Microsoft Encarta Africana edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Anthony Appiah

by Dr. Molefi Kete Asante

Published 5/4/1999

"African slaves or enslaved Africans?" that is the question that has caused so much African controversy around Microsoft's Encarta Africana. The issue is far more complex than the choice of words; however, the choice of terms does signal how this project was poorly conceptualized. Encarta Africana announces itself as the "comprehensive encyclopedia of black history and culture with authoritative content," but it is far from comprehensive or authoritative, and worse, has numerous inaccuracies and incomplete articles. . One would have thought that with a reported three millions dollars, the editors, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Kwame Appiah, would have been able to deliver a much more polished product, both technologically and scholarly. Originally conceived as a completion to the famed project, Encyclopedia Africana, devised by Kwame Nkrumah and W. E. B. Du Bois, the Microsoft Encarta Africana project was embroiled in controversy with Ghana over the name itself. Thus, Encarta Africana was chosen as the name of the present project.

Among the impressive features of the interactive encyclopedia are articles, audio clips, videos, and virtual tours. But these are features that can be bought for the price of money. What cannot be bought and therefore is missing, although it is essential for a project purporting to be comprehensive on the African world, is an accurate and rational point-of-view. Encarta Africana is more like a collection of documents from someone's attic, put together without any real order, organization, or objective. In this respect, it is little more than the sum total of the numerous articles, some clearly dated, and audio visuals presented in the encyclopedia, a grab bag of cultural and historical artifacts.

To be fair to the editors and writers of the Encarta I have examined the project from an Afrocentric point-of-view, that is, from the standpoint of the agency of African people and the centrality of Africa in its own story. My views, therefore, will be severe on any project that ostensibly claims to be about African culture and history but is really the projection of Europe on and in Africa. I do not claim that this is a conscious activity on the part of the editors and authors; rather it is a default position in any intellectual adventure in the West if one is not self- consciously directed toward a corrective. Some writers have escaped the noose more easily than others; some remain oblivious to the danger. The writers of Encarta are frequently trapped into arrogant Eurocentric postures because they have little understanding of the totality of the story that they are trying to tell. So in telling a European story of the history and culture of Africa they become, more than anything, appendages to Europe; thereby peripheralizing Africa while writing about it. Neither Europeans nor Africans can really appreciate a project that rehashes so many sterile ideas.

This is certainly not the project that Du Bois envisioned. It is not the project that should have been developed at this juncture in African history. In many respects it is a great disservice to the African people and is once again an indication of what happens to our own story when it is told by someone else. Of course, there are a some African writers in this project, but the overwhelming list of writers seems to indicate that the work was done primarily by European writers, despite the impressive board of black advisors. If this proves to be so, as I suspect simply by the name and credential list of the authors, then we are setback, by this process, for a generation. Fortunately the Afropaedia and other products do exist as correctives.

I am not saying that whites cannot write about Africa. Indeed whites often do write well about Africa, particularly if they are Afrocentric in their methods and approaches to African phenomena. However, since most whites tend to be Eurocentric in their perspective then what they write will reflect how Europeans see Africa and Africans. The same can be said of Africans who have imbibed an Eurocentric worldview. It is not race, but perspective that matters in the process of analysis. Where one stands has a lot to do with what one sees and how far one sees.

There are some serious problems with Encarta.

My own analysis shows four areas that are quite deficient: conceptual, linguistic, factual, and political.

The conceptual problem, I believe, stems from the fact that neither of the editors, Gates nor Appiah, is a historian. Gates is a rather accomplished literary critic and Appiah is a professor of philosophy. Now I am the first to say that one can overcome these deficiencies but one must have worked at the craft of historical writing in order to achieve some perspective. I do not see any historical imagination in this work and the evidence of literary and philosophical interests override what should be a strong historical underpinning. This project suffers because the editors have little appreciation for either point-of-view or historiography and have even less appreciation for proper periodization. Take the piece on Costa Rica. There is a paragraph that describes the country in the same way you would find in any encyclopedia. You would not even know African people lived in Costa Rica if you read the account. You would not even know the population of the country, not to mention how many Africans lived in Costa Rica. Where is the discussion of the Limonenses? Fortunately there is a good essay on Quince Duncan written by Dellita Martin-Ogunsola that explains much about Costa Rica, but you cannot get to Quince Duncan from the entry on Costa Rica.

When a project of this monumentality is produced there should be ample checks on the nature of the writing. While it is true that the Afrocentrists make a big ado about language liberation, it is for a reason. You cannot use language that minimizes, penalizes, or degrades African people or concepts. To that end, when Encarta speaks of African kingdoms and calls them "great chiefdoms" this is not an aberration but rather it is the default Eurocentric position that claims kingship for Europe and chiefships for Africa and Native Americans. More critical, however, is the way Encarta speaks of African Religions as developments "South of the Sahara." There is no place in Africa that is not Africa. The Sahara itself is Africa and numerous peoples and settlements exist in the Sahara. Indeed one of the greatest legacies of the ancient world was the religion of the Nile Valley, and the Nile flows through the desert. One would have expected that even if the editors did not appreciate the Afrocentric theoretical perspective they would have examined it in detail to see where they could have corrected their text. Clearly there were no "African slaves" brought to the Americas and Caribbean; there were only African people, farmers, blacksmiths, fishers, and members of royal families, brought and then enslaved.

The factual problem is little bit worrisome because the facts could have been checked or double-checked even if some of the 40 members of the advisory committee or 400 writers would have been asked to serve as hands-on editors. Of course, the editors must know what they are looking for and at what they are looking. There is no reason for someone writing on Kwanzaa to speak of the US organization as "United Slaves," when it never referred to itself that way and the nomenclature is probably that of the COINTELPRO. If I may be permitted, under the entry on "Afrocentrism" it is claimed that I coined the word in l976. As far as I can tell I never used the word "Afrocentrism," it remains a word used by those who seek to attack Afrocentricity. My book, Afrocentricity, was published in l980.. While I am on Afrocentricity, let me also say that the most significant intellectual movement in the African world for the past twenty years has been the Afrocentric movement and not to have a thorough and intelligent discussion of it is a major flaw in this project. Robert Fay, the graduate student who wrote the piece on "Afrocentrism" spent most of his time attacking Professor Leonard Jeffries. This leads me to the political agenda. I did not find a bibliography to indicate what was read by the writers before they wrote their entries; Robert Fay surely suffered from the lack of reading.

The index itself is quite revealing. Amadu Bamba, the greatest writer, in terms of quantity in the African world, is not included. Furthermore, the leading contemporary African thinkers by objective standards are Pan Africanists and Afrocentrists. They are no where to be found in this project. Names such as Colin Palmer, Vincent Harding, Asa Hilliard, Maulana Karenga, Kariamu Welsh Asante, Marimba Ani, Yosef Ben-Jochannon, Cheikh Anta Diop, Herbert Vilakazi, Theophile Obenga, Chinweizu, Wade Nobles, Na'im Akbar, Manning Marable, John Bracey, William Strickland, and Ronald Walters do not appear in the index.If they appear elsewhere, they are very difficult to find. Even if you do not agree with someone's perspective or orientation you must demonstrate as a scholar that you are fair in your presentation of the historical information. The Encarta project is woefully lacking in spectrum. One could argue, although weakly, that this was a problem of space, that is, that some people were bound to be missed. However, it is suspicious when the people who are missed are Afrocentrists and when the medium has cyberspace capability. This product is clearly an instruction for future producers of such works on how not to proceed with an interactive encyclopedia on the African world.

It is true that this is the first such interactive encyclopedia on African culture and history, and that is why it should have given us more, but we are fortunate that this is not the last. Much like Carter G. Woodson's famed statement that it took him nearly forty years to get Harvard out of his brain, we will be trying to get Encarta out of our brains for several years. It is useful, perhaps, that Encarta was done; it is bad certainly that it was done badly.

Molefi Kete Asante is Professor, Department of African American Studies, Temple University, Philadelphia. Asante is the most published contemporary African American scholar with more than forty books and nearly 250 articles.

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