Analysis of Léopold Sédar Senghor’s New York

New York! At first I was bewildered by your beauty,
Those huge, long-legged, golden girls.
So shy, at first, before your blue metallic eyes and icy smile,
So shy. And full of despair at the end of skyscraper streets
Raising my owl eyes at the eclipse of the sun.
Your light is sulphurous against the pale towers
Whose heads strike lightning into the sky,
Skyscrapers defying storms with their steel shoulders
And weathered skin of stone.
But two weeks on the naked sidewalks of Manhattan—
At the end of the third week the fever
Overtakes you with a jaguar’s leap
Two weeks without well water or pasture all birds of the air
Fall suddenly dead under the high, sooty terraces.
No laugh from a growing child, his hand in my cool hand.
No mother’s breast, but nylon legs. Legs and breasts
Without smell or sweat. No tender word, and no lips,
Only artificial hearts paid for in cold cash
And not one book offering wisdom.
The painter’s palette yields only coral crystals.
Sleepless nights, O nights of Manhattan!
Stirring with delusions while car horns blare the empty hours
And murky streams carry away hygenic loving
Like rivers overflowing with the corpses of babies.

Now is the time of signs and reckoning, New York!
Now is the time of manna and hyssop.
You have only to listen to God’s trombones, to your heart
Beating to the rhythm of blood, your blood.
I saw Harlem teeming with sounds and ritual colors
And outrageous smells—
At teatime in the home of the drugstore-deliveryman
I saw the festival of Night begin at the retreat of day.
And I proclaim Night more truthful than the day.
It is the pure hour when God brings forth
Life immemorial in the streets,
All the amphibious elements shinning like suns.
Harlem, Harlem! Now I’ve seen Harlem, Harlem!
A green breeze of corn rising from the pavements
Plowed by the Dan dancers’ bare feet,
Hips rippling like silk and spearhead breasts,
Ballets of water lilies and fabulous masks
And mangoes of love rolling from the low houses
To the feet of police horses.
And along sidewalks I saw streams of white rum
And streams of black milk in the blue haze of cigars.
And at night I saw cotton flowers snow down
From the sky and the angels’ wings and sorcerers’ plumes.
Listen, New York! O listen to your bass male voice,
Your vibrant oboe voice, the muted anguish of your tears
Falling in great clots of blood,
Listen to the distant beating of your nocturnal heart,
The tom-tom’s rhythm and blood, tom-tom blood and tom-tom.

New York! I say New York, let black blood flow into your blood.
Let it wash the rust from your steel joints, like an oil of life
Let it give your bridges the curve of hips and supple vines.
Now the ancient age returns, unity is restored,
The recociliation of the Lion and Bull and Tree
Idea links to action, the ear to the heart, sign to meaning.
See your rivers stirring with musk alligators
And sea cows with mirage eyes. No need to invent the Sirens.
Just open your eyes to the April rainbow
And your eyes, especially your ears, to God
Who in one burst of saxophone laughter
Created heaven and earth in six days,
And on the seventh slept a deep Negro sleep.

New York (1953)/Getty

Published in his fourth collection of poetry, Éthiopiques (Ethiopics), New York is a short poem in three single-stanza sections by Léopold Sédar Senghor. Dedicated to “jazz orchestra and trumpet solo,” it asserts that positive black cultural values “can contribute to the automated, industrialized but dehumanized West” (Kennedy 127).

In Section I the persona explains why he was “[a]t first . . . bewildered by [New York’s] beauty” (Section 1, l.1). Senghor here renders New York as both aweinspiring and emotionally bankrupt. Personified, the city has “blue metallic eyes and icy smile” (1.3), and skyscrapers both “strike lightning into the sky” (1.7) and wear “weathered skin” (1.9). The visitor has had to live “without well water or pasture” (1.13), without a “laugh from a growing child” (1.15); and the city’s dehumanization is further rendered through its lack of “smell or sweat” (1.17), its “artificial hearts paid for in cold cash / And not one book offering wisdom” (1.18– 19), and its “murky streams” that “carry away hygienic loving / Like rivers . . . with the corpses of babies” (1.23–24). While such imagery clearly condemns an overindustrialized urban space—one that imagery codes as a site of “white power”—it also implies a distinction between this culture and black culture, which is, in contrast and through imagery, emotionalized and sexualized, if also human and loving. This contrast and its implications, which are found in Senghor’s prose on Negritude and for which the Negritude Movement was critiqued, are continued in the evolving racial discourse of the poem.

In Section II, a praise song to Harlem, Senghor offers a remedy to the emotional bankruptcy of the city and calls for political redress for the black underclass: New York must “listen to . . . the tom-tom’s rhythm and blood” (2.24, 28), to “God’s trombones” (2.3)—to Harlem. With intertextual references throughout the stanza—e.g., to work by Harlem Renaissance-era poets James Weldon Johnson (“God’s Trombones”), Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and Langston Hughes—Senghor highlights the historical link between the Harlem Renaissance and the Negritude Movement, while depicting Harlem as the site of regenerative culture. Harlem has “outrageous smells” (2.5–6); it is a “festival of Night . . . more truthful than the day” (2.8–9), with “[b]allets of water lilies and fabulous masks / And mangoes of love” (2.17) and a black “nocturnal heart” (2.27). Yet in addition to having the answer to the staleness of New York—black culture, Negritude— Harlem also requires redress. It is a time for “reckoning” (2.1), and “the muted anguish of [New York’s] tears” (2.25) are falling. The black community, if also oppressed and depicted in subtly stereotyped images, is passionate, rhythmical, and cultured.

Section III of New York admonishes the city to “let black blood fl ow into [its] blood” (3.1). Emphatically conveying Negritude thought, it suggests that this “black blood” can “wash the rust” (3.2) away and that the city should open its ears “to God,” who has “saxophone laughter” (3.11) and who “slept a Negro sleep” (3.13). Senghor thus suggests that especially black music carries the culture that can cure the city.

Kennedy, Ellen Conroy, ed. The Negritude Poets: An Anthology of Translations from the French. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1975.
Senghor, Léopold Sédar. The Collected Poetry. Translated by Melvin Dixon. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991.

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