EAP Secretariat's Archive
1997 August 7
of Encyclopaedia Africana Nears Reality
by Mathew Mirapaul
New York Times
New York, NY, USA
August 7, 1997
W.E.B. Du Bois, the great African-American thinker,
first proposed in 1909 compiling a reference work on black history and cultures around the
world. Du Bois moved to Ghana in 1961 to direct the writing of the Encyclopaedia Africana,
but it remained far from finished at the time of his death two years later.
Now, Du Bois's dream is close to becoming a
multimedia reality -- perhaps as soon as 1999 -- as the Microsoft Corp.
prepares to add an African-culture title to its popular Encarta line of
disk-based, Internet-linked information resources for computers.
Although the company would not comment
officially on the project, to be dubbed either Encarta Africana or Afropaedia,
it is "pretty well underway and pretty well thought out, and it's in
production," according to one Microsoft executive familiar with its
Craig Bartholomew, the manager of
Microsoft's reference business unit, did not return a reporter's phone calls
seeking to confirm the Redmond, Wash., firm's commitment to the project. Henry Louis Gates
Jr., co-editor of the effort with Kwame Anthony Appiah, declined to comment at Microsoft's
If Encarta Africana fulfills its ambitious premise,
it will be an essential guide to the continent's global influence on art, music and
literature through its overflowing streams of religion, politics and other forms of
Like other Encarta titles, Africana can be expected
to use text, images, audio and video to explore its subjects, here ranging from an essay
on St. Maurice, an early Christian saint of black origin, to the sounds of Motown, jazz
Previously planned as a series of four CD-ROMs, the
new Encarta title also might be released as a DVD-ROM, a new format that can hold seven
times more data than a standard CD-ROM.
A Web-based component might offer a condensed but
freely accessible information site, as well as timely updates for the disk-based resource.
A teaching guide for the educational market also is being discussed.
Gates, chairman of the Afro-American Studies
department at Harvard University and director of the school's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for
Afro-American Research, has spent almost two decades trying to publish a version of the
It was first pitched as a print project to
Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1979, and more recently Random House, Simon & Schuster and
the Voyager Company had considered producing it.
Microsoft, which is run by another well-known smart
guy named Gates, appears to have been undaunted by the $4 million cost that was at one
time affixed to the project. The company is expanding in Africa, with 3 offices already
open and 10 more to come in the next three years.
In a comment that may help explain the company's
interest in the project, Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman, said at a news conference
during a business visit to South Africa in March that the Internet "is the single
most important tool that will open Africa up to the rest of the world. It is the future of
communication worldwide and Africa is not as far behind as some people
Trademark concerns will prevent the use of the name
"Encyclopaedia Africana," which belongs to another publishing venture, although
negotiations are underway for a companion print volume that may be called the Perseus
Appiah, a Harvard professor in both Afro-American
studies and philosophy, wrote in a February e-mail message that, regardless of who elected
to become the publisher of the reference work, its contents "must be written from
scratch." He estimated that the effort would take two years.
The Harvard colleagues reportedly have been looking
for office space in Cambridge, Mass., and have hired Patricia Sullivan, a scholar
specializing in civil-rights history, as the project's managing editor. Microsoft has
assigned Darryl Lewis to oversee its part of the development.
In February, Appiah was enthusiastic about
multimedia's ability to flesh out Du Bois's vision.
"We have, finally, a technology that can
explore and explain the expressive features --the music and dance, the art and cinema, and
the literature and oral traditions -- that are the heart of the cultural achievements of
people of African descent," he wrote.
"Du Bois himself expressed the centrality of
music to black life by placing at the head of each of the essays of The Souls of Black
Folk a musical 'epigraph,' whose presence signified that something of the souls of black
folk can only be recovered in music," he continued.
"In the printed book, Du Bois had to do this by
printing in musical notations. Now, in the electronic book, we can provide the music
itself. It is finally possible to literalize one of the master tropes of the
African-American literary tradition: to make real what the slave narratives called the
While shopping the project around, Gates and Appiah
commissioned the development of a prototype CD-ROM by Dynamic Diagrams. It is not clear
whether its elegant interface will be retained or if the encyclopedia will be shoehorned
into the existing Encarta interface.
If so, perhaps the distinctive "swoosh"
sound of its controls will be replaced by the resonant thump of an African drum.
Either way, Microsoft could definitely use some
expert help in putting the funk into its Funk and Wagnalls, the venerable reference work
that supplied the foundation for the first edition of the original Encarta.
For example, online versions of Encarta describe
John Coltrane as a "tenor saxophonist and composer, considered the leading
practitioner of free-form jazz in the 1960's."
Coltrane played the soprano sax on his most popular
recording, "My Favorite Things," which is not mentioned. More important, if
there were a tinfoil tiara for the king of free-form jazz, Ornette Coleman would probably
be better suited to wear it. (The drastically wrong-headed entry for Coleman also
misspells harmolodics, the name he coined for his musical philosophy.)
Through the Du Bois Institute, Gates and Appiah
already have access to a deep database of source documents. A Web-based list of research
projects includes an online collection of 20,000 slides of African art and a CD-ROM of
literary texts drawn from African-American periodicals. A photo archive holds 25,000
images of blacks as they are represented in Western art works.
Du Bois's writings were a profound influence on the
course of 20th century history, planting the seeds for both the civil-rights and
Gates and Appiah are two of today's leading black
voices, with intellectual firepower to spare. If their Encarta Africana arrives on
computers around the world in 1999, perhaps they will have an equally significant impact
on the 21st Century.
Responses to the above article:
of Encyclopaedia Africana Near Reality
by Mrs. Grace Bansa, Acting Director of the Secretariat, Encyclopaedia Africana Project, Accra, Ghana, West Africa, August 11, 1997
History Protecting a Legacy: W.E.B. Du Bois' dream
and work for an Encyclopaedia Africana
lives! by David Graham
Guest Columnist for "The Final
Call", Accra, Ghana, West Africa
October 7, 1997