Virtually historic 

Encarta Africana
edited by Henry Louis Gates and Kwame Anthony Appiah
Microsoft, CD-ROM, $69.95

Multiculturalism has gone multimedia. Encarta Africana, an interactive CD-ROM encyclopedia recently released by Microsoft, documents much of the African diaspora, both past and present.

With eye-catching graphics and more than 5,500 articles, photos, videos, audio clips and maps, it offers more than a travelogue or checklist of natural wonders and humanity’s accomplishment. In addition, it has interactive maps and links — users can take virtual tours to exotic locations such as Havana, the ruins at Medinet Habu in Egypt, and Paris, France, where great jazz artists and writer James Baldwin took refuge from American racism prevalent in the 1960s.

It’s a comprehensive compilation, and yet, in the midst of its initial brisk sales, controversy looms over Microsoft’s first multicultural CD-ROM.

Developed by Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates and his academic associate, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Encarta Africana has come under fire from critics who feel the two-disc set excludes vital information about the very audience it strives to reach: mainstream contemporary African-Americans.

Some critics suggest Encarta Africana pays too little attention to prominent blacks from countries outside the United States, and only skims the surface concerning the impact of blacks on mainstream popular culture. Who, they ask, would have known about Elvis had he not picked up the musical styles of black church and blues musicians? And where would the Rolling Stones have been without the influence of great musicians such as Slim Harpo?

Black academic reviewer William Kyle is the producer and host of "Urban Express," a New York-based radio program-in-development which is dedicated to highlighting multicultural literary issues. No matter how aesthetically pleasing or educationally enticing the interactive encyclopedia is, he takes Africana’s development to task on philosophical and cultural grounds.

"There is a certain phoniness in the compilation concept," says Kyle. "It’s pretending to be everything about black culture, but of course it’s not.

"Additionally, Gates has now placed himself in the ironic position of re-enacting what he has criticized — the hypercanonization of works when you cannot include everything," says Kyle.

In the past, Gates has voiced his opposition to an academic canon in which some works and individuals are given more importance than others.

On one hand, Gates and Appiah were clearly trying to be as inclusive as possible with this project. For them, it was more than a creative outlet or a natural extension of their already impressive careers. Rather, it was a mission of historical documentation and a passion to fulfill the legacy of their predecessors.

In 1909, W.E.B. DuBois, a pre-eminent scholar and the first black person to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard, had the idea of an encyclopedia Africana. It would be a complete compilation of information about Africa, its people and history, from the earliest records of civilization to contemporary society.

DuBois died in 1963, and since then, researchers have been working to fulfill his dream.

One team of scholars, which takes a more Afrocentric view than Gates does, has been working in Ghana for several decades, and that’s where the other hand comes in: They claim that Gates was reluctant to include strongly Afrocentric points of view in the encyclopedia. Molefi Kete Asante, who is a leading supporter of Afrocentricity, told the New York Times that Encarta Africana was geared too much for a white audience.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft spokeswoman Beth Jordan says the company is defending the product as a solid learning tool that can be experienced by audiences of all ages and races.

"This is not a product that a big corporation produced and then went out searching for an endorsement," says Jordan. "Mr. Gates and Mr. Appiah approached Microsoft with the concept after watching our technology over the years … Microsoft was proud to step up to the plate and include Encarta Africana in its repertoire."

Deborah Smith Pollard, professor of black literature at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, is aware of the Africana controversy among black academics, but after a brief review, she is impressed and plans to use it professionally and personally.

"The CD-ROM has an appealing look while supplying enough interesting information for initial research on subjects," observes Pollard. "Of course it is not as comprehensive as a book on a particular topic, but it offers a solid starting point for research at almost any grade level, especially for those students preparing to take a black literature or history class who have had no exposure to those materials."

Pollard’s colleague U-M Dearborn librarian Carla Brooks agrees. "The information provided makes for a solid learning tool and the interactive aspect and (Web) links to other sites really set it apart."

And that’s the key to the CD-ROM’s value as a learning tool.

As Gates states, "We finally have a technology that can explore and explain the expressive features — music and dance, art and cinema, literature and storytelling, that are at the heart of the cultural achievement of people of African descent."

The Encarta Africana is an important compilation. As Appiah notes, "All of the information gathered about the people of African descent and their influences is placed and assembled in perspective until we were able to say here is an encyclopedia that does for African and African-American cultures what the first encyclopedia did for Europeans two centuries ago."

In light of the current criticism with regards to Africana’s content, its creators and Microsoft may want to consider expanding its development, making the current edition the first in a series.

In the meantime, check out the Encarta Africana Web site at http://encarta.msn.com/.

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