80. Femme Noire
Written by Leopold Sedar Senghor, 1945
Performed by Meissa M’Baye, 2005
From the CD Entre Seine et Sine – Homage A Leopold Sedar Senghor (Comet Records, France 2005)



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 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, 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, 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 neighbouring 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


Femme Noire is one of ten poems by Senegalese poet and former Prime Minister Leopold Senghor (1906 – 2001) set to music by French Senegalese singer, narrator, and guitarist Meissa M’Baye. Femme Noir was published in Senghor’s collection Chants D’Ombre (1945) and is also available in The Penguin Book of French Poetry: 1820-1950  (Penguin Classics, 1994).

There is an excellent obituary, ‘Léopold Senghor, poet and intellectual leader of independent Senegal’ which covers Senghor’s life, art and politics, and his effect and legacy as president of Senegal. It’s by Kaye Whiteman and appeared in The Guardian, Friday December 21 2001 at

‘[…] you, my Promised Land’ – that’s the line that drew us to the poem. What can be said about Femme Noire, about its idea of the black woman as Promised Land? What does the idea deliver, and what is the promise of the poem itself? Wandia Njoya runs the very informative blog, the Zeleza Post For Informed News and Commentary on the Pan African World at www.zeleza.com/blog/wandia-njoya, and in her essay ‘Quiet Days and Loving Nights’, she addresses some of these questions. Here is an extract from Njoya’s text:

Femme Noire promises what feminism has never delivered, at least not for me: quiet days and loving nights. No amount of discourses on the objectification of women, whose ubiquity I am not about to deny, can dampen the magic of intimate moments I enjoy with a man who loves me. The male gaze, and similar concepts whose pertinence to my situation I frankly do not understand, offer no alternatives to the norms of beauty set by the Western world like Senghor’s poem does.

My fascination with Femme Noire does not deny that Senghor’s superficial vision of Africa was divorced from historical reality, particularly of colonialism. But believe me, if you received comments from African men that imply that you are too black or not white enough, you would understand why I am going to temporarily brush Senghor’s politics aside and read Femme Noire for what it basically is – a poem by an African man about an African woman. The comments I am talking about come in the form of compliments about the glow of your skin that are made in the middle of winter but rarely during the peak of summer. They are the pointers on sensuality from a brother who unabashedly reminisces the bedroom acrobatics performed by his former white girlfriend, and that sound like a page from the latest issue of Cosmopolitan. They are the comments that your hair is too kinky, and the suggestion that you should consider making a trip to the hair salon for a more beautiful hairstyle, one that almost inevitably comes with chemical burns on your scalp that remain invisible to the casual observer. After listening to comments like those over the years, you may crave as I do, for a man who says as Senghor’s poem does: ‘Nude woman, black woman/Clothed in your colour which is life, in your form which is beauty!’ And says it like he actually means it.

Femme Noire […] should serve as an instrument to exorcise ourselves of the demons of beauty that rear their ugly head particularly in Black heterosexual relationships. This process is essential, because there are few elements in a relationship, besides physical violence, that are as debilitating as when a man you love compares you to the woman you can never be. It does not matter how innocent or well-intentioned those comparisons may be.

I could spend more time speculating on this issue, but I must revert to my theme of quiet days and loving nights. This time, I will zero in on the word ‘quiet,’ because one of the topics of criticism is the silencing of women’s voices. There are indeed many cases in which the Black woman’s voice is not heard even when she is invited to speak, but if my experience is anything to go by, there are also days when a Black woman does not want to speak. Sometimes I do not want to speak because I have nothing to say, other times it is because life’s challenges sap away the physical or emotional energy I need to find the words to say. At such times, love allows me to lose myself in the universe. It provides those moments when nature and humanity, or passion and serenity, all seem to harmonize without erasing the inherent contradictions. During those moments, I forget the world that defines my people solely on the basis of skin colour. I no longer feel myself as the Black woman that history has been so harsh to, but as a human being in harmony with eternity, the sky, the earth and the gods.

I feel as if the ancestors sent the bougainvillea in bloom, the savannah at sunrise, the snowy peak of Mount Kenya on a clear morning, the cool afternoon rain in April, and the ocean waves on the sandy Mombasa coast as signs to celebrate my happiness. This exhilarating experience of seeing myself in the universe and the universe in myself, is reflected for me in Senghor’s poem that ties the woman’s beauty to nature:

‘Ripe fruit of firm flesh, deep rapture of dark wine, lips whose song is my song, Savannah of pure horizons/savannah trembling at the East Wind’s eager caresses/Carved tom-tom, tight tom-tom, muttering under the Conqueror’s fingers/ Your solemn contralto is the spiritual song of the

Other times I just want to relax and let him soothe the tiredness of my soul with words like: ‘Oil of no ripple or flow, clam oil on the flanks of the athlete, on the flanks of the princes of Mali.’ I sit back and enjoy the magic of listening to the man I love express what I am feeling or thinking without needing to seek my confirmation. It is in this magic, in this mystery of someone speaking your thoughts and feelings through his own words, that the power of poetry resides. And it is this power that Christopher Miller misses when he says of Senghor’s poem: ‘Here is a literate ‘silence’: a woman who exists on paper and who is spoken for rather than speaking’ (259). For me, the question of silence does not arise, because when a man is expressing his love through a medium as creative and profound as poetry, I am more than happy to be silent. Besides, it is Senghor’s poem, not the African woman, who is on the paper. Speaking about African women need not conflated with flesh-and-blood women.

I would not be so bold to say, as Miller does, that ‘[t]he silence of Senghor’s black woman [. . .] therefore stands as a figure of women’s exclusion from Francophone literacy’ (260). First of all, illiteracy does not equal silence. Secondly, if we’re going to talk about exclusion, let’s talk about the fact that the schools built by the colonial administration for African boys grossly outnumbered those for African girls. That the few schools that existed for girls did not teach professional or science subjects, but offered subjects like ‘puériculture’ (infant care), as if African women had not been raising children for centuries before the French stepped on the continent. Let’s talk about the fact that the colonial administration established girls’ schools with the intention of providing spouses for the men leaving boys’ schools, and for raising African children to love France. I think that these policies have more to do with African women’s illiteracy than Senghor’s poem does.

While I disagree with Miller that the poem silences African women, I concede one important point: Senghor’s woman exists on paper. I do so not because of the woman’s silence, but because the woman has no identity. The woman’s relationship to the poet remains vague, we are not sure if she is the poet’s mother, sister or lover. In the following line of the first stanza, it is suggested that she is the poet’s mother: ‘I have grown in the shadow while the sweetness of your hands cradled my eyes.’ However, the poem does not give any other indicators of her identity. We are therefore left to wonder: Who is this woman? What are the poet’s personal feelings towards her? What does she do? Where does she live? The only question that the poem seems to answer, and quite generously at that, is – Is the woman beautiful? The poem leaves no doubt that the answer is affirmative.’

Again, this is an extract of Wandia Njoya’s text. The essay in its complete form appeared in the online poetry journal Sentinel Literary Quarterly, volume one, number one, September 2007 (www.sentinelpoetry.org.uk/SentinelLiteraryQuarterly/html/1-1/wandia_njoya.htm) and is available with quarterly or annual subscription to SentinelQuarterly.com or http://www.sentinelpoetry.org.uk

Extending Senghor’s idea of the black woman’s body as Promised Land from the world of the text into the world in which texts are created and consumed, the idea of the body – the body of Senghor’s Femme Noire, the bodies of Senegalese women – as promise, territory, space of desire, resonates beyond the worlds of the text and the worlds in texts, into the world of politics and power. In this world, reshaped through writing and action, we discovered that it is through and across the body that questions of desire – sexual, social, political desire - find their expression.

Here are a few points from texts written and/or posted in the years leading up to and after of Senghor’s death. Could any of the women in these texts be described as Senghor’s Promised Land, or maybe the descendants of his Femme Noire? Maybe they could be considered as indicators of the distance between the woman in a poem written in a country before its independence, in advance of its independence, which the poet helped to shape, and the women born in Senegal after independence.


One: Education and employment

Some information brought to you by a document titled Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – 2006, released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour, March 6, 2007 and made available via the U.S State Department (‘Staying True to the Promotion of Democracy’):

Only an estimated 20 percent of Senegalese women are in paid employment. Low education levels, lack of information, domestic responsibilities, lack of access to factors and means of production, and multiple pregnancies were cited as barriers to economic advancement for women. According to statistics from the National Center to Assist and Train Women, women represented 52 percent of the population, but were held liable for 90 percent of domestic responsibilities and 85 percent of agricultural work.

Women’s groups campaigned to have a larger percentage of places on the legislative electoral ballot devoted to women, to better reflect the female majority of the population. On December 8, 2006, President Wade asked the prime minister to make a declaration at the national assembly on the issue. The PDS placed 30 women on its legislative electoral list for 60 seats before year’s end.

Women’s groups criticised discriminatory provisions in the law, a problem the government has admitted. On June 9, President Wade signed a decree authorising women to join the Customs Office. In August the gendarmerie also started recruiting women. The gendarmerie recruited 50 women, but the Customs Office had not implemented the decision by year’s end.’

And according to figures on the website www.afrol.com, dated December 22 2008, only 23 percent of females over 15 years of age are literate, while the rate for males over age 15 is 43 percent, which means, presumably, that under a quarter of females wouldn’t be able to read Senghor’s poem. However, statistics from the National Center to Assist and Train Women show that approximately 22 percent of teachers and 14 percent of lawyers are women. Urban women are more likely to take advantage of the Government’s efforts to increase respect for women’s legal rights to divorce, alimony, and child support, and to seek education and employment. In general urban women receive equal pay for equal work.


Two: Discrimination at home

More from that State Department document: ‘Women faced pervasive discrimination, especially in rural areas where traditional customs including polygamy and rules of inheritance were strongest. Under national law, women have the right to choose when and whom they marry, but traditional practices restricted a woman’s choice. The Family Code prohibits marriage for girls younger than 16 years and men younger than 20 years. This law was not enforced in some communities where marriages were arranged. Under certain conditions, a judge may grant a special dispensation for marriage to a person below the age requirement. Women typically married young, usually by the age of 16 in rural areas.

The Family Code’s definition of paternal rights remains an obstacle to equality between men and women, as men are considered the heads of households and women cannot take legal responsibility for their children. A woman can only become the legal head of a family when the father formally renounces his authority before the administration. This makes it particularly difficult for the 20 percent of families that are supported and led by women. The problems with the Family Code and traditional practices also made it difficult for women to purchase property. Due to the fact that men are legally considered the heads of households, women paid higher taxes than men for the same salary (they were taxed as single individuals without children), and employers paid child allowances to men only.

The full version of this document can be found at www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2006/


Three: Political power

The struggle to improve the lives of women in Senegal is described by President of the Senegalese Council of Women, Aminata Faye Kassé in her paper Women in Politics in Senegal, presented at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA)/Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA)/Southern African Development Community, (SADC) Parliamentary Forum Conference, 2003. You can access the full text via www.quotaproject.org/CS/CS_Senegal-Aminata_Kassé-final%202-6-2004.pdf. Here are a few extracts:

Even though the Constitution of Senegal, adopted in 2001, is relatively progressive when it comes to women’s rights, there is no institutional mechanism to promote them politically.

[...] As for women’s representation in the National Assembly, Senegal is among the leading countries in Francophone Africa, with a rate of 19.2 percent since 2001. This has increased steadily over the past 20 years, climbing from 12 percent in 1993 to 16 percent in 1998.

In 1994, at a workshop organised by the African Institute for Democracy on the topic of ‘Women in Democracy’, a group of women involved with political parties, trade unions, and women’s organisations decided to create a unified structure to promote women’s leadership, especially in politics, which it called the Senegalese Council of Women (Conseil Sénégalais des Femmes (COSEF)). Its status as an entity that cut across party lines, the commitment and cohesion of women at the grassroots, and its national presence in all ten regions of Senegal, made COSEF a major innovation in Senegalese politics.’

Kassé writes that as a consequence of the activities of COSEF and other women’s organisations, ‘some parties have instituted quota systems (which ranges from 25 percent to 40 percent), which have experienced difficulties. For other parties, having directives sent to the grassroots structures in the lead-up to the elections was enough to ensure that the quota was implemented by parties. However, despite resistance, the position of women on candidate lists began to improve.’

Kassé goes on to say that ‘Most of Senegal’s political parties have created women’s movements that are affiliated with the party or are a party structure. In principle, this somehow reflects the willingness of the parties to take on board women’s concerns, and to address them actively. Yet one must ask: has their impact been evaluated, especially the resulting type of female representation, in the party structures? This is very important insofar as it is the main mechanism to ensure women’s representation in the directing positions of the parties, and to determine who will feature on the electoral lists. Hence, it is not surprising that so few women are elected.’


Four: Human rights

The question of female genital excision is one around which issues of religious practice, sexuality, the control of pleasure, and human rights converge. Here is an extract from a 2005 report by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Senegal, titled ‘Update to SEN29267.F of 5 May 1998 on excision; the practices and their frequency among women over 21 years of age and among the Fulani (or Peuhl) people; state protection against these practices, especially for Bambaras and Christians (1999-2005)’:

An Agence France-Presse (AFP) article indicated that (translation) ‘according to the official figures in the national action plan for stopping female genital mutilation (FGM), 20% of the female population is excised, with figures as high as 100% in some northern regions of the country’ (6 Mar. 2004). With urbanisation, excision is becoming less common (United States 1 June 2001).

In January 1999, Senegal enacted section 299 of the Penal Code, prohibiting excision The punishment for committing a crime under this section is imprisonment for six months to five years for the parents and for the person performing the excision. The maximum penalty must be applied when the excision was performed or facilitated by a member of the medical profession When the excision results in a girl’s death, or when a person uses his or her influence and abuses his or her authority to encourage excision, the punishment is hard labour for life.

The first arrest under the new law took place in July 1999 when a mother and grandmother were arrested for ordering the excision of a five-year-old girl (Human Rights Tribune Mar. 2000). A report from the Centre for Reproductive Rights indicated that arrests and prosecutions for FGM have taken place in several African countries, including Senegal (Nov. 2004). However, since the law was passed amending the Penal Code, there have been no convictions (1 June 2001).

Since the end of the 1990s, the Senegalese government has sponsored awareness programs through the Ministry of Women, Children and the Family. In 2002, the Senegalese government launched a national action plan to eradicate excision; the plan involves four components-information, social mobilisation, education and institutional frameworks. The government has also tried to help practitioners find other sources of income (United Nations 24 Jan. 2002).

Tostan, a non-governmental organisation, played a crucial role in informing the Senegalese of the dangers of excision (Women’s e-News 12 July 2003). The NGO used its awareness programmes on health and human rights to encourage discussion on excision in the many communities with which it worked (Since it was created, Tostan has encouraged hundreds of villages to make public declarations against excision (Africa Recovery 22 Apr. 2003). Many other NGOs are working to raise public awareness of the effects of excision.’


Five: Sex and death

Before we get to the subject of sex and death, it might be worth bringing your attention to this extract from ‘LITERATURE: Award to Senghor Triggers Debate’, by Alexandra Bensaid and Andrew Whitehead, from the Inter Press Service Harare <ipshre@gn.apc.org>
via http://www.h-net.org/~africa/threads/litthread.html:

Kandioura Drame, acting director of the Pan African Studies programme at Barnard College, contends that ‘the concept [of Negritude] changed the way Europeans thought of Africa. The continent had been viewed as almost entirely colonised and the Africans considered as savages and barbarians, in any case as sub-men.’ Drame says Senghor also changed the way Africans thought of themselves. ‘With his works, he opened the way up for the next generation. He certainly reasserted to the eyes of his contemporary people the value of the African civilisation that was depreciated by colonialism,’ Drame said. ‘I think this is a very important contribution.’

Thinking of Femme Noire, it seemed that Senghor, in that poem, had offered the colonial world the gift of a poetic language that was simultaneously subversively erotic and civil minded, as a means of transforming African and European ideas about sex and the body, and as a way of introducing to both audiences new ways of thinking their way out of the impasse presented by the discourse of shame and otherness which were integral components of discourses around race and sex.

Desire was central to this transformation. It was through the longing for coupling and the valuation of the body of the beloved as the gift of God’s promise to Abraham, more beloved than Canaan, through a lover’s discourse, that Senghor initiated this project.

The poem suggests a transformation of public discourse on race and desire through poetic language and popular culture, a strategy which, who knows, may still have something to contribute to widening the parameters of public – and private – discourses around sexuality, especially as it has been transformed by the presence of AIDS and HIV. In lieu of these thoughts, here is some information about the activities of Unifem, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, from ‘Senegal: Women – Vulnerable but Vital Campaigners Against AIDS’, by Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, which we sourced from allAfrica.com, dated 2 July 2001:

Yassine Fall, the regional director of Unifem, lamented the fact that, although the rate of HIV remained low in Senegal, currently one per cent of adults, more women than men were now contracting the AIDS virus – a dramatic change from the early days of the pandemic. ‘In Senegal, before, the proportion of women was much lower than the proportion of men that were infected. But right now, the proportion of women infected is becoming [greater than] that of men – the speed of infection is faster among women.’ Fall said field surveys showed that women in Senegal had very little understanding about their sexuality in relation to their bodies and the HIV infection. ‘Many women know very little about how women get infected by HIV/AIDS through sex, the different forms and also about their reproductive organs and sexually transmitted diseases.’

The Unifem regional director said research by her UN agency, and NGO partner, SWAA (the Society of Women Against AIDS in Africa) indicated that both educated and illiterate women in Senegal appeared to have little useful knowledge to help them fight HIV/AIDS. ‘This brings us to the issue of education. Sex education about HIV infection should not just be dealt with in the school curriculum,’ she concluded.

Yassine Fall said Senegal was ahead in the battle against AIDS in Africa, because ‘tremendous’ work had been done to sensitise both men and women; but she cautioned that although her country could be justifiably proud of its accomplishments, it must also be ‘humble’, because the battle had not yet been won.’

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton’s article also mentions the role of migration in the spread of AIDS & HIV. The author takes us to the village of Niomré in Northern Senegal, with a mostly Muslim population of around five thousand, and introduces us to Aminata N’diaye, the Vice-President of the Association of Women of Niomré:

‘From her village alone, about 400 men have left to find jobs in Italy, France, Spain, Germany and the United States and even farther afield, although some have stayed closer to home, crossing borders into neighbouring countries.

N’diaye says this exodus presents a problem. Often the men leave behind a wife and family. They return to Senegal when they can, but sometimes these home visits come after several years’ absence. While abroad, the men may have had other partners and become infected with HIV, the AIDS virus, although they may be unaware because they may not have been tested. They then pass the virus on to their spouses or girlfriends.

Sure enough, AIDS has begun to spread in Niomré. The village chief, Serigne Thierno Lo, says there have been more cases reported in his village in the past four to six years.

The religious dimension to all aspects of life and culture in Senegal is ever-present in Niomré, among men and women. Chief Lo says he believes AIDS is the ‘divine will’ (of Allah). The only way to stop the spread of the disease, adds Lo, is for us ‘to change our behaviour and remain faithful’, which he says is happening in his village. ‘The truth is, if everyone just stayed where they were meant to be, as they should be doing, then AIDS simply couldn’t spread.’

But Aminata N’diaye says the women in her village are confronted with a cultural dilemma, a consequence of the migration of Niomré’s men and what happens while they are overseas.

Lo is open about the fact that the cultural practices of polygamy and spousal inheritance (sometimes called wife inheritance) still exist in Niomré. According to this custom, a widow is remarried to either the brother or a close relative of her deceased husband.

The trouble is that her spouse may have been living abroad and may have contracted AIDS, and passed on the virus to her before he dies. Chief Lo stresses that these matters remain highly sensitive in Niomré, and elsewhere, because of the stigma still attached to the disease. ‘Our culture is to be discreet’, he says, ‘so the cause of death may not have been publicly acknowledged.



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