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Multimedia: Compendium of Black History Volume 52 Number 5, September/October 1999
by Robert L. Douglas

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.

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© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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