In their introduction to Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, co-editors Henry Louis Gates and Kwame Anthony Appiah describe W.E.B. DuBois’s half century campaign to publish an encyclopedia that would encompass the African diaspora. That introduction appears below.
Between 1909 and his death in 1963, W E. B. Du Bois, the Harvard trained historian, sociologist, journalist, and political activist, dreamed of editing an "Encyclopaedia Africana." He envisioned a comprehensive compendium of "scientific" knowledge about the history, cultures, and social institutions of people of African descent: of Africans in the Old World, African Americans in the New World, and persons of African descent who had risen to prominence in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Du Bois sought to publish nothing less than the equivalent of a black Encyclopaedia Britannica, believing that such a broad assemblage of biography, interpretive essays, facts, and figures would do for the much denigrated black world of the twentieth century what Britannica and Denis Diderot"s Encyclopedie had done for the European world of the eighteenth century. These publications, which consolidated the scholarly knowledge accumulated by academics and intellectuals in the Age of Reason, served both as a tangible sign of the enlightened skepticism that characterized that era of scholarship, and as a basis upon which further scholarship could be constructed. These encyclopedias became monuments to "scientific" inquiry, bulwarks against superstition, myth, and what their authors viewed as the false solace of religious faith. An encyclopedia of the African diaspora in Du Bois"s view would achieve these things for persons of African descent.
But a black encyclopedia would have an additional function. Its publication would, at least symbolically, unite the fragmented world of the African diaspora, a diaspora created by the European slave trade and the turn of the century "scramble for Africa." Moreover, for Du Bois, marshalling