MOST black Africans only learned to write down their songs and tales in the past hundred years, but they are heirs to centuries of oral literature. In their search for an African identity, the continent's contemporary poets—many of them leading politicians—today have forsaken their mission-school Golden Treasury to rediscover the pagan rhymes and rhythms that enlivened tribal life long before the white man came. Says Léopold Sédar Senghor, who is black Africa's most distinguished poet as well as President of Senegal: "Poetry must find its way back to its origins."

The attempt to explore and revive these origins is illustrated in...

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