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Gates: After 90 Years,
Encyclopedia Africana
Fulfills DuBois' Dream
October 18, 1999

Nine decades after W.E.B. DuBois first conceived of it, the Encyclopedia Africana came into existence this year, largely through the persistence of Henry Louis Gates.

While Gates never directly took so much credit for the encyclopedia's existence during his lecture at the Rome Hall Ballroom on October 6, it was plainly apparent to anyone who heard him discuss how it came to be.

"It's a miracle that it's done," Gates said. "The encyclopedia was published 90 years after W.E.B. DuBois articulated his dream about an African-American encyclopedia."

Gates made his remarks while delivering the 53rd lecture in the Critical Issues Series organized by the University's Institute for African American Studies. Considered one of the prominent public intellectuals in the country, Gates is the W.E.B. DuBois Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University and director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research there.

Gates' talk was more of a performance than a traditional lecture. His words came in torrents, as he described the travails, infighting, and clashes of egos and personalities behind the evolution of the Encyclopedia Africana.

"In 1909, W.E.B. DuBois, the greatest African-American intellectual of all time, woke up one day and said he'd had a vision that the most efficacious way to fight white racism would be the editing of a comprehensive encyclopedia of the black experience - the equivalent of a black Encyclopedia Britannica," Gates said.

DuBois had barely enough funds to print stationery to announce the project, he said. Undeterred, DuBois invited many of the great scholars of the time to serve on the encyclopedia's editorial board. Some of those invited were DuBois' former teachers at Harvard, including the philosophers William James and George Santayana.

Every person invited agreed to participate, except one, Harvard President Charles William Eliot, who said he was too busy. In declining DuBois' invitation, Eliot offered two pieces of advice, the second of which proved to be prophetic.

"The Encyclopedia Africana is a virtual museum of African-American history where all the great moments are preserved for ever."

Henry Louis Gates
W.E.B. DuBois Professor of
Humanities, Harvard University

"First, he said 'Do not ignore the strong presence of Islamic culture in sub-Saharan Africa,'" Gates said. "Secondly, he said 'Don't embark on this project unless you have adequate funding.'"

Throughout DuBois' long career as an intellectual and social activist, he was unsuccessful in securing funding for the project. Because of his outspoken advocacy of civil rights and leftist politics, DuBois was subjected to constant harassment by the federal government, Gates said.

During his last years, DuBois renounced his U.S. citizenship, joined the Communist Party, and moved to the west African nation of Ghana. Kwame Nkrumah, the country's first president after independence, offered DuBois funding to edit an encyclopedia about Africa only, with little or no attention paid to the African diaspora.

"DuBois no longer wanted to put the American Negro in it because he was ticked off at the American Negro for not supporting him in his struggles," Gates said.

DuBois died in 1963 before the encyclopedia could be completed.

Gates retraced his own involvement with the Encyclopedia Africana from 1969, when he entered Yale University as a freshman. Breaking from his narrative on the encyclopedia, Gates drew strong applause with a brief and impassioned defense of affirmative action.

"I will go to my grave as an ardent and passionate defender of affirmative action because without affirmative action I never would have gone to Yale University," Gates said.

After closing his formal remarks, Gates demonstrated the latest version of the Encarta Encyclopedia Africana CD-ROM, a multimedia history of African people throughout the world. Gates said he believes the Encyclopedia Africana embodies DuBois' activism for the recognition of African culture.

"The encyclopedia is both an intellectual game and a great teaching tool," said Gates. "It's like a candy store. It's a virtual museum of African-American history where all the great moments are preserved forever."

Gates earned his doctorate from the University of Cambridge in England. Gates taught English literature and Afro-American studies at Yale, Cornell, and Duke before joining Harvard in 1991. He is general editor of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, co-editor of Transition magazine, a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of numerous essays, reviews and profiles in other magazines, scholarly periodicals and newspapers.

Gary Frank