Printer Friendly

Africana, and Encarta Africana.

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Encyclopaedia

Between 1909 and his death in 1963, W.E.B. Du- Bois, the Harvard-trained historian, sociologist, journalist, and political activist, dreamed of editing an "Encyclopedia Africana." He envisioned a comprehensive compendium of "scientific" knowledge about the history, cultures, and social institutions of people of African descent. Du Bois sought to publish nothing less than the equivalent of a black Encyclopaedia Britannica, believing that such a broad assemblage of biography, interpretive essays, facts, and figures would do for the much denigrated black world of the twentieth century what Britannica and Denis Diderot's Encyclopedie had done for the European world of the eighteenth century. These publications, which consolidated the scholarly knowledge accumulated by academics and intellectuals in the Age of Reason, served both as a tangible sign of the enlightened skepticism that characterized that era of scholarship, and as a basis upon which further scholarship could be constructed. An encyclopedia of the Af rican diaspora in Du Bois's view would achieve these things for persons of African descent.

Du Bois first announced his desire to edit an "Encyclopaedia Africana" in a letter to Edward Wilmot Blyden, the Pan-Africanist intellectual, in 1909: "I am venturing to address you on the subject of a Negro Encyclopaedia. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation of the American Negro, I am proposing to bring out an Encyclopaedia Africana covering the chief points in the history and condition of the Negro race." Du- Bois sent a similar letter to dozens of other scholars, white and black, including William James, Hugo Munsterberg, George Santayana, Albert Bushnell Hart, President Charles William Eliot of Harvard, Sir Harry Johnston, Sir Flinders Petrie, Giuseppe Sergi, Franz Boas, J.E. Casely-Hayford, John Hope, Kelly Miller, Benjamin Brawley, Anna Jones, Richard Greener, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and several others, all of whom -- with the sole exception of President Eliot -- agreed to serve on his editorial board. Du Bois sought to create a board of "One Hundred Negro Americans, African and West Indian Scholars," he wrote, and a second board of white advisors. Nevertheless, as he put it to Blyden, "the real work I want done by Negroes." Du Bois, admitting that this plan was "still in embryo," created official stationery that projected a publication date of the first volume in 1913 -- "the Jubilee of Emanci-pation in America and the Tercent-enary of the Landing of the Negro.

Despite the nearly unanimous enthusiasm that greeted Du Bois's call for participation, he could not secure the necessary funding to mount the massive effort necessary to edit an encyclopedia of the black world. But he never abandoned the idea. At the height of the Great Depression, the idea would surface once again.

Anson Phelps Stokes, head of the Phelps-Stokes Association, a foundation dedicated to ameliorating race relations in America, called a meeting of 20 scholars and public figures at Howard University on November 7, 1931, to edit an "Encyclopedia of the Negro," a Pan-African encyclopedia similar to Du-Bois's 1909 project. Incredibly, neither Du Bois nor Alain Locke, a Harvard trained Ph.D. in philosophy and the dean of the Harlem Renaissance, nor Carter G. Woodson (like Du Bois, a Harvard Ph.D. in history and the founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History) was invited to attend. Du Bois protested, angrily, to Phelps Stokes. A second meeting was convened on January 9, 1932, at which Du Bois was unanimously elected editor-in-chief.

His project was interrupted by the Depression for three years. But by 1935, Du Bois was actively engaged in its planning full-time, time made available by his forced resignation as editor of the Crisis magazine, the official organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a post he had held since its first publication in 1910. Du-Bois had written an editorial advocating the development of independent Negro social and economic institutions, since the goal posts of the Civil Rights Movement appeared to be receding. The NAACP's board of directors was outraged and demanded his resignation. Du Bois obliged.

Du Bois sought funding virtually everywhere, including the New Deal agencies, to no avail. He continued writing hundreds of scholars, seeking their support. E. Franklin Frazier, the great black sociologist, declined Du Bois's overture, citing in a letter dated November 7, 1936, the presence of too many "politicians," "statesmen," "big Negroes," and "whites of goodwill" on Du Bois's editorial board. Throw out the table of contents, fire the board of editors, replace them with scholars, Frazier wrote, and he would consider joining the project.

A few months before this exchange, Du Bois was attacked by Carter G. Woodson in the black newspaper the Baltimore Afro-American. On May 30, 1936, a pageone headline blared the news that Woodson "Calls Du Bois a Traitor if He Accepts Post," with a subtitle adding for good measure: "He Told Ofays, We'd Write Own History." Woodson charged that Du Bois had stolen the idea of The Encyclopedia of the Negro from him and that his project was doomed to failure because Du Bois was financed by, and his editorial board included, white people. Embarrassed, Du Bois sought to defend himself in letters to potential contributors and board members. In this swirl of controversy, in the midst of the Depression, funding appeared increasingly elusive.

Du Bois's assistant editor, Rayford Logan, told a poignant story about the failure of this project to receive funding. By 1937, Du Bois had secured a pledge of $125,000 from the Phelps-Stokes Fund to proceed with his project -- half of the funds needed to complete it. He applied to the Carnegie Corporation for the remaining half of his budget, with the strong endorsement of Phelps Stokes and the president of the General Education Board, a group of four or five private foundations that included the Rockefeller Foundation. So convinced was Du Bois that his project would finally be funded that he invited Logan to wait with him for the telephone call that he had been promised immediately following the Carnegie board meeting. A bottle of vintage champagne sat chilling on Du Bois's desk in a silver bucket, two cut crystal champagne flutes resting nearby.

The phone never rang. Persuaded that Du Bois was far too "radical" to serve as a model of disinterested scholarship, and lobbied by Du Bois's intellectual enemies, the Carnegie Corporation rejected the project.

Adding insult to injury, in 1948 the General Education Board, along with the Dodd Mead publishing company, approached Frederick Patterson, the president of Tuskegee Institute, to edit a new incarnation of the project, to be entitled The Negro: An Encyclopedia. Then in 1950, the historian Charles Wesley wrote to Du Bois, informing him that in the wake of Carter Woodson's death, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History had decided to resurrect The Encyclopedia Africana project, reminding him of Woodson's claims to have conceived of it in 1921. Du Bois wished him well, but cautioned him in a postscript that "there is no such thing as a cheap encyclopedia." Everyone, it seemed, wanted to claim title to the encyclopedia, but no one wanted Du Bois to serve as its editor. For black scholars, Africana had become the Grail. Its publication, as Du Bois put it "would mark an epoch."

Long after Du Bois had abandoned all hope of realizing his great ambition, an offer of assistance came quite unexpectedly from Africa. On September 26, 1960, Du Bois announced that Kwame Nkrumah, the president of the newly independent Republic of Ghana, had invited him to repatriate to Ghana, where he would serve as the editor-in-chief of The Encyclopaedia Africana. Du Bois accepted, moving in 1961. On December 15, 1962, in his last public speech before his death on the eve of the March on Washington in August 1963, Du Bois addressed a conference assembled expressly to launch -- at last -- his great project.

He wanted to edit "an Encyclopaedia Africana based in Africa and compiled by Africans," he announced, an encyclopedia that is "long overdue," referring no doubt to his previously frustrated attempts. "Yet," he continued with a certain grim satisfaction, "it is logical that such a work had to wait for independent Africans to carry it out [because] the encyclopedia is concerned with Africa as a whole." Citing his own introductory essay in the Preparatory Volume of 1945, Du Bois justified this project by railing against "present thought and action" that "are all too often guided by old and discarded theories of race and heredity, by misleading emphasis and silence of former histories." After all of these centuries of slavery and colonialism, on the eve of the independence of the Continent, "it is African scholars themselves who will create the ultimate Encyclopaedia Africana." Eight months later Du Bois would be dead, and with him died his fifty-four year-old dream of shepherding a great black encyclopedia into print. Nevertheless, the Secretariat of the Encyclopedia Africana, based in Accra, Ghana, which Du Bois founded, eventually published three volumes of biographical dictionaries, in the late seventies and early eighties, and has recently announced plans to publish an encyclopedia about the African continent in 2009, which is welcome news.

I first became enamored of this project as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, where I was a student of Wole Soyinka, the great playwright who in 1986 became the firstAfrican to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Along with my fellow student, Kwame Anthony Appiah, himself the first African to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy at Cambridge, the three of us vowed in 1973 to edit a Pan-African encyclopaedia of the African diaspora, inspired by Du Bois's original objective formulated in 1909. Du Bois's later conception of the project was, we felt, too narrow in its scope, and too parochial in its stated desire to exclude the scholarly work of those who had not had the good fortune, by accident of birth, to have been born on the African continent. (Du Bois himself, had this rule been literally applied, would have been excluded from his own project!) Instead, we wished to edit a project that would produce a genuine compendium of "Africana."

That dream of ours became a reality on Dr. King's birthday in 1999, when we published Encarta Africana, the first comprehensive multimedia CD-ROM encyclopedia of the entire black world. Upon viewing Encarta Africana, David Du Bois, Dr. Du Bois's son, gave us the very best review possible: "From 1909 my father W.E.B. Du Bois, dreamed of editing a comprehensive encyclopaedia of Africa and the Black Diaspora. He pursued this dream his entire life, culminating in the establishment of the Secretariat of the Encyclopaedia Africana in Accra, Ghana in 1961, an ongoing project that seeks to create an encyclopaedia about Africa produced by Africans. Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., inspired by my father's original idea, have made a magnificent state-of-the-art contribution to African and African American Studies and the Humanities with Encarta Africana. Dr. Du-Bois would be proud."

Having published the CD-ROM version, we are publishing both the print version this month (October) under the title, Africana: the Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience as well as the second edition of the CD-ROM version, under the title Encarta Africana 2000. Encarta Africana 2000 consists of an additional 560,000 words as well as two new important features: an interactive Black Music Timeline (1870-to the present, designed with Quincy Jones) and "The Library of Black America," a fully searchable, digitized set of the complete texts of 120 books written by Africans and African Americans between 1770 and 1919. Among Encarta Africana 2000's new articles are several by Molefi Asante and Maulana Karenga.

Encarta Africana and Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience aspire to belong in the grand tradition of encyclopedia editing by scholars interested in the black world on both sides of the Atlantic. Anthony Appiah, Wole Soyinka, and I acknowledge our indebtedness to these traditions of scholarly endeavor, more than a century old, to which we are heirs, by dedicating our encyclopedia and accompanying web site, to the monumental contribution of W.E.B. Du Bois.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is a W.E.B. Du Bois professor of humanities, chair of the Afro-American Studies Department, and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University.
COPYRIGHT 1999 IMDiversity, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Gates Jr., Dr. Henry Louis
Publication:The Black Collegian
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 1999
Previous Article:Johnnie Cochran Pursues His Lifelong Passion to Promote Racial Justice.
Next Article:Campus Hate Crimes: Fruit on the American Tree of Violence.

Related Articles
It's a black thing.
Kids' stuff.
New Encarta. (new products).
Encarta Reference Library 2003.
Encarta Reference Library 2002.
Encarta Reference Library 2004.
Encarta 2005.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |