The Black inheritance;Software

12th March 1999 at 00:00
The latest in a series of Encarta CD-Roms charts the history of Africa's people and their achievements over the centuries. Maureen McTaggart reports

For most of this century, not to mention the last, school textbooks have, with a few honourable exceptions, ignored or marginalised the enormous contributions made by black men and women to the development of modern Britain. It's better these days, although a surprising number of authors are still racially blind.

Last month, however, saw the publication of the new Microsoft CD-Rom, Encarta Africana, which does an enormous amount to make up for the neglect. A vast body of knowledge, it catalogues the historical and cultural achievements of Africa and its peoples, from early prehistoric times to the present - more than four million years.

No-one can dispute what an important addition it is to historical knowledge. It is not preoccupied with slavery, nor does it encourage a sense of cultural apartheid. It is just a great celebration of racial recognition and pride.

However, no story of the black diaspora can ignore slavery, and this is brought into sharp focus by Encarta Africana's virtual tour of the notorious Goree Island in Senegal, a shipping point for captives bound for the Americas, complete with 360-degree views, video and audio clips.

This is a marvellous source for the thousands of black people who instinctively know the contributions made by their descendants to modern civilisations, but are unsure of the facts. As someone who thought she was clued up on some of Britain's key black historical facts and figures - Olaudah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho, Mary Seacole, and links with the slave trade, for instance - it was a pleasant surprise to come across some new ones. Like George Polgreen Bridgetower, a 19th-century violinist of exceptional talent, and Beethoven's best friend until they fell out over a woman. He gave the first performance of Beethoven's "Kreutzer Sonata" for violin - written expressly for him - in 1803 with the German composer accompanying him at the piano.

Encarta Africana's Black Britain section also chronicles the achievements of black politicians, sportspeople and musicians, and includes a lengthy piece that traces blacks in Britain back 2,000 years to when Africans first arrived with Julius Caesar's conquering army. The hardworking conservatism of the Windrush generation, as well as the first mass migration of Caribbean people to Britain aboard the SS Empire Windrush 50 years ago, also gets an honourable mention.

The original idea for Africana dates back to the turn of the century to African-American intellectual and civil rights pioneer WEB Du Bois, who had an ambitious dream to produce a compendium of black knowledge. He believed this would help defeat racism. In Encarta Africana, an on-screen timeline traces the presence of blacks over a four million year span, from the earliest hominids in Africa to today's well-known personalities, such as Denzel Washington and actress Whoopi Goldberg. It provides links to 3,000 detailed articles, photos, videos, maps, charts and interviews with high-profile black people, including United Nations secretary general Kofi Anan, discussing the future of Africa, and the poet Maya Angelou on her ideas of the diaspora.

Encarta Africana is the result of a collaboration between Microsoft and two African-American Harvard professors, Dr Kwame Anthony Appiah and Dr Henry Louis Gates Jr. "While other res-earchers have chronicled different aspects of Africa and African-American history, there has not been a catalogue of this scope," says Dr Appiah, who first discussed the project with Dr Gates when they were students at Cambridge University during the late Seventies. "It has been 90 years in coming, and there is still plenty to be done," he says. "But at least we will have a new African encyclopedia for the new millennium and a fitting gift for Du Bois and people of African descent."

The collection of reports and essays in Encarta Africana discusses how the original cultures of Africa have been transformed over the years. The African influence on Caribbean stories and world-wide music is explored, as is the connection between Britain's black population and the Caribbean islands. Slave rebellions in Jamaica and Barbados are re-told, and embellished (not unlike British history) by legends such as Nanny, the Maroon slave who single-handedly defeated a contingent of British soldiers during a slave uprising in Jamaica's Blue Mountains. But the West Indies contributions are text-only rather than multimedia (apart from the video clip of reggae giant Bob Marley).

Despite its US roots, Africana has worldwide relevance. "The authors have delivered on their promise to make this a world history," says Professor Paul Gilroy, a specialist in Black Studies at Goldsmiths University, London. "It is easy to talk about globalisation, but difficult to show it in the classroom. With this, we can jump to telling it in a trans-national style. To tell Africana history as opposed to African history is a complex story and is not just for cheerleading."

His only grumbles are that the disc was distributed free to 6,000 schools in the US yet there are no similar plans for the UK he is also not happy that there is no dedicated Mac version, though it will run on Macs with programs such as Virtual PC and SoftWindows.

It ought to be taken as read that products such as this are not just for black people. Africana is equally important for white children, so that they understand the roots of the multi-ethnic society in which they live. "We cannot live in a world today without having to know about black culture and black people," says Dr Appiah. "The most famous sportspeople are black, the most popular kinds of music are either made by blacks or have their roots in black culture, and the last two secretary generals of the United Nations are African."

Encarta Africana Two-disc CD-Rom, priced at pound;49.99.

Platform: Windows PC. Available from software dealers. The Africana website features a different 3 per cent of the CD each week Africana website:

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