A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The two principal editors of Microsoft's Encarta Africana, Harvard
University's Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Kwame Anthony Appiah, have often
claimed that this CD-ROM encyclopedia of black history and culture conforms
to W.E.B. DuBois' vision for such a work. Perhaps best known for his
writing on slavery and race in America, DuBois worked on three such
reference works earlier this century, his main concern being to awaken
black people to their potential for progress and greatness based on their
past achievements and to elicit respect from all fair-minded people. To
what extent Encarta Africana fulfills that ideal is a matter of special
importance given Microsoft's power in the marketplace: many people will buy
Encarta Africana and accept its contents as truth.
A survey of some of DuBois' books reveals why Gates and Appiah cite him as
inspiration for Encarta. As early as 1915, with the publication of The
Negro, DuBois began what I consider an outline of a reference he thought would provide the kind of information needed by black people, one that
would also "enable the general reader to know a sixth or more of the human
race." DuBois remained steadfast in his belief that black people had played
a more seminal role in history than contemporary racist attitudes allowed.
He assumed that one reason for white discrimination and prejudice was
ignorance and misinterpretation of black and brown histories and cultures.
In 1944 DuBois published a Preparatory Volume of the Encyclopedia of the
Negro, and, in 1946, The World and Africa, which took issue with those who
denied the cultural contributions of Africans. Elsewhere, DuBois presents
his research on Africans in Asian societies, his speculations on Atlantis,
and the possible economic and
social triumph of African society in the future. DuBois' views of Atlantis
are unique: rather than an island outpost of an unknown European society,
he identified it as being one or more African societies whose splendor,
when recounted by early travelers, could not be accepted by Europeans as
characteristic of African people.
With his books and the Preparatory Volume of the Encyclopedia of the Negro,
DuBois felt his larger purpose had been fulfilled: a history of the world
had finally been written from an African point of view showing that "black
Africans are men in the same sense as white European and yellow Asiatics,
and that history can easily prove this."
Encarta Africana's writers cannot claim the scholarly authority and
experience of those marshalled by DuBois for his preparatory encyclopedia
volume. And, sad to say, they sometimes lapse into ethnocentric stereotypes
that reveal an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century disdain for people of
African descent. Still, Encarta's sheer scope (from four million years ago
to the present) is dazzling, and its many essays and articles, visual aids
and audioclips, videos and virtual tours are truly impressive.
Robert L. Douglas is professor of Pan African Studies and Art History at the University of Louisville, Kentucky.