Wole, Idi and all that jazz

March 31, 2000

With a highly versatile, multi-media (and recently updated) CD-Rom version of Africana readily available, the appearance of this unwieldy and alarmingly heavy print edition appears slightly anachronistic.

It will certainly fill - rather than grace - a library shelf and tax the muscles of its users. Profusely illustrated with photo-graphs, maps, tables and diagrams, this alternative Africana (dedicated to W. E. B. Du Bois and Nelson Mandela) contains over 3,000 separate entries of varying lengths - ranging from "aardvark" to "zydeco". It also includes a series of featured essays on the history, culture, societies and institutions of the African continent, Latin America, North America, the Caribbean, Asia and Europe.

In their introduction, Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr (both professors of Afro-American studies at Harvard University) present this compendium as the realisation of Du Bois's unfulfilled ambition to produce a black equivalent of the Encyclopaedia Britannica . As originally conceived by Du Bois in 1909, it would reveal the richness and diversity of African and pan-African civilisations and cultures to an uncomprehending or hostile white world. But he was never able to find sufficient funding in America for this grandiose idea, and faced the opposition of his black intellectual critics and rivals. A year before his death in 1962, by then a citizen of Ghana, Du Bois was invited by Kwame Nkrumah to serve as editor-in-chief of The Encyclopaedia Africana , and resolved to enlist the participation only of African-born contributors. As Appiah and Gates note wryly, had that rule been literally applied, "Du Bois himself would have been excluded from his own project". In contrast, they have called on black and white commentators "interested in the black world on both sides of the Atlantic".

The inter-racial and international cast of contributors is welcome. The choice of authorities - for a volume that aspires "to represent the full range of Africa and her diaspora" - is less felicitous. Many of the articles, although generally competent, are the work of junior scholars, who also make repeated appearances as, for instance, in the numerous entries on African-American jazz musicians. Irritatingly, many entries are anonymous, including those on such important (North American) topics and individuals as the civil war, Booker T. Washington, Joe Louis, Father Divine and Black Power. Numerous typographical errors suggest editorial oversights. Gates himself, in an impressionistic and largely anecdotal essay, inelegantly titled "London: blacks in: an interpretation", refers to a "Cotswald" village, while a capsule biography of Canadian-born jazz pianist Oscar Peterson incorrectly identifies his mentor as Norman "Grantz". More limiting, perhaps, is the curious failure to include bibliographical references at the end of each piece.

These omissions and errors aside, Africana contains many valuable and well-researched articles - although they are not always readily found. Among the best are the longer featured essays listed separately in the table of contents, by Stephen Berendt ("The transatlantic slave trade"), Frederick Cooper ("Decolonization in Africa: an interpretation"), Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham ("Women and the black Baptist church"), Peter Kolchin ("Slavery in the United States"), David Levering Lewis ("The Harlem renaissance"), Patricia Sullivan ("The civil rights movement") and Cornel West ("W. E. B. Du Bois: an interpretation"). But there are also equally stimulating essays that are not flagged: Anthony Badger on Martin Luther King, Robin Kelley on Malcolm X, Kenneth O'Reilly on "Race and the American presidency", Thomas Stephens on "Complexities of ethnic and racial terminology in Latin America and the Caribbean", Liliana Obregon on "Colonial critics of slavery", and Rosanne Adderley on "African ethnic groups in Latin America and the Caribbean". Particularly impressive are Appiah's essays: "Race: an interpretation" and "Ethnicity and identity in Africa"- both models of scholarly synthesis and elegant exposition.

Reflecting African influences on music (and Gates's well-known interests in contemporary forms of African-American popular culture), Africana strongly features its distinctive genres: ragtime and jazz, gospel and spirituals, rhythm and blues, soul, reggae, and rap. There are at least 12 profiles of rap artists, including Run DMC, Ice Cube and Tupac Shakur - who receives a longer entry than the distinguished African-American historian John Hope Franklin. A separate essay on rap traces its evolution from the "golden age" of the early 1980s to the "gangsta rap" at the end of the decade, with its "glorification of misogyny and violence", and the more "gentrified" form of the music, represented by the current success of the television comedy series, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air .

The holy trinity of African-American jazz innovators - Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker - receive proper recognition, along with such slightly lesser lights as Count Basie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Fletcher Henderson, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Fats Waller. (They can actually be heard on the CD-Rom edition.) It is doubtful whether Du Bois, a cultural elitist and devotee of "classical" European composition, would have allotted the space accorded here to popular music and entertainment. Most African-American scholars (and their white colleagues) would, however, endorse West's assertion that Du Bois suffered from "an inability to immerse himself in black everyday life" and was never "intellectually open enough to position himself alongside the sorrowful, suffering, yet striving ordinary black folk".

The "artistic" Du Bois would have approved of the impressive literary coverage and scope of Africana . Along with discrete essays on literary movements in Brazil, Spanish America, 18th-century Britain and North America, are profiles of such luminaries as James Baldwin, Chester Himes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Morrison, Wole Soyinka and Derek Walcott. But entries on controversial African-American personalities - Elijah Muhammad, Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson - tend towards blandness, skirting the issue of anti-Semitism or "reverse racism" with which they have been associated. More forceful (and accurate) are the essays on such authorised black villains as Uganda's Idi Amin, "rumoured to have engaged in cannibalism as well as traditional Kakwa blood rituals", Jean-Bedel Bokassa, "president-for-life" of the Central African Republic and "reputed cannibal", and Haiti's "Papa Doc" Duvalier who, in the words of one opponent, managed to "perform an economic miracle. He has taught us to live without money, to eat without food, to live without life." Surprisingly, an almost universally acknowledged secular saint of the 20th century, Nelson Mandela, receives a comparatively short entry - not much longer than those devoted to Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, or "Tourism in Africa" and "Alcohol in Africa".

One suspects that while some readers of Africana will be disappointed by its limited coverage of the United States, others will welcome its global perspectives. Potential purchasers again need to be reminded of the book's sheer bulk. It should have been divided into at least four volumes.

Yet this is still an appropriate and monumental tribute to Du Bois's pan-African vision. Appiah and Gates are to be commended for their dedication to a noble cause, and their perseverance in obtaining the funding for its completion. Along with its considerable qualities and minor blemishes, Africana also represents a striking example of African-American entrepreneurial and scholarly enterprise.

John White is reader in American history, University of Hull.

Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African American Experience

Editor - Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr
ISBN - 0 465 00071 1
Publisher - Perseus
Price - £62.00
Pages - 2,095

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