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Edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Emmanuel Akyeampong

In the spirit of the Dictionary of National Biography, the American National Biography, and the African American National Biography, all three published by Oxford University Press, the Dictionary of African Biography will be a major biographical dictionary covering the lives and legacies of notable African men and women from all eras and walks of life. This groundbreaking resource will tell the full story of the African continent through the lives of its people. 

The rich history of the African people has been unduly neglected in the scholarly literature, and reliable reference material is in short supply. This trend has begun to change, however, and in recent years many new historical discoveries have been made. Much of this research is designed as a corrective to the long tradition of inadequate treatment by scholars.

Although scholarship on Africa is flourishing, very little of this research has yet filtered down into accessible reference works, and well designed reference material is essential to promote further scholarly inquiry, learning and education, and to satisfy the increasing interest among popular audiences.

Although there have been some isolated instances of successful biography of Africans, there is no single resource that provides comprehensive coverage, and the need is great. Older reference works focus unevenly on the colonial period, European adventurers, and Egyptian dynasties. There is very little attention given to the full range of African lives, and rarely is the continent treated as a whole. What we have as a result is an incomplete picture of Africa’s history and its people. A comprehensive biographical dictionary would greatly increase our understanding of the African continent and would have a transformative effect on education and research.

The Dictionary of African Biography (DAB) is intended to be a proud addition to the Oxford University Press’s tradition of publishing major biographical resources and to fill the large gap in authoritative reference material on the African continent. DAB would include roughly two thousand in-depth historical biographies of Africans, and as such become a powerful resource for learning about Africa.

From the Pharaohs to Fanon, the Dictionary of African Biography will provide a comprehensive overview of the lives of Africans who shaped its history. The project will be unprecedented in scale covering the whole of the continent from Tunisia to South Africa, from Sierra Leone to Somalia. It will also encompass the full scope of history from Queen Hatsheput of Egypt (1490-1468 BC) and Hannibal, the military commander and strategist of Carthage (243-183 BC), to Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana (1909-1972), Miriam Makeba and Nelson Mandela of South Africa (1918 -). Individuals will be drawn from all walks of life including philosophers, politicians, activists, entertainers, scholars, poets, scientists, religious figures, kings, and everyday people whose lives have contributed to Africa’s history.

Each entry will be focused on a single individual. The Dictionary will include biographical entries on Africans dead and living. Every entry will be followed by a guide to further reading, and the full work will be extensively cross-referenced. 

We will begin the selection process by undertaking an extensive review of the scattered literature on Africa to make a detailed assessment of individuals who have been covered in one form or another in existing reference works. With the help of an editorial board of subject specialists will edit and polish this list, and then extend it through a rigorous survey of the scholarly literature. We will include biographies of people such as:

Kahina (575 – 702) Berber priestess, Tunisia
Ibn Battutah (1304 – 1368) Jurist / Scholar,  Morocco
Galadéwos (1522 – 1559)  Emperor,   Ethiopia
Ahmad Baba (1556 - 1627) Islamic Scholar, Mali
Kimpa Vita  (1685 – 1706)  Prophet,  Zaire
Usman dan Fodio (1754 – 1817) Preacher,  Nigeria
Osei Bonsu (1779 – 1823) King,   Ghana
Mataka Nyambi  (1805 – 1878) Slave Trader , Mozambique
Mutesa I   (1838 – 1884) Kabaka/King,  Uganda
Alfred Amédéé  (1842 – 1922) General,  Senegal
Yaa Asantewa   (1850 – 1921) Asante Heroine, Ghana
Barnett Isaacs Barnato  (1852 – 1897) Diamond Merchant, South Africa
Martin-Paul Samba  (1870 – 1914) Anticolonialist,  Cameroon
Thomas Mokopu Mofolo (1875 – 1948) Novelist,  Lesotho
Simon Kimbangu  (1889 – 1951) Church Founder, Congo
Naguib Mahfouz  (1911 – ) Nobel Prize Winner in Literature, Egypt
Julius Kambarage Nyerere (1922 – 1999) President, Tanzania
Camara Laye   (1928 – 1980) Novelist,  Guinea
Abid Mohamed Med Hondo (1936 – ) Filmmaker,  Mauritania

Entries will be written by contributing scholars from African studies departments the world over. We aim to commission several hundred leading experts to participate. Each entry will be reviewed by the editorial board to insure only reliable, high quality material is published. As the most wide-reaching reference project on Africa to date, the DAB will be a means of codifying the explosion of new research. We anticipate full involvement from the community of African studies researchers.

With entries ranging from 1,000 and 2,000 words, we anticipate roughly 2 million words. The work will most likely comprise 5 volumes of biographies approximately 600-700 pages each. The 5-volume set will be published in a hardcover edition for specialists and libraries.

Online Edition
The biographies will also be available online. As a first step we will include them in a fully searchable form in Oxford’s African American Studies Center, which is the first comprehensive scholarly online resource in the field of African American Studies and Africana Studies. Professor Gates is the Editor in Chief of this groundbreaking resource, which is available on subscriptions to institutions, libraries, and individuals.

The next step will be to develop a new online resource devoted to Africa. Reference content from The Dictionary of African Biography would provide backbone for this resource in the same way that the material from the African American National Biography provides a foundation for the African American Studies Center.

Editor in Chief and Editorial Board
The project will be under the supervision of two Editors in Chief: Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, and Emmanuel Akyeampong, Professor of History and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.

In addition there will be a substantial editorial board consisting of twelve advisory editors, each representing a specific area of research, and ten senior editors. The editorial board will enable us to cover relevant fields and ensure the scholarly standards of the project. They will be largely responsible for selecting and securing scholars on the entries to be commissioned, and reviewing all entries within their areas of expertise.

As with any large project, the editorial structure will be critical. In addition to the Editors in Chief and a full editorial board, we will have a fulltime executive editor working at the Du Bois Institute at Harvard University and a developmental editor working in-house at OUP. The entire editorial team would be under the direct supervision of the Editors in Chief.

The DAB is designed for everyone interested in the men and women who have left a mark on the history of Africa. It will appeal to scholars, students, biographers, teachers, librarians, archivists, political scientists, government researchers, historians, and anyone else with an interest in the African continent. The project is conceived as a first stop for any research or question about Africa.

We are targeting a broad range of student users from high school to graduate students.  The university market in particular will be significant. African Studies is a growing area of interest, graduating an increasing number of PhDs each year. Our own Department here at Harvard launched an African Studies track in 2004 for students pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees.

To date, no single reference work has yet brought together all of the major African subjects from literature and the arts, sports and entertainment, business and politics, fraternal organizations and social clubs, as well as the transcendent, canonical historical figures from Abd al-Qadir to Zara Yacob. The DAB, with entries on Africans from every discipline and profession, will fill this huge void. 

By bringing these important historical figures together into one place, we will, in effect, be writing a collective history of the Africa, the cradle of human civilization and our second largest continent. This sort of collective history, as told in the most compelling fashion through the lives of thousands of discrete individuals, will allow us to retell the extraordinarily varied history of African and its people in a depth of detail not possible heretofore.

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