Oxford AASC: About Dictionary of African Biography

Dictionary of African Biography

Edited by Emmanuel Akyeampong and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.


It is particularly satisfying to see this immense effort to compile a multivolume Dictionary of African Biography (DAB) with over 2,100 entries, covering the lives of individuals who lived or live in every historical period over the whole of the African continent, come to fruition under the auspices of the Oxford University Press. The DAB joins a select number of national biographies also published by Oxford University Press, including the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the American National Biography, and the African American National Biography. There were also several hundred biographies in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience published by Oxford University Press under the editorship of Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in 2005. The DAB builds on two important initiatives spearheaded by W. E. B. Du Bois. The first consisted of his three attempts to edit an international, Pan-African "Encyclopedia Africana," which he conceived in 1909, attempted again in the 1930s under the title "The Encyclopedia of the Negro," and evolved once again into a continental-focused "The Encyclopedia Africana" in its final iteration, of which Du Bois served as editor in chief in Ghana between 1961 and his death in 1963. Following his death, Du Bois's Ghanaian compatriots decided to embark on the completion of his encyclopedia indirectly by producing a projected twenty-volume Africana Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by L. H. Ofosu-Appiah, only three volumes of this proposed work were ultimately published between 1975 and 1995, covering about 650 individuals from eight countries. The coverage of the Africana Dictionary of National Biography was understandably limited, with very few living subjects included. Since that time, other biographical dictionaries have been regional or national in scope, and those that have aimed at continental coverage–especially in a single volume–have generally been quite cursory in their coverage, because of limits of space and resources. At the level of national biographies, the Encyclopaedia Aethiopica has set a high standard. The first four volumes containing four thousand subject entries, including biographies, were published in Hamburg by the Institute of African and Ethiopian Studies between 2003 and 2010.

The DAB's ambition is to achieve–through this first edition and then through an ever-expanding online edition in the Oxford African American Studies Center–the most comprehensive continental coverage (including Africa north of the Sahara) available to date, a degree and depth of coverage that will dramatically increase our understanding of the lives and achievements of individual Africans who lived across the full range of continental Africa from ancient times to the present. The publication of such a reference work, we perceived, could have a transformative impact on teaching and research in African studies, narrating the full history of the African continent through the collective lives of the women and men who made that history. The original design proposed to encompass the full scope of history from people such as the first humans, who were born in Africa, the pharaohs and other exemplars of the ancient world, through a surprising range of individual Africans who thrived in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe during classical antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Age of Discovery and the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the era of colonization, all the way to the independence movements of the 1950s and 1960s. We proposed to end with representatives of the 1 billion Africans living in the twenty-first century. The final result met all of those goals and provided a remarakable tapestry of more than two thousand Africans who shaped their times by the life choices they made.

The print edition of the Dictionary includes 2,126 entries in six volumes dealing with individuals drawn from all walks of life including philosophers, politicians, kings, queens, traders, entertainers, scholars, religious figures, activists, and everyday people whose lives have contributed richly and variously to African history. In entries ranging from two hundred to three thousand words, each contributor was challenged to produce highly readable essays of substance and reliability that would make the DAB the starting point for researchers interested in Africa's historical actors, living and deceased. Unavoidably, personalities known to be historically significant, but on whom there is very little reliable information for even the creation of a sound one hundred-word entry, were unfortunately dropped. Each entry is followed by a guide to further reading, and the entries are extensively cross-referenced to promote an integrated reading of historical actors whose lives overlapped.

With an eye to a comprehensive coverage of African personalities, the published DAB, which will be available online, will be complemented by an online edition that aims to add an additional ten thousand entries over the next several years. We have been deeply gratified and impressed by the collaboration of scholars from all over the world to produce these biographies. The acknowledgments section below briefly mentions the area editors who identified entries and contributing authors, and they are also listed facing the title page. The online edition will allow us to expand this biographical database–the largest yet published–even further, on a scale that Du Bois could scarcely imagine when he first conceived his "Encyclopedia Africana" in 1909.