Monday, May 28, 2012

Pages From History: W.E.B. DuBois Concerning the Encyclopaedia Africana Project

EAP History Archive
1962 April 1

A Statement Concerning the Encyclopaedia Africana Project

by W.E.B. Du Bois
Director of the Secretariat
Accra Ghana, West Africa
April, 1962

Early in 1962 preparatory work toward the compilation and production of an Encyclopedia Africana was formally initiated in Accra, Ghana, under the sponsorship of the Ghana Academy of Sciences. As Director of the Secretariat for this undertaking, I am naturally most anxious that what we propose become both well known and properly understood in scholarly circles throughout the world, to the end that we may secure the widest possible cooperation. It is with this purpose in mind that the present brief, preliminary statement is offered.

First, a word of background. In 1909 when I was teaching history and economics in the Negro University of Atlanta, Atlanta, Georgia, I proposed the preparation of an "Encyclopedia Africana". I secured as members of the Board of Advisors, in addition to sixty-two American Negro scholars, Sir Henry Johnstone, K.C.B., and Professor W.M. Flinders Petrie, D.C.L, of England; Professor Giuseppe Sergi of Italy; Dr. J. Denniker of France; Professor William James, LL.D., and Franz Boas, Ph.D. of Harvard and Columbia respectively, and many others. However, I was never able to raise the funds to carry the enterprise forward.

In 1934 the Phelps Stokes fund initiated a new project to prepare and publish an "Encyclopedia of the Negro". I was chosen as Editor-in-Chief and for the next ten years gave intermittent effort to the project; but again the necessary funds, which we estimated then at $260,100, could not be secured. Perhaps it was too soon to expect so large an amount for so ambitious a project to be carried out be Negroes and built mainly on Negro scholarship. Nevertheless, a preparatory volume summarizing the effort was published in 1944.

When I was in Ghana, West Africa, in 1960 witnessing the inauguration of the independent Republic, the President, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, asked me if I again would plan an Encyclopedia Africana. I consented to do this and to consult personally and by letter a number of persons who might be interested in this project.

My idea is to prepare and publish an Encyclopedia not on the vague subject of race, but on the peoples inhabiting the continent of Africa. I propose an Encyclopedia edited mainly be African scholars. I am anxious that it be a scientific production and not a matter of propaganda. While there should be included among its writers the best students of Africa in the world, I want the proposed Encyclopedia to be written mainly from the African point of view by people who know and understand the history and culture of Africans.

My thought also is that it would be a great advantage if at this juncture the interest and research of the African intelligentsia were concentrated on the history of the past and the cultural remains of Africa; that this might direct their action away from political and tribal divisions, give them a body of truth to guide them, and unite them in wide agreement as to what has happened on this continent and what can happen in the future.

I realize that this is going to involve difficulties first, the comparatively small number of Africans who are scientific students of Africa; and secondly, the attitude of European scholars toward Africans. There is, I am sure, a great deal of interest, sympathy and good will among British, French, Belgian, and German scholars towards the African peoples. But there is also much prejudice and condescension based upon certain assumptions toward Africans that are almost inevitable among persons educated in Europe. I believe both of these difficulties are surmountable. African political independence can mean the encouragement and flowering of independent scientific study of African history by Africans, and there is already some evidence of this. On the other side, a significant number of Europeans have in recent years made valuable contributions to the true reading of Africa's past.

Since 1960 I have been in correspondence about the proposed Encyclopedia with leading students of African history and culture in Britain, Europe east and west, America, Asia and Africa. Though there remain individuals and institutions to be written to, I have already received close to a hundred responses from among those in various countries around the world who are regarded as most eminent in this are of scientific research. The responses have on the whole been exceedingly encouraging. Most have expressed concurrence with the idea and willingness to cooperate, and many have contained valuable comments and suggestions. (A digest of the opinions expressed is in preparation.)

The Ghana Academy of Sciences (formerly known as the Ghana Academy of Learning) decided at its meeting on October 31, 1960 to sponsor the project for an Encyclopedia Africana as I had outlined it. At a subsequent meeting on December 21, 1961, at which I was present and gave a report, the Academy formally agreed that the planning and production of the proposed Encyclopedia should be carried forward by a Secretariat under my directorship. It was further agreed that an initial grant of funds would be provided by the Government of Ghana for the purpose of starting this work.

While it is essential that the main and concentrated effort should be centered where the project has been initiated - in Ghana, I wish to emphasize what I said in my report to members of the Academy "that all Africa should be invited and urged to participate and to share in authority and support." At the outset, we are seeking the advice and counsel of leading authorities in all Africa in determining the answers to various questions of substance and procedure involved in planning and preparing the Encyclopedia. A formal request for the practical assistance of the governments of all independent African states will be made in due course. It is planned that our Secretariat here in Accra will establish and maintain a close liaison with teams of scholars in various parts of Africa engaged in work on specific problems in their respective areas.

Further, it is expected that the Editorial Board, as it comes to be established, will be broadly representative of all Africa, the members of the Board having as their common aim the preparation and publication of an Encyclopedia Africana which is at the same time authentically African and scientific. This Board may in turn wish to invite the cooperation of a body of advisors representing the best scientific scholarship relating to Africa available outside that continent.

Such in brief outline is the background, aim, and broad plan of our work for an Encyclopedia Africana. We are yet only in the preparatory stage of the work. It will proceed with deliberation, and it will take time. If the first volume can be published in ten years time, we will be satisfied.

I eagerly invite your cooperation in bringing this matter to the attention of individual scholars, learned societies and institutions interested in such a project. We welcome all inquiries of opinion about what we here propose. Above all, we seek the assistance and support of all who can contribute to the realization of this endeavor.

W.E.B. Du Bois [1868-1963]
Founding Director of the Encyclopaedia Africana Project
April 1962

Dr. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois

William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois is born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He will become one of the greatest men of letters of his time, serving as an editor, teacher, political theorist, and novelist. His accomplishments will include founding and editing the NAACP "Crisis Magazine," writing the influential "Souls of Black Folk," being one of the founding fathers of the NAACP, and the first African American to become a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

SOURCE: The MUNIRAH Chronicle of Black Historical Events & Facts

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