Why We Love Encarta Africana and Why Every Black Family Should Have a Copy

January 13, 2024
6 mins read

Henry Louis Gates Jr., on Black History and Encarta Africana
Monday, October 16, 2006.
The encyclopaedia of the Black experience – Encarta Africana – is edited by two eminent Black scholars on a model proposed by the notable pan-Africanist, the late Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois.
Inspired by the dream of the Du Bois and assisted by an eminent advisory board led by the Nigerian Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, Princeton University’s Prof Kwame Anthony Appiah and Harvard’s Prof Henry Louis Gates, Jr., created the first scholarly encyclopaedia that takes as its scope the entire history of Africa and the African Diaspora.
This book, with its hundreds of maps, tables, charts and photographs reflects the richness and the range of Black experience as no other publication before it. Certain to prove invaluable to anyone interested in black history and the influence of African cultures on the world today, Africana is a unique testament to the remarkable legacy of the peoples of a great and varied continent and their descendants around the world.
With entries ranging from “affirmative action” to “zydeco,” Africana includes articles on the history of each African nation and every major cultural, religious, and political movement in Africa and the New World. Here you will find entries on the most prominent ethnic groups in Africa and the lives of every African, West Indian and African American Nobel Laureate as well as each member of the U. S. Congressional Black Caucus.
In more than three thousand articles Africana brings the entire black world into sharp focus. These include, articles on the history of slavery; the civil rights movement; Black literature, music, and art; ancient African civilizations; and the black experience in countries such as France, India, and Russia.
 Queen Amina of Zaria,The 16th Century Nigerian female warriror featured in Encarta Africana

Conversation with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:
Tell us about W.E.B. Du Bois and his dream of creating an encyclopaedia about the African experience:
Between 1909 and his death in 1963, W.E.B. Du Bois dreamed of editing an “Encyclopaedia Africana.” He envisioned a comprehensive compendium of “scientific” knowledge about the history, cultures, and social institutions of people of African descent: of Africans in the Old World, African in the Americas, and persons of African descent who had risen to prominence in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
Du Bois sought to publish nothing less than the equivalent of a black Encyclopaedia Britannica. 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. Sadly, he was never able to raise the additional funding he needed.
How did you and your co-editor, Kwame Anthony Appiah, come to put together this monumental project?
Anthony and I first became enamored of this project as students at the University of Cambridge. I was a student of Wole Soyinka, the great playwright who in 1986 became the first African to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. Anthony was an undergraduate studying philosophy.
Though we came from different backgrounds-in rural West Virginia and in urban Asante, in Ghana-we both already had, like Soyinka, a sense of the worlds of Africa and her Diaspora as profoundly interconnected, even if, as we learned ourselves, there were risks of misunderstanding that arose from our different origins and experiences.
The three of us represented three different places in the black world, and we vowed in 1973 to edit a Pan-African encyclopaedia of the African Diaspora, inspired by Du Bois’s original objective formulated in 1909.

          Prof. W.E.B Du Bois: Inspired Encarta Africana
The history of Africa and her Diaspora is so vast. How did you decide what to include in Africana?
An encyclopaedia cannot include everything that is known about its subject matter, even everything that is important. So we had to make choices. (And, alas, some of the most interesting questions are as yet unanswered.) But we sought to provide a broad range of information and so to represent the full range of Africa and her Diaspora.
About two-fifths of the text of the encyclopaedia has to do exclusively, or almost so, with the African continent: the history of each of the modern nations of Africa and what happened within their territories before those nations developed; the names of ethnic groups, including some that were formerly empires and nations, and their histories; biographies of eminent African men and women; major cities and geographical features: rivers, mountains, lakes, deserts; forms of culture: art, literature, music, religion; and some of Africa’s diverse plant and animal life.
Another third deals mostly with Latin America and the Caribbean, focusing on the influence of African culture and people of African decent in shaping those portions of the New World. Slightly less than a third of the material deals with North America in the same way. And the rest is material of cross-cultural significance or has to do with the African presence in Europe, Asia, or the rest of the world.
Africa’s role in history is incomparable. What’s its earliest “claim to fame”?
Africa is the continent where human history begins. It was in Africa, as biologists now believe, that our species evolved, and so, in a literal sense, every modern human being is of African descent.
Indeed, it was probably only about 100,000 years ago that the first members of our species left Africa, across the Suez Peninsula, and set out on an adventure that would lead to the peopling of the whole earth.
It is important to emphasize that Africa has never been separate from the rest of the human world. There have been long periods and many cultures that knew nothing of life in Africa.
For much of African history, even in Africa, most Africans were unaware of other peoples in their own continent, unaware, in fact, that they shared a continent at all (just as most people in Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas would have been astonished to learn that they were Europeans, Asians, Australians, or Americans!).
           Prof. Anthony Appiah: Co-edited Encarta Africana (Picture: Harvard University)
But the Straits of Gibraltar and the Suez Peninsula were always bridges more than obstacles to travel; the Mediterranean was already a system of trade long before the founding of Rome; the Sahara Desert, which so many people imagine as an impenetrable barrier, has a network of trade routes older than the Roman Empire.
Starting some 2000 or so years ago, in the area of modern day Cameroon, Bantu-speaking migrants fanned out south and east into tropical Africa, taking with them the knowledge of iron smelting and new forms of agriculture.
And so, when the Greek and Arab travellers explored the East Coast of African in the first millennium C.E, or European explorers began to travel down the West African coast toward the equator in the fifteenth century, they were making direct contact with cultures with which their ancestors had very often been in remote and indirect contact all along.
Why haven’t we heard much about African history?
Westerns have a distorted view of Africa because the version of history they learned was the one that white colonialists created. And until African countries became independent, starting in the 1960s, many Africans didn’t know their history either. They were kept from knowledge of their heritage because the colonialists wanted them to feel that their culture was not valued.
When did you make your first trip to Africa?
I first went to Africa when I was an undergraduate at Yale in the early 1970s. I was in this five-year BA program in which you took a year off between your sophomore and junior year to work in the Third World. I went to Tanzania in East Africa, and lived in this little bush village.
My job was to help out at this village hospital. Before I came home, I met up with this guy from Harvard and we decided to hitchhike across the Equator, from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. We did it in two months. By now, I’ve been to 19 out of 51 African countries.
Editor’s Note: Encarta Africana and Encyclopedia Africana are published by Microsoft Corporations and Civitas Books respectively. They are available online and at your local bookshops.
Main Picture: Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr (Courtesy Harvard University)
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