Reading List: David Tonghou Ngong

Ahead of the publication of his new book on Leopold Senghor and African political theology, the author selects books that inspired his writing process

Naim Mrad Radwan and Leopold Senghor. Image via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0.

My book, Senghor’s Eucharist: Negritude and African Political Theology, will be released in August 2023 by Baylor University Press. This brief piece describes the sources that inspired and shaped the book. The book is based on Léopold Sédar Senghor’s poetry collection called Black Hosts (Hosties Noires), which portrays the suffering of Black people as offering global redemption and reconciliation. In the imagery of the poems, Black people replace Christ as the sacrificial offering that should bring about the forgiveness of sins, especially the sins of Euro-American enslavement, colonization, and dehumanization of Black people in the modern world. I argue that while this offering, like the Negritude movement in which it is situated, seeks to re-valorize Black lives in an anti-black world, it also raises significant problems that need to be theologically probed. Central to these are how people view Africans in the world, how we should conceptualize their suffering, and the problem of forgiveness and reconciliation between the former enslaved and colonized and the former enslavers and colonizers. The international context in which Black Hosts places these questions is innovative in African political theology.

Negritude has often been portrayed as a spent force in African Christian political theology, as a cultural movement that is no longer relevant to the cries of Africans in the modern world. My encounter with Black Hosts, however, changed my view of Negritude. I first encountered these poems in the work of the anthropologist Gary Wilder, whose Freedom Time drew from the poems to show that Senghor’s internationalist political imagination was rooted in his quest for solidarity. Wilder reads the poems as invoking the Catholic eucharistic view of transubstantiation to imagine a transformed world. Wilders’ book was complemented by other books I was reading at the time. These books suggested that anticolonial struggles were aimed at making the  international order more just rather than just creating the nation-states we have in Africa today. These books participate in what I describe as “worldmaking discourses” and they include the work of scholars such as Frederick Cooper and Adom Getachew. So, I decided to read Black Hosts closely. I first read the poems in Melvin Dixon’s translation that has both the French originals and the English translation, and then in Sylvia Bâ’s pace-setting interpretation of Senghor’s poems.

Upon reading the poems, I saw that they raise issues of African suffering in the world which Wilder’s book did not sufficiently account for, especially from the perspective of what may be called theodicy. I also discovered that Black Hosts offers the sufferings of all Africans, those who suffer both in the continent and the diaspora. It does not only deal with the suffering of those involved in European wars, as Wilder appears to suggest. Thus, Black Hosts offers all Black people in the place of Jesus Christ, for the remaking of the world. This offering raised many questions relating to how Africans are viewed in the world. It asks what their suffering means, what forgiveness and reconciliation means and how it should be obtained, among others. These are deeply theological and political questions placed in an international context in ways that African political theology does not appear to have done before.

So, after writing the first draft of my proposal, I sent it out to some colleagues to read and let me know what they thought. Professor Elochukwu Uzukwu of Duquesne University drew my attention to the work of one of the most trenchant critics of Senghor, Wole Soyinka. The work in question is Soyinka’s The Burden of Memory, The Muse of Forgiveness, which meticulously critiques Senghor’s plenary forgiveness of France and Europe in Black Hosts. It was my reading of Soyinka that led me to the title of the book, Senghor’s Eucharist, considering that Soyinka reads Senghor as performing the act of a priest through these poems. It was this book, and the work of African women theologians and womanist theologians, that helped me shape the questions that inform the chapters of the book. An important African woman theologian who shaped how I read Senghor’s offer of forgiveness was Professor Musa Dube. Her important 2001 essay, “To Pray the Lord’s Prayer in the Global Economic Era (Matt. 6:9-13),” found in The Bible in Africa: Transactions, Trajectories, and Trends, addresses the question of how to think about forgiveness when we pray the Lord’s Prayer in the context of international exploitation. Dube’s anticolonial reading of forgiveness led me to make two important proposals in the book, that an end to exploitative international relationships should accompany Senghor’s forgiveness, which should also require reparations. Pope Francis’s Fratelli Tutti: On Fraternity and Social Friendship helped me in thinking about global fraternity and Olúfémi O. Táíwò’s Reconsidering Reparations helped me in thinking about reparations.

Further Reading