Born in 1923 in Casamance, southern Senegal, where his fisherman father had migrated from Dakar, Ousmane Sembene, or just Sembene, as many critics call him, has been hailed as one of the most prolific African writers and "the father of African film.". Expelled from school in 1936 for undiscipline, his formal education will never go beyond middle school. Also unable to take on his father's trade because he was always seasick, in 1938 he was sent to his father's relatives in Dakar, headquarters of the territories of French west Africa. From 1938 to 1944, he worked as an apprentice mechanic and a bricklayer. Although he was denied an opportunity of a formal education, Sembene developed a love for reading, mostly comics and discovered cinema in the segregated movie houses of Dakar. He spent his days at work as a manual laborer and his evenings either reading, watching movies or, along with his neighborhood age mates, attending evenings of story telling, wrestling, and other "traditional" Senegalese cultural events. As a French citizen, in 1944, like many young Africans of his generation, he was called on active duty to liberate France from German occupation and subsequently was dispatched to the colony of Niger as a chauffeur in the 6' colonial infantry unit. Upon being discharged in 1946 at the end of the war, he comes back to Dakar in the midst of charged social and political activism for social justice and political change. That same year, for the first time, he took membership in the construction workers' trade union and witnessed the first general workers' strike that paralyzed the colonial economy for a month and usher in nationalist struggle in French Africa
In 1947, unemployed in the thick of a war-ravaged colonial economy, Sembene leaves Dakar in search for a better living and also for the opportunity to feed his unquenchable thirst for learning. "Apprendre a l'ecole de la vie" (to learn in the school of life), as he many times put it. He migrated to France and lived in the Mediterranean city of Marseilles until 1960, the year Senegal was granted its political independence. As an African black docker who "knows" how to read and write, in Cold War Marseilles, he was soon courted by and enrolled in the CGT Confederation generale des travailleurs ), the largest and most powerful left wing workers' union in post-war France. After a back-breaking work unloading ships during the day (containers did not exist then), at night and on weekends Sembene enthusiastically attended seminars and workshops on Marxism, took membership in the French communist party in 1950, and in Mourap (Movement against racism, anti Semitism and peace) in 1951, a political organization born of the resistence movement during WWII. During those Marseilles years, he participated in protest movements against the colonial war in Indochina (1953), the Korean war (1950-1953), he also openly supported the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) in its struggle for independence from France (1954-1962), and, among others, he vehemently protested against the Rosenberg trial and execution in the United States in 1953. Open to and dreaming of the universal freedom and brotherhood mirrored by communist ideology, Ousmane Sembene also worked to educate and liberate the community of mostly illiterate and "apolitical" African workers shipwrecked at the margins of French society.
It was also in the midst of such an intense political activism that Sembene discovered communist artists and writers: Richard Wright, John Roderigo (Dos Pasos), Ricardo Neftali Reyes (aka Pablo Neruda), Ernest Hemingway, Nazim Hikmet (Turkey), the works of French Communist writer and resistence organizer Paul Eluart, and Jean Bruller (Vercors), co-founder of Les Editions de minuit (devoted to the publication of works dealing with resistence), and author of Le silence de la mer (1942)(Silence of the Sea), a classic about German Occupation and Resistence. He also came to contact with the works of Jamaican Communist writer Claude McKay (whose 1929 novel Banjo will influence his first novel) and the novels of Jacques Roumain, another Communist writer from Haiti and author of the classic Masters of the Dew (1947). Masters of the Dew's communist vision has provided most of the powerful images in Sembene's O pays, mon beau peuple (1957). In Marseilles he also became involved with international Communist youth organizations in "Les Auberges de jeunesses" (Youth Hostels) and discovered le "theatre rouge" (communist theater).
However, as Sembene struggled with millions of others for revolutionary change at the international level, he also felt alienated by the quasi absence of "revolutionary" artists and writers from Africa, voices from the masses of workers, women, and all those exploited and silenced by the combined external forces of colonialism and the internal yoke of African "tradition." Although through activism Sembene proved that he was deeply aware of the urgent need for political and social change in Africa, unlike many of his generation (Sekou Toure from Guinee; Patrice Lumumba from Belgian Gongo; Kwame Nkrumah from Ghana), and Amilcar Cabral (Bissau Guinea) who chose the political "arena," he, like Palestinian writer Edward Said, strongly believed and still believes that struggle against colonialism is not solely a fight over who should own the land but it is also a contest over who should have the right to represent whom. In the historical context and contest of colonization, for Ousmane Sembene, the terrain of art and cultural representation are a sine qua none for the freedom and revival of African societies. It grew in him as a passion. Thus, since 1956, while still a dock worker, and upon his return in Senegal in 1960 (after independence), to these days, Sembene's daily life has been devoted to the production and dissemination of emancipating and restorative images for those Frantz Fanon has named the "the Wretched of the Earth", those Africans disenfranchised and marginalized in their own society. Yet, in both literature and film, for Sembene, the work of "art" should not be a mere re-presentation of "reality," "une pancarte" (a political banner), as Sembene terms it. It is a work of art, a symbolic representation, or, to borrow from Georges Bataille, "Ce que l'art est tout d'abord, et ce qu'il demeure avant tout, est un jeu" (what art is first of all and what it will remain first of all, is a game) or, to put it differently, it remains a symbolic form of representation. Those symbols, in order to capture the imagination of the people they "speak" to and of, must first of all be also intelligible to them. They must reflect their cultural universe. What is at works in Sembene's literary and film creation is an endower to capture and project a genuine African film language and aesthetics, that would also entertain a "dialogical" relation with other world cultures.