Susan Altman, Joel Kemelhor. Encyclopedia of African-American Heritage. New York: Facts on File, 2000. xi + 353 pp. $45.00 (library), ISBN 978-0-8160-4125-1; $18.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8160-4126-8.
Reviewed by Marylee S. Crofts (Bentley College)
Published on H-AfrTeach (December, 1999)
An Encyclopedia of Breadth
Students and teachers will find this volume useful and interesting because of the breadth of African and African-American subjects covered, from Hank Aaron to Zulu. The comprehensive nature of the work is both its strength and its weakness; users can find almost any topic of general interest, but only a few go beyond an introductory level. This weakness is endemic to the genre; an encyclopedia does not purport to provide in-depth information. Altman, however, provides an excellent, basic bibliography to supplement information in the entries.
Altman's work is objective and forthright; there is no apparent or hidden agenda in the selection of topics or in the treatment of them. She is critical and careful in the selection of topics and covers a very wide span of African history, offering details not found in former encyclopedic works, such as the Chilembwe Uprising. Rather than avoid subjects that can lend themselves to the perpetuation of negative stereotypes about African people, Altman treats subjects, such as scarification, in a forthright and uncomplicated manner. She compares scarification to similar cosmetic practices in other cultures, such as tatooing.
The blend and mixture of topics -- historical events, music, political movements, art, slogans, biographies, ethnic and cultural groups, literature, places and sites -- make it likely that the readers will find something on the topic they are researching. There is, however, an unevenness in the treatment of these hundreds of topics, and the volume would have benefited from more careful editing.
The reference on "Bantu," for example, lacks information on contemporary peoples of Bantu origin. It states that there are about 100 Bantu languages, which is certainly disputed by academic linguists. The entry focuses the reader's attention on polygamy and communal responsibility and says that most people of Bantu origin hold animist beliefs and worship ancestors. These comments will certainly keep the young reader in ignorance of the strength of the Christian and Muslim religions there.
Another troublesome aspect of this volume is its inconsistency regarding the use of the words "ethnic" or "cultural" group and "tribe." Readers may be confused by the indiscriminate interchange among these words, and, interestingly, the word "tribe" is not an entry in the volume. This problem may have arisen from the fact that there were multiple contributors to the work. Other inconsistencies also could have been avoided through more careful editing. The entry on the Congo states that independence was "granted" by the colonial power, which implies that the colonial power decided to award this status. In most other entries, however, the wording is more accurate, saying that the country "gained" independence. These may appear to be insignificant differences to some academics, but the selection of words carries a strong message to young readers.
The volume raises more particular issues too. For example, Arthur Ashe's disregard of the sport boycott of South Africa brought severe criticism at the time, by Americans of all races. The encyclopedia states that "He became active in the movement to end apartheid in South Africa . . . ."(p.19) but does not address the contentious decision he made to play in apartheid South Africa. Another example of omitted information comes in the entry on Ethiopia. Although Mengistu's regime was totalitarian, brutal and economically disastrous, it did tackle the problem of illiteracy in a significant way. Young people should learn that even the worst of governments may have one positive contribution to make.
This review primarily addresses the content of the volume from an Africanist perspective. The entries on African -American topics are equally varied and well-selected. The entry on Jesse Owens, however, missed an opportunity to mention the impact of his winning Olympic gold in Berlin in 1936 in front of the racist Nazis.
By and large, I recommend this volume and consider it a valuable addition to school libraries. Its scope is excellent and the bibliography is extensive and well-selected.
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Marylee S. Crofts. Review of Altman, Susan; Kemelhor, Joel, Encyclopedia of African-American Heritage.
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