Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard University, spoke in Van Meter Hall Thursday night about his life and how Microsoft’s Encarta Africana became a reality.
The Encarta Africana is an electronic, comprehensive reference about African Americans.
Gates was introduced by David Lee, dean of Potter College, who describe Gates as “one of the most influential academics in the United States.”
During his lecture, Gates said Encarta Africana began with W.E.B. Du Bois, who first envisioned a black encyclopedia in 1909 as a means of fighting white racism toward blacks.
Du Bois was never able to raise enough money to realize the project, Gates said.
Gates said he entered Harvard in 1969, where Du Bois became his role model. After traveling across the world – visiting Du Bois’ grave during the journey – Gates vowed to realize
Du Bois’ dream.
Gates appealed to Encyclopedia Britannica for the project. They agreed, but only if Gates could raise $20 million for the project.
After raising only $50,000, Gates gave up.
But in 1995, years later, he convinced Random House to publish the encyclopedia, with help from friend Quincy Jones. Gates assembled a team to produce a CD-ROM prototype, but by the time they were ready, Random House had financial problems that thwarted the project.
After contacting several more publishers, he realized that Microsoft was receptive to the idea. After completing a marketing survey, Microsoft decided to produce the Encarta Africana.
It debuted in January of 1999 as a stand-alone product, and was also included in Microsoft’s Encarta package.
He estimated Encarta Africana’s stand-alone sales to be as much as 50,000 copies per year, and Encarta’s to be about 300,000 per year.
Gates gave a demonstration of the software package, displaying film clips featuring Willie Mays, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and Michael Jordan.
Gates said 160 books written by black authors have been digitized and included in the package.
He also demonstrated panoramic tours of historically black areas, such as Harlem.
“It has been the honor and treat of my life to fulfill that great dream,” Gates said of Du Bois’ vision.
Gates is the author of several books, including “Colored People” and “The Signifying Monkey: Towards a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism.” He has also received several honors, including being the first black to be given the Mellon Scholarship.
“I was impressed by how approachable he was, and I was blown away by the encyclopedia,” said Darlene Applegate, an assistant professor in the modern language and international studies department.
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