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W.E.B. Du Bois’s encyclopedia

Yesterday was the annual birthday celebration at the AME Zion Church in Great Barrington. David is finishing his history of the church, and also continuing work on the African-American Trail Guide project. There was also a meeting at the church on Monday evening, to explain the Trail Guide–which is now being circulated in draft form–and to ask for comments and additional information. It was the usual suspects, a mix of middle-aged white do-gooders and members of the church, along with a smattering of visitors who’d read about it in the paper. What I enjoy most about these meeting is Reverend Esther Dozier, who manages the events at her church with poise, humor, and patience. She’s the one who will occasionally remind people of the hard truths about the lives of the black community.

I’m always intrigued by the fact that W.E.B. Du Bois, the greatest African-American intellectual of the twentieth century, and one of the greatest American intellectuals of any color, was born into this community, and grew up in this small town. He attended the AME Zion Church as a teenager, and wrote about its events for a New York paper.

Du Bois also, later in life, planned a great encyclopedia project, the Encyclopedia Africana. Du Bois himself was never able to finish it, but there is now a work with that name, and Du Bois is credited with inspiring it (as he certainly inspires us). But my favorite story about Du Bois and an encyclopedia is quite different. Here is a historical example of a dramatic, and lamentable, conflict between editors and contributors.

According to biographer David Levering Lewis, Du Bois submitted a commissioned essay, “The Negro in the United States,” in May 1928, for the 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Four other black experts had been asked to contribute, and they were apparently overjoyed to be included.

But somewhere along the line there was (as is wont to happen today) an “upheaval” in the editorial offices, and a new editor, Franklin Henry Hooper, who “blue-penciled whole paragraphs, altered the emphases of phrases, and nitpicked over words.” Hooper did not trust the facts or numbers provided by Du Bois, and in fact saw no reason that Du Bois should mention the number of Negroes lynched at all.

Joel Spingarn, a well-known philanthropist, offered a compromise but in the end Du Bois’s “Otherwise excellent entry” was dropped from the Encyclopedia Britannica. I’m inspired, as I write this, to find a copy of that entry. Sometimes what isn’t published is more interesting, and important, than what is.

By | 2005-09-19T14:25:57+00:00 September 19th, 2005|Berkshire Blog|0 Comments

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