|EAP History Archive
Brief History - Encyclopaedia Africana: Dictionary of African Biography®™
A. Winbush, Ph.D.
In 1961, dismayed with the
furthering deterioration of race relations in the United States and after ninety-three
years of living in what Derrick Bell calls "an alien land called home", Du Bois
immigrated to Ghana, dying there two years later.
Nashville, Tennessee, USA
Published by Ghana International Review
The circumstances surrounding his leaving America have
remained the topic of debate, and this author's research in Ghana sheds more light as to
why this Fisk graduate moved to Ghana.
Du Bois himself is relatively silent on this
issue, but an obscure reference by Kwame Nkrumah, the Prime Minister of the newly
liberated Ghana, at the time of Du Bois death in August of 1963, reveals a little
discussed reason for Du Bois' move to Africa:
of African Emancipation
one of a number of talented West Indians
who helped shape African events in the
played an active role in developing the
Pan African and Black labor movements from
the 1930's onwards, and was a close
associate and adviser to Kwame Nkrumah,
(q.v.), then prime minister - first, of the
Gold Coast and then of Ghana.
SOURCE: Encyclopaedia Africana: Dictionary of African Biography®™ Volume 1: Ethiopia &
It was the late George
Padmore who described Dr. Du Bois as the greatest scholar the Negro race has produced, and
one who always upheld the right of Africans to govern themselves.
asked Dr. Du Bois to come to Ghana to pass the evening of his life with
us and also to spend his remaining years in compiling an Encyclopaedia
Africana, a project which is part of his whole intellectual
Tribute to W.E.B. Du Bois, August 27, 1963 - by Kwame Nkrumah
This simple statement reveals that Nkrumah and Du Bois discussed the idea for
this monumental work preceding his final move to Ghana. Nkrumah's visionary leadership is
manifested in his desire to unite Africa not only politically but intellectually with a
project that would allow African intellectuals from the continent to collaborate on this
At the time of his death, Du Bois was fulfilling
his promise to Nkrumah and engaged in the publication of his magnum opus, the
The proposed set of books, comprising some 10
million words in twenty volumes has a history that is nothing short of fascinating.
The Encyclopaedia Africana®™
, was envisioned as a work that would "set the record
straight" regarding the history, culture and contributions of African people
throughout the world.
Du Bois envisioned a set of books similar to the
Encyclopedia Britannica, written by Africans and that would present an African
worldview of the people, culture, literature and history of Africa.
Du Bois wanted few, if any contributions from
non-African writers; those could already be found in abundance in several encyclopedias
and books discussing Black people.
"There is a general agreement, certainly
among Africans, that it is time that the existing knowledge concerning Africa and its
peoples be assembled, organized and published in encyclopedia form. It is agreed
also that such a publication should be based as far as possible though by no means
exclusively on the scientific research of African scholars."
"Undoubtedly this compendium of knowledge
about Africa would be of great value to Africans in their present renaissance, as well as
to peoples of the western world long schooled to believe that Africa is a continent
without a history --until the coming of the Europeans." (Du Bois, 1962)
In late 1961, Du Bois wrote over 100 letters to
scholars from all over the world seeking their opinion about the proposed project. (There
is a remarkable similarity between the early Du Bois preoccupation with detail,
manifested when he was editor of The Fisk Herald, and his
determination to secure global opinion from the most influential scholars on Africa before
the project was even undertaken).
The replies were generally favorable, and the
list of scholars reads like a "Who's Who" among the most renowned scientists on
Africa at the time. While many of these scholars are deceased some are still alive, and
have continued to publish articles and books on Africa.
It is hard to assess the impact that Du Bois had
on them during his brief tenure as Secretariat of Encyclopaedia Africana Project
, but it is clear that they were sensitive to his views on
what the ultimate work would reflect.
Secretariat for the project, Du Bois was careful to publish a
cross-section of replies from the 100 scholars in the first volume of
the Newsletter discussing the set of books.
These responses are revealing at several levels.
They reflect several scholars' opinions about Du Bois, Africa, and preconceived notions
about whether African scholars alone were even capable of mounting such a task.
Note the reply of one English scholar to Du Bois'
I should agree with you that such
a scheme should be in the hands, and with the active co-operation, of, some already
independent Negro [sic] state. . . On the other hand, it must I think, be recognized that
the inception of such a plan may come to grief scientifically unless the Negro state
implementing it financially is ready to see that outside guidance cannot be dispensed with
until such time as the historical mind and training of African students has been developed
considerably further than I imagine to be the case."
Du Bois, being his usual political self, did not
hesitate to publish responses in the first Newsletter that both supported and opposed to
the project. The consensus however, by the majority of the scholars queried was that
the project should proceed with dispatch and undertaken with the parameters outlined by Du
Some of the replies reflected racist and
paternalistic attitudes toward the project as well as Africa. In general, the
scholars opposed to the project were white and questioned whether or not enough African
scholars even existed that could fulfill the task of writing a comprehensive encyclopedia
Du Bois was confident that not only did
enough of these scholars exist, but that the project needed very few contributions from
Furthermore, he felt strongly that the
project should be housed in Africa, and remain there until the final volume was completed.
It was impossible for him to conceive that such an encyclopedia could possibly be written,
edited and compiled in a nation that was a former colonizer of the people that were the
subject of the Encyclopedia in the first place.
How ironic it would be if the
Encyclopaedia Africana®™ were written in Belgium, England or France! Such an idea was as ludicrous
to Du Bois as would be the idea that the Encyclopedia Britannica be published in
Ghana. He was adamantly opposed to a non-Pan-African commentary that so dominated
(and still does) the history, people and literature of Africa.
Ironically, one of the respondents to Du Bois'
letter was Philip Curtin, then an Associate Professor of History at the University of
Wisconsin who only recently was critical of Black scholars moving toward a definition of
African history that was more Afrocentric.
In 1962, he [Curtin] replied to Du Bois' letter
reaction to the proposal, which
is shared by Professor Vansina, is that you are correct in believing that the members of
the editorial board should be African. On the other hand, we do not think that the
race of the contributors should weigh heavily or at all. We recognize that there are
many biased works by Europeans about African society and culture, but also of the very
best of the works correcting this bias have also been done by Europeans ---- The work of
Thomas Hodgkin and Basil Davidson, for example."
"There is some possibility that critics
will claim such an encyclopedia is a product of racism-in-reverse, [sic] and I believe
that this could be avoided if the contributions are drawn from the best scholars
available, regardless of race."
The statement by Curtin is similar in ideology to
an article recently published by him in The Chronicle of Higher Education
where he worries out loud about whites being "excluded" from teaching African
history courses. Curtin is as consistent today as he was 34 years ago when he was
concerned about Du Bois Afrocentric interpretation of Africa.
Du Bois' final work, like his writings at Fisk,
sought to go beyond what was being said about Black people, and present what they were
saying about themselves. He felt a need, similar to while he was editor of The
Fisk Herald to move beyond the confines of the campus and to explore Black
self-commentary, rather than merely synthesizing often erroneous opinions held by whites
this is where the work should be done...
sponsored by Africans,
of the Secretariat
Africana Project (EAP),
Accra, Ghana, West
Encyclopaedia Africana®™ was conceived of as a project that would preserve the Pan-African worldview
central to Du Bois' politics and was viewed by the initial editorial board as a
non-negotiable in the publication of the tome.
Until his death in August, 1963, Du Bois
continued to lay the groundwork for the Encyclopaedia Africana®™
His editorship of the newsletter of the project, Information Reports on the
Encyclopedia Africana, reveal much about the direction where the project was
In his last newsletter, published in June 1963
just two months before his death, Du Bois makes a prophetic allusion to concerns by some
of his peers on Afrocentric approaches in writing the Encyclopaedia Africana®™
. He tells why he includes an excerpt from a
remarkable paper by T.O. Ranger, presented two years earlier at a conference in Rhodesia,
Ranger clearly calls for an African-centered
approach to the study of Africa, and Du Bois defends this approach by saying:
as summarized by
Dr. T.O. Ranger, has been presented in these pages because it illustrates the point that
while the Europe-centric [sic] interpretation of African history is now generally conceded
as being outmoded, there still persists the tendency to question the validity of the
frankly Afro-centric [sic] view of the subject."
"It is an error, we believe, to consider
this viewpoint as being nothing more than a reaction against the faults of the European
viewpoint, inevitably leading to errors of myopia and distortion on the other side.
In the discussion cited, the historian is finally left with the dubious -counsel of
'avoidance of both ethno-centrisms ---presumably by following the safe middle road of
impartiality and 'objectivity'".
"In our view, there is often a tendency
toward confusion rather than sense in much of the debate on the question of the
'Afro-centric' view of African history. Is it not more to the point to try to define
the scientific approach to African history---as, indeed, to all history---in terms of the
basic determinants of human social development? The discussion of the role of the
historian of Africa as viewed from this angle will have to be reserved for another issue
of the Bulletin."
-- Du Bois,
Tragically, Du Bois died less than three months
after he wrote these words, and we will never know what his opinions were on an
"Afro-centric" approach to the study of African history.
We can infer easily however, that he held
in disdain anyone who viewed Afrocentricity as merely Eurocentricity in blackface, a
belief widely held by contemporary critics of Afrocentricity. It is also easy to see
that while he was patient in letting scholars criticize an Afrocentric encyclopedia, he
had no intentions of abandoning the core idea that the project must not only be undertaken
primarily by Africans, but should remain a work indigenous to the continent.