Oxford AASC: Dispatches

Dispatches From the Editor in Chief


Connections

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

There has perhaps never been a better time in our history to explore the complex connection between the United States and Africa—and, indeed, the connection between Africa and the rest of the world. In the biography of President Barack Obama, we see extraordinary links across several cultures, from Kenya to the American Midwest to Hawai'i to Indonesia. Thanks to the recent revolutions of the Arab Spring, the nations of North Africa now have an opportunity to transition to democracy, open their societies, and engage the world in ways that many observers—accustomed to the status quo of dictatorship—never thought possible. South Africa is now two decades into a long democratic revolution of its own. Around the time I was writing what would become my first book, in the late 1980s, that country was an international pariah because of its system of apartheid. Its greatest hero, Nelson Mandela, was still serving a decades-long sentence on Robben Island. Though the South Africa of today is still trying to address problems related to development and poverty, it is a functioning democracy as well as a major actor on the world stage, with growing financial and tourist industries and vibrant artistic, athletic, and musical cultures. Perhaps most important, new developments in communications technology, social media, and economic partnerships have expanded the continent's reach in ways that no government or political movement ever could.

This opportunity to connect is long overdue, as the historical relationship has often been downplayed or ignored. The reasons for that are too numerous to discuss in detail here, but it is safe to say that the legacy of slavery is only one of them. There exists as well a deep misunderstanding of Africa's place in the world. Perhaps the most pervasive misconception is the idea that the continent is somehow a monolith, a homogenous society united by its blackness. Recall, for example, when President George W. Bush, in a well-intentioned but clumsy attempt to discuss the HIV/AIDS crisis, said that "Africa is a nation that suffers from incredible disease." (Of course, this statement illustrates yet another stereotype of Africa, but, again, that's too big to discuss here.) We see this tendency with regard to so many groups—how many times in the past ten years, for example, have you heard someone discuss the religion of Islam like this, ignoring the fact that there are a billion Muslims spread out across the entire globe? And, of course, we have seen this same prejudice regarding African Americans, something that our growing collection of biographies in the AANB has attempted to refute.

With this in mind, we are excited to add two new projects to the AASC that we hope will not only expand our coverage of Africa, but highlight these connections as well. The first is the multivolume Dictionary of African Biography (DAB), which I edited along with my colleagues Emmanuel Akyeampong and Steven J. Niven. As you can imagine, this project is modeled after our successful African American National Biography in that it aims to describe the diversity of a people through the individual stories of their lives, providing historical context to their personal experiences. DAB is carrying on a proposal that W. E. B. DuBois made over a century ago when he attempted to edit an international "Encyclopedia Africana". The successors of Du Bois's Africana project in Accra, Ghana (his third of three different iterations of the idea to edit an encyclopedia) continued by publishing a series of biographical dictionaries. Of twenty that were projected, only three appeared in print. Since then, there have been other attempts to cover the entire continent, including Africana, an encyclopedia that I edited along with Kwame Apphiah (originally published by Perseus, but now available on AASC). With the print publication of the DAB—and its expansion online on AASC—we will continue the work of bringing the diversity of the continent to life in the coming years. Moreover, we will continue to highlight the deep connections Africans have with our country, from explorers to slaves who overcame their bondage to writers to athletes to scientists.

Another project we are adding is The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Thought, edited by F. Abiola Irele and Biodun Jeyifo. Like the DAB, African Thought is an outgrowth of previous attempts to create a reference work that covered the history and culture of the continent. But this two-volume encyclopedia focuses on the numerous African perspectives on literature, philosophy, science, art, politics, and theology. The editors of this book were keenly aware of how African thought influenced—and was influenced by—the intellectual developments taking place outside of the continent; therefore, the topics do not appear in a vacuum, so to speak, but are instead described as being part of an ongoing cultural and intellectual exchange; for example, Martin Luther King, Rap and Hip Hop, Caliban (from Shakespeare's The Tempest), and Richard Wright. They are case studies in how African thought has helped to shape the world we live in.

We're grateful that you are along for this journey, we hope you'll reach out to us [link to contact page] if you have suggestions or comments. Until then, enjoy your visit to our site!


Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Editor in Chief
Oxford African American Studies Center
The Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
November 2012