New scholarship brings ancient subjects to light

Two mammoth reference books on the African experience

AFRICANA Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Kwame Anthony Appiah Basic Books

AFRICAN CEREMONIES By Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher Harry N. Abrams Inc.

In Africana, eminent scholars Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr. seek to fulfill W.E.B. Du Bois's more than 50-year long dream of producing a compendium of knowledge about people of African descent and their societies around the world. With this new "encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience," Du Bois's brain-child is finally born.

Roughly two-fifths of the 2,000-plus pages concern Africa; one third of them address the African diaspora in Latin America and the Caribbean. Another third covers North America. Each item includes a brief description, followed by the entry itself and a list of references to other entries. The volume also contains maps, charts, tables, and a dozen longer essays on topics such as the "Harlem Renaissance" and "Ancient African Civilization." "Africana" deserves shelf space in schools, libraries, and culturally literate households.

A two-volume coffee-table collection of photographs by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, African Ceremonies records 43 traditional rituals and ceremonies in 26 African countries. The books are organized according to type of ceremony and location, and they include brief essays and informative captions. Extraordinary, expressive images afford views of peoples and lifestyles worlds away from our own.

Perhaps, then, we owe a debt of gratitude to Beckwith and Fisher for affording us a vision of these "vanishing ways of life" - even if it is a vision seen through the Western filters they inevitably bring to their work.

Frankly, though, I felt like an intruder as I thumbed through photo after photo of bead-bedecked figures, painted bodies, and naked forms burying their dead, worshiping their gods, courting their lovers. I kept wondering whether my own voyeurism in some way hastened the vanishing of the integrity of these ways of life.

*Trudy C. Palmer taught African-American literature at Tufts University.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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