Last Updated on July 31, 2023 by Ralph Nyadzi
This tutorial will take you through a thorough analysis of “Black Woman”. “Black Woman” is a poem composed by Leopold Sedar Senghor. Leopold Senghor was a Senegalese poet, academic and politician. In fact, he was also the first president of independent Senegal.
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At Cegast Academy, you can learn more about the contribution of Leopold Senghor to the independence struggle in French West Africa. In case you didn’t know, this topic is right inside the SHS/WASSCE Government syllabus.
But right now, our focus is on Leopold Senghor the poet, not the politician.
Here are the major areas we shall cover in our analysis of “Black Woman”.
- Background information
- Subject matter
- Poetic Devices
So, here we go.
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Leopold Senghor’s poem, Black Woman, belongs to the negritude tradition in African Literature. The poet himself was a leading figure in the Negritude movement. It was a period that stretched from the 1930s to the 1950s.
So what is Negritude about? The term was coined to describe African Literature which concerns itself with the rediscovery and affirmation of the African identity. It was very much about the revival of black consciousness.
The Negritude movement started when Leopold Senghor and his compatriots in Europe at the time began to realize that it was a mistake to continue to hold European culture as superior to African ways. Many of them wrote poetry in particular to celebrate Africa and her black race.
Important Elements of Negritude Literature
Below are the recurring themes and features of Negritude literature in general, and poetry in particular (especially those coming from the writings of Leopold Senghor). You will be seeing a lot of these in the analysis of this poem, “Black Woman”, too.
- Glorification of blackness
- An idealized African culture and people
- Personification of the African continent as a beautiful black woman
- Extensive praise singing about the beauty of the black woman
- Lopsided comparison between Europe and Africa – Africa is often portrayed as an ideal environment. Europe is made to look pale in the shadow of Africa.
- A longing for Africa and her past glory
- Descriptive diction
- Hyperbolic (exaggerated) figures of speech and imagery
- Sensual or romantic allusions
- Expression of deep love and attachment to the object of admiration
- A tone that affirms the profoundness of the African cultural heritage and identity
- Nature imagery
- Imagery of Africa and Europe
- The use of the figure of speech known as apostrophe
- Major themes are: beauty, love and attachment, nostalgia, admiration
- In most cases, the poet writes from Europe where he imagines Africa in her beauty, splendour and glory.
Subject Matter of Black Woman
Next in this analysis of Black Woman is the subject matter of the poem. I’m about to show you the meaning of “Black Woman” by Leopold Senghor, the renowned Senegalese poet, academic and politician.
In Black Woman, the poet employs a combination of descriptive and narrative techniques. He also reveals to us the various identities of the black woman that make her almost complete.
Different Identities of the Black Woman
The poet shifts between different identities of the beloved. She is, at one time, simply a woman of startling physical beauty. Then she becomes the African woman of motherly qualities. After this, we return to the beautiful image of the beloved. Next, we see her as an object of romantic love surrendering under the power of her admirer, the “conqueror”. Her beauty then comes to the fore once more and, at the end of it all, she is a mortal being. Her beauty is not going to last forever. It is destined for destruction by death.
Beautiful Woman (Lines 1 – 3)
The poem Black Woman opens with the persona describing the striking physical beauty of the black woman. He imagines her right in front of him. This object of admiration is
The persona goes on to compare this black woman’s colour to life itself. Then, quickly, he speaks of the shape of her body (form) as an embodiment of beauty. This black woman, in effect, is extremely good-looking.
Mother (Lines 4 – 10)
The descriptive diction in the previous opening lines has changed to a narrative one.
In the lines that follow, the poet recollects his childhood spent under the motherly care of the black woman. He speaks in glowing terms about how the care and affection she showered on him played a vital role in his growth.
In your shadow I have grown up the
gentleness of your hands was laid over my eyes
Europe: Beautiful Image of the Black Woman Appears
The narrative style continues as we are speedily transported to Europe. The time is midday in the Summer season, “at heart of noon”.
Africa, in the image of a beautiful black woman, appears like a vision before the persona. He beholds her stunning beauty. So powerful is this beauty that the poet feels as if he has been stricken.
And your beauty strikes me to the heart
like the flash of an eagle
Romantic Lover (Lines 11 – 20)
We return to the description of the black woman. The poet portrays her as a lover. There are strong suggestions of romantic love from line 11 onwards. You can also not fail to notice the strong sexual undertones that keep coming up in the imagery evoked in these lines.
Firm-fleshed ripe fruit, sombre raptures
of black wine, mouth making lyrical my mouth
Savannah stretching to clear horizons
- Her flesh is firm, smooth and attractive
- She is like a ripe fruit, ready for consumption
- The liquid inside this “fruit” of the “naked” black woman is compared to black wine. She is tasty and has had an intoxicating effect on the persona.
“mouth making lyrical my mouth”
- Now the woman’s image is like the whole stretch of the Savannah grasslands of Africa. In effect, she is whole, expansive, beautiful and natural.
Then there is the “east wind” that blows across the Savannah. The east wind is cast in the image of a male lover. It can also be seen as a metaphor for the contact between Africa and the European colonialist.
The meeting between the Savannah and the east wind describes the embrace between the persona and the beloved.
There follows an eager caress between the two. The Savannah (black woman) shakes with emotion at the touch of the east wind (the masculine, more powerful conqueror)
Savannah shuddering beneath the East wind’s
The poet then moves away from the imagery of the Savannah to that of a “carved tom tom”.
The beloved black woman is thus like a cute traditional musical instrument – a drum. And as she feels the touch of the “conqueror”, her muscles and nerves grow tense (“taut”). Her emotions get stronger and, like the tom-tom, she makes very feeble and low moaning sounds (muttering) at the touch of the conqueror.
Carved tom tom, taut tom tom, muttering
under the Conqueror’s fingers
The sound she makes in this moment of ecstasy is solemn and deeply spiritual.
Beautiful Woman (Lines 21 – 29)
Leaving the imagery of romance behind, the poet gets back to continue his admiration for the beauty of his beloved.
- She is dark and naked
- The woman looks like the gazelle in its graceful appearance and movements
- She is like the calm oil
- Her stunning shiny beauty suggests only one thing. She could only have been formed in Paradise.
- The perfect darkness of her skin will make precious stones shine on it. Droplets of water on that dark skin will shine the same way.
- The beloved’s beauty has the power to make the persona forget about his worries. Because, her hair alone resembles the leaves on a tree while her eyes are like many suns. They will provide a shadow under which he will find comfort.
Under the shadow of your hair my care
is lightened by the neighbouring suns of your eyes
These comparisons are all exaggerations. They are meant to portray this black woman as whole, larger than life and perfect.
Physical Beauty is Temporary (Lines 30 – 34)
Finally, the poet expresses disquiet over one disturbing reality. It is the mortality of the beloved woman and the impermanence of her beauty. In desperation, he intends to turn his praises of her beauty into a song (possibly this poem) so that unavoidable death will never be able to destroy it completely.
Naked woman, black woman
I sing your beauty that passes, the form
that fix in the Eternal
Before jealous fate turn you to ashes to
feed the roots of life.
Analysis of Black Woman
We are through with the meaning and subject matter of “Black Woman”. So let’s move straight ahead to analyze the poem. This is where you will get to know much about the themes and poetic devices or literary techniques in Leopold Senghor’s poem, Black Woman. And they include all the figures of speech in the poem.
The Themes in Black Woman
There are several themes in the poem, Black Woman. These themes are closely related to the overall focus of the poem. It is a celebration of the beauty and uniqueness of Africa and black people.
As stated early on, this is the central subject of Negritude Literature. All the other themes you will see discussed in this analysis of Black Woman are, therefore, connected to the call for us to see Africa in a fresh and more positive light.
Again, remember that the poet speaks of Africa as an attractive black woman. One reason for this is to make us appreciate his strong attachment to the continent.
Theme of Beauty
Physical beauty is the most prominent of the human qualities the poet celebrates in Black Woman. Aspects of this beauty of the woman that the persona admires greatly include her bright eyes, the dark skin colour, her naked form and her graceful movements.
The poet uses the beauty of the beloved as a metaphor for the positive qualities of Africa and her people. This reminds us of “I WILL PRONOUNCE YOUR NAME, NAET” another Leopold Senghor poem with similar elements.
In highly exaggerated terms, the poet paints a picture of a continent that is whole and perfect in all its ways. Indeed, the nudity of the black woman can be seen as the innocence and natural beauty of Africa as compared to the sun-baked passes of Europe. It, therefore, represents the unblemished natural state of Africa before the advent of foreign colonial domination.
Poetry, once again, has been used as an instrument of instruction. The poet is apparently calling on Africans who have failed to appreciate the beauty in their blackness to wake up and behold the huge potential in the continent. The images of the Savannah grasslands and precious stones carry a simple but direct message to those Africans who still have doubts about their identity and abilities. The natural resources, the cultural practices and the spiritual life of the people are worthy of praise and must be treasured for posterity.
The Theme of Reaffirmation or Idealization of Blackness
The poem is titled “Black Woman” for a reason. It is supposed to extol the awesomeness of being black. It is a poem that rejects, in very strong terms, the prevailing idea at the time that white is superior to black.
To properly reaffirm the virtues of black Africa, the poet makes use of such literary devices as metaphor and repetition.
For instance, he compares the beloved black woman to such objects of great value as gold and pearls. The frequent use of the words “black” and “dark” emphasize the great value the poet wants Africans to attach to their colour and culture.
Theme of Praise or Glorification of Africa
More than anything else, “Black Woman” is a praise song. The object of all this praise is the black woman. And, by extension, the black woman represents the African continent or the black race. Here are some features which show that “Black Woman” is truly meant to be a praise song.
Leopold Senghor’s poem, Black Woman is a poem rooted in his native Senegalese oral traditions. As we travel through the lines of this poem (in praise of the singer’s object of admiration), we cannot fail to cast our minds back to the oral traditions of the traveller praise-singer known as griot in this part of West Africa.
RELATED QUESTION: Consider Black Woman as a Praise Song
Sound Effects or Musical Rhythm
The lines of the poem are highly musical. Auditory imagery is used to register the sounds that shout in praise of the beloved. The musical imagery is strong in such lines and expressions as the following.
- Solemn contralto voice
- Spiritual song
- I sing your beauty
The many run-on lines, pausing in the middle occasionally, create the same musical effects.
“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 neighbouring suns of your eyes”
Again, the repetition of the same sounds and grammatical units (parallelism) create the right musical tone for this praise song.
Songs of this nature have an enduring mnemonic quality. Consider the /f/ sound that runs through the last few lines as the poet literally cries over the inevitability of death and its destructive effect on the beauty of the black woman.
“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.”
We must also not lose sight of the refrain, “Naked woman, black woman” and “Naked woman, dark woman” that opens the majority of the stanzas.
And this is why the poet believes music is his best shot at preserving the beauty of the beloved against the imminent destruction from death.
Lastly, the poet leaves no stone unturned to make his compatriots appreciate the beauty of their blackness. He freely makes use of hyperbole to further enhance the praise element of the poem.
If it needs exaggeration to make Africans come to the realization that being black is something to be proud of, the poet is more than willing to use it.
So, like the Negritude poem that it is, Black Woman contains several exaggerated comparisons. An example is where the black woman’s eyes are compared to “suns” and to the biblical “Promised Land”.
The Theme of Womanhood
The poet in “Black Woman” evokes all the known aspects of what it means to be a woman in Africa. She is
- A mother and she cares
- Epitome of beauty
- And a sexual object.
Thus, while most of these aspects of womanhood are very positive, there are others that make the woman subservient to the domineering male persona (a “conqueror” of women) in African culture.
Theme of Nostalgia
Like most Negritude poetry, Black Woman does not only glorify the present. The poet recalls the past and shows a deep longing for those days gone by. His yearning for the past is most felt when he refers to the love and care showered on him by his gentle African mother.
“In your shadow I have grown up the
gentleness of your hands was laid over my eyes.”
However, as we have seen so far, this nostalgic feeling for his childhood goes beyond the personal. It is a longing for the unblemished innocence of pre-colonial Africa. The poet wishes to bring back the pure glory and beauty of the African landscape and culture before they were decimated by the conquering colonizer.
Now living in Europe, he gets to appreciate more the beautiful climate of his own continent.
“And now high on the sun-baked
pass, at the heart of summer, at the heart of noon,
I come upon you, my Promised Land.
And your beauty strikes me to the heart
like the flash of an eagle.”
Other Themes and Other Ways of Putting the Same Themes
Praise for African cultural heritage
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Poetic Devices in Black Woman
We shall begin with diction and imagery as we analyse the various poetic devices or literary techniques present in Black Woman. Beyond diction and imagery, there is a lot to say about other literary devices and figures of speech. We are going to do justice to all that. Let’s keep moving.
Diction and Imagery
Overall, it is relatively difficult to grasp the full meaning of Leopold Senghor’s poem, Black Woman. This is particularly so if you happen to be a first time reader. The difficulty is traceable to the occasional difficult syntax and choice of vocabulary e.g. contralto, sombre ruptures.
The unpredictable line breaks and enjambment (run-on lines) also get confusing at times.
Then come the rather strange and hyperbolic comparisons e.g. black wine. solemn contralto voice is the spiritual song, pearls are stars on the night of your skin, I came upon you, my Promised Land. This should remind you of John Donne, another poet featured in the Non-African Poetry section of the WASSCE/NECO/JAMB syllabus.
This section of your analysis of Black Woman shall begin with the use of descriptive vocabulary.
MUST READ: Analysis of “The Good Morrow” by John Donne
There is a careful and detailed description of the various parts of the woman’s body as well as her other attributes. This descriptive element makes “Black Woman” a praise song. The poet meticulously gives us interesting descriptions of the following
The woman’s build or form
Her temperament – she is calm like oil that “no breath can ruffle”
Voice – it sounds like music. Not only that. It resembles a solemn spiritual song
Preponderance or abundance of Descriptive words/adjectives
She is gentle “the gentleness of your hand”
The black woman is a motherly figure who knows how to care for her children and groom them into adults fully prepared to face life responsibly.
Also, she is passionate in her sensual feelings – shuddering, muttering, taut
Below are more adjectives found in the numerous noun phrases in this poem. The descriptive words/adjectives are the ones in bold lettering.
Further, the beloved is imbued with a motherly disposition
Quick and fast – note the use of “athlete’s flanks” and “gazelle”.
This poem appears difficult to understand. On the whole, however, it only takes a bit of patience and close reading to begin to unravel the meaning of Black Woman. In fact, the subject matter of the poem becomes easy to grasp when, just like much of poetry, you take the lines, not as individual entities to be understood separately, but as a collection of connected descriptions about one, and the same subject. It is all to the praise and glory of the black woman and black Africa.
All the above and a lot more help to register various images on our minds. The imagery in the poem, therefore, is largely effective in developing the various themes. Because both are closely related to each other.
Images of Africa and Her Natural Environment
Call it geographical imagery and you’d be right. Words and expressions that evoke the images of the African landscape include the following
Imagery of African Womanhood
The African woman is portrayed as the very embodiment of beauty and grace. She is a spectacle of stunning beauty, a mother and a lover. Her very black skin is the primary reason for her attractive physical looks.
Black, therefore, is beautiful and must be revered rather than shied away from. So amazing is her beauty that it needs to be preserved. The poet is conscious of this sad fact. This beauty is still going to be destroyed by death sooner or later. To the poet, this is the time to stop, behold and celebrate Africa. Because life is too short. This is the main thrust of the Negritude literature message.
Love Imagery (Sensual/Sexual/Romance)
Here are some words and expressions the persona uses to evoke an atmosphere of strong love or romantic feelings
muttering under the conqueror’s fingers
Visual Imagery/Colour Imagery
Clothed with your colour which is life
Glinting of red gold
Against your watered skin
Imagery of Conquest/Domination
Imagery of Beauty
Your form which is beauty
Glinting red gold
Firm-fleshed ripe fruit
Other Literary Devices
Below are some equally important literary devices and figures of speech we must never ignore. That is if we are interested in doing a thorough analysis of Black Woman. These poetic techniques help to evoke the images in the poem. Consequently, they contribute to the development of the themes we’ve been discussing so far.
Repetitive use of “you”, “your”. Example:
“I came upon you, my Promised Land
And your beauty strikes me to the heart”
Next in this analysis of Black Woman is the use of metaphor. The poet compares the physical beauty of the beloved and other qualities to the following.
Clothed with your colour which is life
Roots of life
Like the flash of an eagle
- Your colour which is life
- “I came upon you, my Promised Land
- And your beauty strikes me to the heart
Like the flash of an eagle”
- Suns of your eyes
- Heart of summer
- Heart of noon
- Sun-baked pass
- Under the shadow of your hair, my care
Is lightened by the neighbouring suns of your eyes
RELATED QUESTION: Comment on the poet’s use of hyperbole in Black Woman
Political/Historical: Princes of Mali
Sport – athlete’s flanks
PLEASE NOTE: The three figures of speech below (parallelism, alliteration and repetition) are associated with repetition of the same linguistic units. The repetitive strain in the poem is a deliberate sound device the poet employs to create the desired auditory imagery. Together, they go a long way to accentuate the musical tone of the poem, Black Woman.
- At the heart of summer, at the heart of noon
- With your colour which is life
With your form which is beauty
- Firm-fleshed ripe fruit
- Mouth making lyrical my mouth
- Carved tom-tom, taut tom-tom
Naked woman, black woman
We are leaving behind the above sound devices in our analysis of Black Woman. Let’s consider other figures of speech in the poem, Black Woman.
Africa itself is portrayed as a beautiful African woman with terrific human qualities such as calmness, sensuality, caring, great musical voice, and mortality
Feed the roots of life
“fate” refers to death
“ashes” refers to the decomposed remains of the human body after death
Likely Exam Questions on Black Woman
Consider Leopold Senghor’s Black Woman as a praise song.
Discuss the theme of beauty in Black Woman
Highlight the various images of black Africa in Senghor’s poem, Black Woman
Discuss the poet’s use of diction and imagery in Black Woman
Describe the qualities of the beloved in Senghor’s Black Woman.
Comment on the use of repetition and hyperbole in the poem.
Examine Black Woman as a descriptive poem.
Discuss the themes of love and attachment in Black Woman.
What strikes you about the image of the black woman?
Discuss the theme of African renaissance in Black Woman by Leopold Senghor
Highlight the elements of Negritude Literature in the poem, Black Woman.
Comment on the poet’s attitude to the woman in the poem.
Discuss the theme of mortality in Leopold Senghor’s Black Woman.
Describe the encounter between the poet and the black woman.
Comment on the appropriateness of the title of Senghor’s poem, Black Woman
The poem Black Woman is about the revival of black consciousness. Comment
What elements of nostalgia can you identify in Black Woman?
We’ve done it! You and I have been doing an in-depth analysis of Black Woman by Leopold Sedar Senghor. Now that we’ve brought this analysis of Black Woman to a close, I wish to thank you for your support.
So what’s next? It would be a lot of fun if you picked a couple of questions from the list above and write an essay on them. Feel free to contact me via the comment form or contact form in case you need further clarification. Meanwhile, you can find more literature study guides HERE. Thank you!
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