“Hessal” Conversation: “Black Woman”
Alagi Yorro Jallow
Sene-Gambia needs to withdraw from every obligation in Africa and focus on a single and exclusive priority: declare a state of emergency on the issue of female skin bleaching. The Gambia and Senegal gave us Africa’s most famous celebration of the African female form and color in Senghor’s poem, “Black Woman.” I’ve seen skin bleaching in African capitals, but Banjul and Dakar are in a world and class of their own.
As if God wants to mock women yonder, He tends to make African humanity in that area several shades of darker beautiful ebony than the rest of us. This means that the road to mass, epidemic female whiteness is even much more visually galling.
- Leopold Senghor
Naked woman, black woman
Clothed with your color, which is life,
with your form, which is a beauty!
In your shadow, I have grown up; the
the gentleness of your hands was laid over my eyes.
And now, high up 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.
Naked woman, dark woman
Firm-fleshed ripe fruit, somber raptures
of black wine, mouth making lyrical my mouth
Savannah stretching to clear horizons,
savannah shuddering beneath the East Wind’s
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, on the 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”.
The poem “Black Woman” was written by Leopold Senghor and published in “Chants d’Ombre” in 1945. It was initially written in French as “Femme Noir” and then translated to English. Senghor was a Senegalese poet who was instrumental in starting the emotional, intellectual and political, and literary movement called “negritude” and other writers of African origin- like Aime Cesaire- in Paris. This movement was born as a result of Senghor going to Paris to study in 1928.
“Black Woman” is one of the best-known poems from this collection. When Senghor writes of Africa, it is frequently in terms of a woman, a woman who is both wife and mother; she is the “promised land” mentioned in the poem.
The first stanza gives the poem’s theme: the natural black woman whose color is life and whose form is beauty. The poet has grown up in her shadow and has felt the gentleness of her hands. Now that he is grown, he returns to find her as if he were coming upon the promised land. He views her through a mountain pass at noon in the midst of summer, and her beauty strikes him directly to the heart, like the flash of an eagle.
In the second stanza, she is seen as a lover, a woman with the flesh of ripe fruit, a woman who can transport the poet with somber ecstasies of black wine, a woman with a mouth that makes his own mouth lyric. The poet elaborates, finding her a woman who is like a limitless savanna that shudders beneath the caresses of the east wind; a woman who is like a tight, well-sculpted drum that resounds under the fingers of the conqueror; a woman whose solemn contralto voice becomes the spiritual song of the loved one.
In the third stanza, she is almost a goddess, so perfect that even her skin is smooth as the oiled skin of an athlete or a prince. She is like a graceful gazelle with celestial adornments. Pearls become stars on the darkness of her skin. The reflections of the setting sun on her glistening skin are delights on which the mind can exercise itself. The poet’s anguish is lightened by the sunlike glance from her eyes when he is in the shadow of her hair.
In the fourth and last stanza, the poet—more philosophical—informs the black woman that he is celebrating in verse her beauty, passing, and her form, which he establishes eternally in his poetry before fate can turn her to ashes to nourish the roots of life.