was saddened to read of the death of Léopold Sédar Senghor, described in the New York Times as a “poet, professor, philosopher, and statesman.” He was the first president of Senegal when it declared its independence from France in 1960. French President Jacques Chirac commented upon his passing: “Poetry has lost one of its masters, Senegal a statesman, Africa a visionary, and France a friend.”
As part of my personal preparation for living in West Africa in 1971, I immersed myself in the writings of Senghor and developed a sense of appreciation for the man and his contribution to literature and a life of the mind. I found that his poetry was as true to West Africa as anything I had read or have read since. His love of the land and her people was genuine, deep, and spiritual in a remarkable way.
One of his essays, which I particularly liked, was called “The African Apprehension of Reality” (1962). It is an important essay, it seems to me, in understanding both African and African American cultures. In this essay, he makes important distinctions between European and African cultures. Senghor said that the European, when he faces an object, “distinguishes the object from himself. He keeps it at a distance. He freezes it out of time, and, in a way, out of space. He fixes, he kills it.” The African, on the other hand, “does not begin by distinguishing himself from the object….He does not keep it at a distance. He does not analyze it…He does not fix or kill it. He turns it over and over in his supple hands,…” The European intellect is objective; the African intellect is subjective.
I came to understand these differences, living and working in African societies. I personally became an “object,” which dark-skinned friends “encircled” and then took into their lives as if I were a part of some greater universe, to be accepted, understood, and cherished. In 1987, as a senior executive with the Chicago Urban League, I assumed direction of a staff of 12, all but one of whom were African American. In my first staff meeting, we sat around a table in my office, and the staff totally and unconditionally accepted me as integral to their lives and their mission in the organization. It was a remarkable and highly satisfying experience. I was struck by the fact that, if any one of my new Black colleagues were to be in my position in the university from which I had just come — an African American surrounded by a predominately Caucasian staff — that person would have to prove himself before being accepted. I was experiencing what Senghor knew to be the reality of African culture. In other settings of authentic African or African American gatherings, I have found the same welcoming and enveloping camaraderie. Some of my most pleasant social experiences have been in such settings. This new reality was, perhaps, my greatest discovery as a Fulbright Lecturer in West Africa.
In the 1980s I discovered the research and writings of anthropologist Edward T. Hall, who did some of his finest work at Northwestern University, between 1967 and 1977. Hall gives scholarly credence to Senghor’s work two decades earlier. In Beyond Culture, Hall designates African (as well as Native American, Japanese, and many Third-World) cultures as “High Context” cultures and European (including American) cultures as “Low Context” cultures. High Context cultures “feature preprogrammed information that is in the receiver and in the setting, with only minimal information in the transmitted message.” In Low Context cultures, on the other hand, “Most of the information must be in the transmitted message in order to make up for what is missing in the context (both internal and external).”
We live, these days, in what I call a both-and world, a time when even contradictory messages may — nay, must — be understood and fully accepted without self-destruction or social upheaval. In this period of extraordinary social stress on nearly every continent, it is time, it seems to me, for some serious understanding and wholehearted acceptance of the validity of others’ perceptions of reality. Senghor and Hall may be good points of beginning.
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