Encyclopaedia Africana Project
"A Pan African Dream Come True"

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Date: 1996 October

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EAP History Archive
1996 October

A Brief History - Encyclopaedia Africana: Dictionary of African Biography®™

by Raymond A. Winbush, Ph.D.
Fisk University
Nashville, Tennessee, USA
Published by Ghana International Review
October 1996

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. 

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.

George Padmore

George Padmore
Father of African Emancipation

George Padmore

George Padmore was one of a number of talented West Indians who helped shape African events in the 20th century. 

He 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.  (continued...)

SOURCE: Encyclopaedia Africana: Dictionary of African Biography®™ Volume 1: Ethiopia & 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:

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.

"I 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 life."  

-- Excerpt: 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 enormous project.

At the time of his death, Du Bois was fulfilling his promise to Nkrumah and engaged in the publication of his magnum opus,  the Encyclopaedia Africana®™ .

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.

As 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' query letter:

"… 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."

Caton-Thompson (1962)

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 Bois.

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 about Africa.

Du Bois was confident that not only did enough of these scholars exist, but that the project needed very few contributions from non-African scholars. 

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 by saying:

"My…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."

(Curtin, 1962)

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 of Blacks.

Shirley DuBois, Kwame Nkrumah, Unknown Man & W.E.B. Dubois "After all,
this is where the work should be done... 
in Africa, 
sponsored by Africans,
for Africa."

-- W.E.B. Du Bois [1868-1963], Founding Director  of the Secretariat Encyclopaedia Africana Project (EAP), Accra, Ghana, West Africa

Indeed, the 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 headed. 

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, now Zimbabwe.

Ranger clearly calls for an African-centered approach to the study of Africa, and Du Bois defends this approach by saying:

"The discussion…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, 1963

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.

Raymond A. Winbush
EAP Advisory Board
EAP Articles by Ray Winbush

Director, Institute for Urban Research
Morgan State University
1700 E. Cold Spring Lane, Mont. D216
Baltimore, MD 37208, USA

Telephone: 443.885.4800
Fax: 443.885.8274
URL: http://www.raymondwinbush.com

Ray Winbush, EAP Advisor

BIO: Ray Winbush


Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography
Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography

Encyclopaedia Africana Project
1996 October
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