An interview with Gates

By Chinelo Onwualu

World-National Co-editor

I arrived at least 5 minutes early--for me a record. The room was a small dressing room in the Fine Arts center. Inside, I met photographer, John who appeared to be there for the same reason I was. Between bouts of awkward silence and bursts of polite conversation, we waited.

Gates arrived amidst proper pomp and circumstance, his presence filling the room. Within minutes, it was apparent why this man was such a celebrated orator--it was as if I was the one being interviewed, not vice versa.

Gates was in town this week to address the January Series and promote his latest project, the Encyclopedia Africana. An Encarta CD-Rom he said he hoped would do ``to Africans and African-Americans what the Encyclopedia Britannica did to the Western world.'' The CD-ROM was the result of the work of over 400 scholars from all parts of the African and Afro-American world, who worked with a budget of $2 million.

According to Gates, ``It is the first truly pan-African work about the black experience.''

Gates' presentation at the January series was an outline of the history of the Encyclopedia Africana, from W.E.B Du Bois' early endeavors to his own search for funds, backers and writers. It was an interesting tale, closely intertwined with the lives of two of America's foremost black academics, past and present.

The second son of working-class parents, Gates grew up in a small town in West Virginia, two hours west of Washington. His father worked two jobs in order to put his two sons through college. After attending a small junior college near his home, Gates went on to Yale, where he graduated summa cum laude with a degree in history in 1973. He later became the first black American to earn a doctorate at Clare College in Cambridge University.

``Being a scholar is the closest thing to heaven on earth. Someone actually pays me to read and write books!'' said Gates of his career.

It was during his time at Yale that Gates first became interested in the life and works of W.E.B DuBois, a man whom he refers to as ``the greatest black intellectual of all time.'' Gates was struck by what he saw as his idol's only unfinished work: the creation of an Encyclopedia Africana.

Inspired by the Encyclopedia Judaica, DuBois, came up with the idea in 1909; between then and 1963, Du bois tried three times to establish a comprehensive reference work for the African and African-American experience, however, his efforts were unsuccessful.

One night in 1973 (after numerous glasses of wine) Gates, along with his fellow Harvard professor Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah and Nigerian Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, decided to pursue DuBois' dream. 25 years later, it's clear that Dr. Henry Louis Gates,Jr. has come a long way.