DuBois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. spoke about the motivation and tribulation behind his "Encarta Africana" encyclopedia to a packed room at the sigma Chi fraternity house last night.
Gates spoke first on the history of the idea of a "black encyclopedia," which originated with W.E.B. DuBois in the early part of this century. DuBois, who became the first black man to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard in the late 1800s, was unable to see the project through to its conclusion in his lifetime.
Gates then related his own experiences "carrying the torch" for DuBois' idea.
"DuBois was the man," said Gates, who is also director of the DuBois Institute for Afro-American Studies. "He was the smartest black intellectual in American history."
According to Gates, "DuBois decided what we needed was an Encyclopedia Africana," he said. His hope was to combat racism by eliminating ignorance about black culture around the world.
DuBois raised $125,000 for such an encyclopedia, but the idea was ultimately cancelled when he was labeled too radical. Bitter at this and other failed enterprises, DuBois emigrated to Ghana at the end of his life.
Gates then discussed his own experiences producing a black encyclopedia.
"I heard about [DuBois'] idea as an undergraduate at "I've always loved encyclopedias, so I wanted to edit an encyclopedia and do something good for black people."
As a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, Gates said he met now-Professor of Afro-American Studies and of Philosophy K. Anthony Appiah and future Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka.
While at Cambridge, Gates and Appiah agreed to someday publish their own version of DuBois' dream.
Gates first approached the Encyclopedia Britannica for assistance on his project, which he termed "a black Encyclopedia Britannica."
He also sought held from Random House, which said it would publish a black encyclopedia if Gates responded, "Of course."
Immediately afterwards, however, Gates called Appiah to report the good news. "'I've got a question,' I said. 'What's a CD-ROM?'"
Though Gates' relationship with Random House fell through, House fell through, he said that he kept the idea of a CD-ROM format while offering the idea to other publishers.
Gates said he then turned to Microsoft, the producer of the CD-ROM Encarta.
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