores the discrimination Black Women are exposed to when their looks are perceived to be unattractive, just as portrayed in Celie’s life. Walker, through Celie’s self-acceptance, shows the power of rejecting self-hating ideologies as a path to liberation for Black Women.

Léopold Sédar Senghor’s celebration of our African heritage through the affirmation of the physical features of a “Black Woman” allowed me to reflect on the essence of his message: that affirming our African identity and loving our Blackness goes hand in hand. Especially for Black women who have constantly been derided for their looks over the years, comprehensive education should be given in academia on the significance of unlearning the internalized Western beauty standards that have detrimentally influenced our perception of ourselves. Therefore, “Black Woman” should be studied in this light in University curricula, particularly in the field of English Literature. It could find a place in a module on Black Feminism in the discourse of the unique challenges, experiences, and perspectives of Black women.

Works Cited

Adedeji, Ridwan. “Content Analysis of Léopold Sédar Senghor’s Black Woman”. Literature Padi, May 30, 2021.

Asare, Janice. “How Hair Discrimination affects Black Women at Work”. Harvard Business Review, May 10, 2023.

Griffin, Chanté. “How Natural Black Hair at Work Became a Civil Rights Issue.  JSTOR Daily, July 3, 2019. 

Jackson, Ashawnta. “Kwame Brathwaite Showed the World that Black is Beautiful”.  Arts and Culture, June 26, 2023.

Senghor, Léopold. “Black Woman”. West African Verse, Longman Group Ltd, 1965, pp. 96-97. 

Shobayo, Isaac. “77% of Nigerian Women use Bleaching Cream — WHO”. Tribune Online, March 25, 2023.

Walker, Alice. “Color Purple”. Harcourt Brace Jovanovinch, 1982.

Hope Olagoke is a content and creative writer. Narrating Black women’s experiences is her
greatest source of satisfaction. She is also a big lover of art and has aspirations to be an art
journalist in the nearest future.

Sade (aka Shadz) is a 24-year-old, British-Nigerian illustrator based in London. Her passion for creating began as a child when she would draw her favourite animated characters or create her own. This grew into a love for portraiture, using minimalist styles, inspired by her love for pop art, and print-making processes. Her work centres on celebrating her culture and identity and representing those who don’t often see themselves, their interests, or their struggles represented in art. @shadzs_art

2 responses to The subversion and empowerment of Léopold Sédar Senghor’s “Black Woman”

  1. Chidinma

    There’s a uniqueness in her writings 🥹❤️ Hope Olagoke you’re going places✨

  2. Lawal Oluwadamilola

    This is an absolutely beautiful writing, It’s sincere and true.

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