W.E.B. DuBois and the Making of the Encyclopedia Africana, 1909-1963

Kwame Anthony Appiah in Blackpast:

Dubois_web_0Between 1909 and his death in 1963, W E. B. Du Bois, the Harvard trained historian, sociologist, journalist, and political activist, dreamed of editing an “Encyclopaedia Africana.” He envisioned a comprehensive compendium of “scientific” knowledge about the history, cultures, and social institutions of people of African descent: of Africans in the Old World, African Americans in the New World, and persons of African descent who had risen to prominence in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Du Bois sought to publish nothing less than the equivalent of a black Encyclopaedia Britannica, believing that such a broad assemblage of biography, interpretive essays, facts, and figures would do for the much denigrated black world of the twentieth century what Britannica and Denis Diderot's Encyclopedie had done for the European world of the eighteenth century. These publications, which consolidated the scholarly knowledge accumulated by academics and intellectuals in the Age of Reason, served both as a tangible sign of the enlightened skepticism that characterized that era of scholarship, and as a basis upon which further scholarship could be constructed. These encyclopedias became monuments to “scientific” inquiry, bulwarks against superstition, myth, and what their authors viewed as the false solace of religious faith. An encyclopedia of the African diaspora in Du Bois's view would achieve these things for persons of African descent.

But a black encyclopedia would have an additional function. Its publication would, at least symbolically, unite the fragmented world of the African diaspora, a diaspora created by the European slave trade and the turn of the century “scramble for Africa.” Moreover, for Du Bois, marshalling the tools of “scientific knowledge,” as he would put it in his landmark essay, “The Need for an Encyclopedia of the Negro” (1945), could also serve as a weapon in the war against racism: “There is need for young pupils and for mature students of a statement of the present condition of our knowledge concerning the darker races and especially concerning Negroes, which would make available our present scientific knowledge and set aside the vast accumulation of tradition and prejudice which makes such knowledge difficult now for the layman to obtain: A Vade mecum for American schools, editors, libraries, for Europeans inquiring into the race status here, for South Americans, and Africans.”

More here. (Note: At least one daily post throughout February will be devoted to African American History Month)