Poem Summary ‘‘Prayer to the Masks’’
The poem begins with an address to an object or spirit. Here, as the title indicates, this address is a
prayer to the masks, which appear in the poem both as works of African art and as more general spirits of African culture, society, and history. The poet lists the colors of the masks as black, red, and black and white, suggesting the masks are symbols of race and skin color. In the third line, Senghor suggests that these masks are also spirits of nature, linked to the winds that blow from the four directions of north, south, east, and west. As spirits that blow, they also may be related tothe poet’s breath and poetic inspiration. As the fourth line indicates, he greets them with silence, as if listening to what the mask-spirits will whisper to him on the wind.
The poet introduces his family’s guardian animal, the lion, symbol of aristocratic virtue and courage. Traditionally, these animals were thought to be the first ancestor and the protector of the family line. In mentioning his lion-headed ancestor, Sen-ghor alludes to the name of his father, Diogoye, which in his native Serer language means lion. In ceremonies in which masks would be used, the family might be represented by a lion mask. Sen-ghor further reinforces the implications of long tradition and patriarchal power. The lion guards the ground that is forbidden to women and to passing things, in favor of values, memories, and customs that stretch back into mythic antiquity.
These lines develop a complex relationship between the faces of the ancestors, the poet’s face, and the masks. Line 10 speaks of the masks as idealized representations of previously living faces. The masks eliminate the mobile features and signs of age in the faces of the living ancestors, but in doing so they outlive their death. In turn, they are able to give shape to the face of the poet bent over the page and writing his prayer to the masks. He appeals to them to listen to him, for he is the living image of those masks to whom he is writing a prayer.
These lines contrast the glorious past of Africa, when vast black-ruled empires spanned the continent, and the present, in which the peoples of Africa have been subjugated by the imperial conquests of European nations. The daughter of royalty symbolizes the nobility of traditional Africa, and her death represents both the general suffering and decline of traditional African culture and the loss of political power of blacks to rule themselves. However, the relationship to Europe is not presented solely in a negative way. The image of the umbilical cord suggests that the European conquest has nourished a new Africa soon to be born, but one that will eventually have to sever its ties with its European ‘‘mother’’ if it is to live and grow.
Lines 18 and 19
The masks are called to witness the sad history of modern Africa, and they look on, god-like with their changeless faces. However, Senghor also suggests that the traditional customs and values have apparently not been able to respond to the great changes that history has brought about. The poem implicitly comes to a question and a turning point: Do the masks represent a valuable long view from which the present can be seen in its proper perspective, or are they merely relics of a past that have nothing to say to those who are exploited and suffering in the present?
Lines 20 and 21
The poet prays to the magic spirits of the masks to help speed the rebirth suggested by the image of the umbilical cord connecting Africa to Europe in line 17. Implicitly, reviving the ancestral spirits of the masks will help sever the ties of dependence. In turn, a reborn African creativity can help Europe to a more life-affirming use of its material and scientific wealth, just as brown yeast is necessary for making bread from white flour.
These lines further develop the idea that Africa will provide the life impulse to a Europe that is oriented toward mechanical values, materialist gain, and war. It is the rhythm of African music and dance that can change the thud of machines into something better. A reborn Africa will lend its youthful energy to a senile Europe, bringing joy and hope where there has been isolation, exhaustion, despair, and death through thirty years of war and depression.
Lines 28 and 29
Senghor refers to the exploitation of Africa for its raw materials and to European conceptions of black Africans as merely a source of cheap labor and economic profit. Looking back to the figures of death and rebirth in the previous lines, he ironically notes how the Europeans view the black African as a fearful image of death.
Lines 30 and 31
Rather than allowing their humanity to be reduced to the economic value of the agricultural goods listed in line 28, the African of the future will have a different,
creative relationship to the soil and the natural world. Like the participants in a traditional ceremony in which masks are used, these new Africans absorb the powers of the natural spirits through the rhythm of dance, music, and poetry.
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Ancestry ‘‘Prayer to the Masks’’ The figure of the mask is Senghor’s central image in the poem of the traditional past and the ancestors for whom it was a living reality. He uses the word ‘‘mask’’ as a kind of incantation to call up the ancestral spirits who in the present, implicitly, are hidden and hard to hear. The silence The locale of ‘‘Prayer to the Masks’’ Perhaps one of the first questions occurring to readers contemplating ‘‘Prayer to the Masks’’ by Leopold Sedar Senghor is where the poem occurs, more specifically, what is indicated by the sixth line’s ‘‘this place.’’ A possible answer is Senghor’s apartment in Paris. This theory comes from ‘‘In Memoriam,’’ the first poem in Senghor’s first poetry Art – African Art The traditional art of Africa plays a major part in the African society. Most ceremonies and activities (such as singing, dancing, storytelling, etc.) can not function without visual art. It can also be used as an implement and insignia of rank or prestige, or have a religious significance. African art consists mainly of sculptures, paintings, Critical Overview ‘‘Prayer to the Masks’’ Critics have tended to discuss ‘‘Prayer to the Masks’’ along two lines. It is seen as an assertion of the value of African traditions and the African past, including Senghor’s own childhood experience; it has also been discussed as Senghor’s most hopeful vision of Africa’s potential contribution to a new synthetic, global culture that will Leopold Sedar Senghor (The Library of Congress) Over the course of his long career as a writer, philosopher, and statesman, the Senegalese poet Leopold Sedar Senghor inspired countless young writers throughout the French-speaking world. Along with Aime Cesaire and Leon Damas, he founded the negritude movement, which argued that the black people of colonial Africa and the Caribbean should take pride in