MICROSOFT HAS HOOKED UP with Harvard University's indefatigable Race Man cum-tycoon, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and his ace professor, Kwame Anthony Appiah, to create Encarta Africana, a CD-ROM multimedia encyclopedia providing everything one can want to know about Africa and Africans on the continent and throughout the diaspora, including the United States, Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Impressively fulfilling W.E.B. DuBois' life-long dream of an African encyclopedia, Encarta Africana is a dazzling achievement.
Ranging from athletics to politics, from Abdul-Jabbar to Great Zimbabwe, the encyclopedia's subjects appear in a variety of formats, including more than 3,000 detailed articles with links to more than 500 Web sites; a time line scrolling forward over a musical score from 4 million BCE (i.e., Before the Common Era) to the death last June of Nigeria's dictator Gen. Sani Abacha; virtual tours of cities in the African diaspora, including Harlem, Havana, and Paris; and guided tours of historic African sites, including Tombouctou (or Timbuktu) and the Swahili Coast.
Microsoft CD-ROM (requires Windows 95 or later, Windows NT 4.0 or later), $69.95 ($20 mail-in rebate offer through December 31, 1999)
I played around with the encyclopedia one Sunday afternoon, and getting acquainted with it proved very easy. I started with the "Africana Time Line" and was enchanted by the score of traditional African/American musical forms running underneath the designations: traditional drumming accompanying the "Prehistory" chart through humanity's origins at Lake Turkana, later African-American sacred songs playing as the time line spanned the 19th century, giving way form by form to reggae, hip-hop, and world beats underscoring the events of the late 20th century. Clicking on Wole Soyinka near the end of the time line led me to an article on the Nigerian novelist and first black Nobel laureate, alongside a photo of him enthusiastically receiving the 1986 Nobel for literature. At the article, I clicked on "Henry Louis Gates Jr." and jumped to an article that included an obviously very recent snapshot of Soyinka at Harvard University—accompanied by Gates and his esteemed sidekick, Professor Cornel West. From this site, too, I was only a click or two away from additional Encarta Africana articles on such related topics as Great Britain, Idi Amin, nationalism in Nigeria, as well as a Web link to the Nobel Foundation.
I was particularly taken with "Africana on Camera"—video segments of seven African and African-American celebrities reciting oral essays. Not surprisingly, two of the essayists are co-creators Gates and Appiah on the "History of Encarta Africana." Their accounts of their joint project is genuinely inspiring, citing as it does the union of the two eminent professors' expertise from two distinct disciplines—African and African-American literatures and cultures and philosophy. The essayists' offerings also include United Nations' Secretary General Kofi Anan on such varied topics as the early Kush kingdom, modern decolonization throughout Africa, and South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
ODDLY ENOUGH, AMONG the more compelling videos is Whoopi Goldberg's consideration of the crucial question "What is race?" Featuring her surprisingly intelligent historical overview of the development of race categories, it culminated in Goldberg's astute conclusion that "race turns out to be an idea"—one with "very real effects" (and all too often weighty consequences).
Using such superstars as Goldberg and Quincy Jones to drive home points both instructive and political emphasizes the diverse socioeconomic range of the targeted audiences, as do two additional features: Encarta Africana's "Research Organizer" and the lesson plans for K-12 teachers (available at http://www.encarta.msn.com/schoolhouse/, although it took me several attempts to access this site ). The Research Organizer assists undergraduate and secondary students with preparing term papers and historical reports, offering sound advice on every stage of composition from selecting a topic to documenting resources. The "Schoolhouse" educational tools for K-12 are quite wonderful. A "Special Lessons" section on black history and culture collates a series of imaginative projects; the results are guaranteed to excite students' learning about Africa and Africans.
More experienced writers who won't need the Research Organizer's fundamental composition tutorials of the will nonetheless enjoy Encarta Africana's many other invaluable features. Perhaps finest among these are the six videos that travel through the African continent. Excerpted from an upcoming PBS and BBC documentary series, each virtual tour provides rare footage of an extraordinary site and traces its history from its furthest known origins. Similarly, Encarta Africana takes users on tours of any one of six cities, providing a 360-degree view, selected close-ups, detailed sidebars, and musical accompaniments. (Besides groovin' to two of my favorites, Strayhorn and Aretha, at the Apollo in Harlem, on the Salvador del Bahia, Brazil, tour, I rocked to the capoeiristas—musicians performing an Afro-Brazilian martial art/dance ritual.) An interactive map takes one anywhere on the continent of Africa, and provides a range of cartological data, including geopolitical, topographical, and architectural detail.
Finally, I'd be remiss not to mention the most dramatic—paradoxically, both sobering and awe-inspiring—feature of the entire program: "From Africa to the Americas: Transatlantic Slave Trade and African Legacies," a series of visual and audio images, maps, and documents that chronicle slavery and its effects from 1519 to the present.
Dr. Joycelyn K. Moody teaches African-American literature, slave narratives, and 19th-century American literature at the University of Washington. Her recent publications have focused on the autobiographies of early African-American women ministers.