October 4, 1999
Volume 52, No. 7
Gates unveils new Encarta Africana for Carlos crowd
Tracing an Homeric history that goes back some 90 years to W.E.B. DuBois before meandering through several stuttering attempts at creation, Henry Louis Gates Jr. both unveiled and explained his new creation--Encarta Africana, the first encyclopedia devoted to the African diaspora--before a humming audience packed into the Carlos Museum reception hall Sept. 24.
Gates, whose chaired professorship at Harvard University bears the name of the great educator who first conceived of such an encyclopedia in 1909, spoke quickly and off the cuff, entertaining the crowd with stories about DuBois and about his own personal odyssey. "I love coming down here," said Gates, who received an honorary degree from Emory in 1995 and delivered the 1996 Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature. "My daughter's here; ever since she was a kid and watched 'The Cosby Show,' she's wanted to apply to Spel-person."
Gates said DuBois first had the idea for a black encyclopedia in 1909 and even went so far as to solicit editorial board members, but funding never materialized. In 1931 when Anson Phelps Stokes began work on the "Encyclopedia of the Negro," he named DuBois editor, but the necessary $250,000 was not forthcoming.
In the 1960s, DuBois' relationship to the project changed when he renounced his American citizenship, moved to Ghana and joined the Communist party. DuBois no longer wanted an encyclopedia that encompassed the diaspora, Gates said, but rather one "written by Africans, for Africans and about Africans." DuBois died in 1963.
Gates' own involvement with the encyclopedia dates back to 1973 when he, Wole Soyinka--under whom Gates was studying--and Kwame Anthony Appiah, at the end of an evening filled with good food and good wine, made a pact to bring DuBois' dream to fruition.
Gates even wrote to Encyclopedia Brittanica in 1979 to get a review copy of the $1,000-plus set of books for comparison. "I walked into my office and my assistant said, 'Charles Van Doren (Brittanica's editor) is on the phone for you,'" Gates recalled. "He said, 'I just wanted to talk to the man who had the chutzpah to ask for a review copy of the Encyclopedia Brittanica.' So I said, 'Are you going to send it?' And he said, 'Of course.'"
But by 1979 the pricetag on DuBois' dream was up to $2 million, and again the project could not get off the ground. In 1995 Random House told Gates he could do the project--if he could do it on CD-ROM. With $250,000 in development money from the publisher and music producer Quincy Jones, Gates put together a "smokin'" prototype. "It was so beautiful," Gates said. "We flew the Random House executives up to Harvard to present it, and after the presentation they said it was great, but the bottom had fallen out of the CD-ROM market."
Once again Gates was disappointed, but not discouraged. He began negotiations with Prodigy, and then wrote a desperation letter to Microsoft. "It was like throwing a Hail Mary pass--and they caught it," Gates said. "After all that time, in less than 24 hours I had the $2 million. But Microsoft had one condition: They wanted a 2 million-word encyclopedia in 18 months."
They got it. Gates hired a staff of two dozen and wrote to scholars around the world to contribute. The multimedia result, which Gates demonstrated for the crowd, was released in January of this year, almost 90 years to the day after DuBois first conceived it.