Alioune Diop was not as famous as them but did no less than them for the emancipation of the black man because it is thanks to him that several generations of Africans were able to read and love Hampaté Bâ ( Mali), Aimé Césaire (Martinique), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Bernard Dadié (Ivory Coast), Léon Gontran-Damas (Guyana), Alexis Kagame (Rwanda), Wole Soyinka (Nigeria), Sembène Ousmane (Senegal), Eza Boto (Cameroon) and other authors published by Présence Africaine, the publishing house he created in 1949. Diop was first of all that: a midwife of ideas, the one who reveals hidden talents. His compatriot Léopold Sédar Senghor rightly compared him to Socrates, the father of midwifery and Césaire presented him as “one of the guides of our time”. This man born in 1910 in Saint-Louis (Senegal) was also a builder of bridges between continents, between cultures, between religions, because he ardently wished that men get rid of their prejudices to meet and talk to each other. .
As a child, he attended Koranic school, but in 1944 he embraced the Catholic faith by being baptized by a Dominican priest, Jean-Augustin Maydieu, and taking the name Jean. Guy Tirolien, West Indian poet, explains that “it is, above all, out of a thirst for a new spirituality and a need to broaden, not without heartbreak, his passionate quest for man” (cf. ‘Tribute to Alioune Diop‘, Paris, African Presence, 1978).
His primary and secondary studies, he did in Dagana, then in Saint-Louis where he obtained the classical baccalaureate (Latin-Greek) in 1931. Two years later, he arrived at the University of Algiers to study Classics . There will be Albert Camus as a fellow student. It was in 1937 that he arrived in Paris to continue his training. In 1939, because of the Second World War, he was called up as a soldier. Demobilized in 1940, he was in turn a teacher at the Prytanée militaire de La Flèche, a teacher at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, and a lecturer at the National School of Overseas France.
Between December 1946 and November 1948, he sat in the Senate of the Fourth Republic under the colors of the SFIO (French Section of the Socialist International). Mamadou Dia of the BDS (Senegalese Democratic Bloc) will succeed him. Having quickly understood that it was not in politics that he would be more useful, Alioune Diop founded the literary review ‘Présence Africaine’ in 1947. Michel Leiris, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, André Gide, Théodore Monod, Richard Wright, Father Maydieu, Merleau-Ponty and Aimé Césaire will be part of the journal’s patronage committee. The issue devoted to the West Indies and Guyana was seized in 1962 by the Seine prosecutor’s office for “undermining state security”. Senghor wrote regularly for the magazine between 1947 and 1960. In 1949, Alioune Diop launched the Présence Africaine editions. In 1956, he organized the first congress of black writers and artists at the Sorbonne. Intellectuals, writers and artists from all over the world campaigning for decolonization take part in this congress. The same year, the African Culture Society (SAC) was created. Alioune Diop will be the general secretary and the Haitian Jean Price-Mars, the first president. We owe the SAC the second congress of black writers and artists (Rome, March 26-April 1, 1959), the first World Festival of Negro Arts (Dakar, 1966), the Algiers Festival (1969) and the Lagos Festival ( 1977). Alioune Diop contributes to the preparation of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) by organizing the colloquium in Rome (May 26-27, 1962). It was for African priests and laity to reflect on the African personality and Catholicism.
In 1969 (July 31-August 2), for the first time, a Catholic pope set foot on African soil. During his trip to Kampala (Uganda), Paul VI declares that Africans can and must have an African Christianity. In response, the SAC entrusts Alioune Diop and the Cameroonian Georges Ngango with the mission of obtaining the pope’s authorization to organize the Estates General of African Christianity. The SAC will bring together in Abidjan (September 12-17, 1977) several African thinkers around the theme “Black civilization and the Catholic Church”. In 1968, Alioune Diop succeeded in settling the dispute between Senghor and the Louis-Joseph Lebret Center founded and directed by the Dominican priests of Dakar. On June 26, 1968, the Senegalese president had sent a letter to the apostolic nuncio of Dakar. This letter regretted the fact that “the Dominican fathers, who have the moral direction of the Catholic students, allow themselves to be directed by them in enterprises of subversion, remotely guided from Beijing”. Senghor therefore wanted the preaching brothers to leave Senegal before July 31, 1968 so as not to have to expel them. It was the mediation of Diop, at the beginning of 1969, which enabled the Dominicans to continue their apostolate in the Senegalese capital.
Married in 1945 to Cameroonian Christiane Yandé Diop and father of four children, Alioune Diop died on May 2, 1980 in Paris. 15 years later, the International Organization of La Francophonie (OIF) has created an African publishing prize to pay tribute to him. The prize is awarded every two years at the Dakar International Book and Teaching Materials Fair (FILDAK). His family and friends celebrate the centenary of his birth in 2010. A plaque is affixed to the family home in Saint-Louis on January 10 of the same year. On January 12, a conference is organized by Gaston Berger University in Saint-Louis on his life and work. Djibril Tamsir Niane, Guinean historian and author of ‘Soundjata ou l’épopée mandingue’, is present at this conference. A symposium, which was to examine the work of Alioune Diop in the face of contemporary challenges, brought together in May 2010 many personalities including the Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, Wole Soyinka, Cheikh Hamidou Kane, the former director general of Unesco Amadou -Mahtar M’Bow, the widow and daughters of Alioune Diop. On August 17, 2011, the University of Bambey became Alioune Diop University of Bambey. This recognition is all the more deserved as Diop has done a lot for African culture and respect for the black man in the world. This pan-Africanist at heart was able to bring together European, American and African intellectuals, believed in the power of dialogue. If his influence was discreet, it was nonetheless real on African intellectuals born in the 1930s. This is the case of Jean-Marc Ela who confesses that it was while reading Alioune Diop that he understood that the opposing tradition to modernity is irrelevant insofar as there is rational and irrational in every human being, in every society, whether modern or traditional. Ela adds that it was from this vision that he was inspired to write ‘Africa in the Age of Knowledge: Science, Society and Power‘ (Paris, L’Harmattan, 2006), a work in which he calls on the new generations of African researchers to take up the challenge of “reinventing science to participate in the construction of societies where human beings can flourish in all dimensions of its existence”.
Thanks to Alioune Diop’s open-mindedness, a quality recognized in him by those who knew him, the first issue of the review Présence africaine benefited from the contribution of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Georges Balandier, Théodore Monod…
All in all, the founder of “Présence Africaine” (review and publishing house) was a great defender of African culture at a time when, in the West, racist and intellectually limited minds maintained without proof that blacks had nothing invented, that they had no history, no culture, no philosophy. To deconstruct these lies and rehabilitate the Dark Continent, Diop had the foresight and audacity to create a space for those who thought like him to tell the true story of Black people. If he has done Africa any good, it is above all that. I even want to say that it all started with him and through him. As Mongo Beti nicely puts it, he “will remain the one who allowed black people to express themselves. Without this tool that he forged, we would have remained what we have always been: dumb”.