If you think black history is just about slavery and Martin Luther King Jr., think again.
Microsoft's Encarta Afri-cana puts the software giant's popular electronic encyclopedia format to outstanding use in a comprehensive, fascinating volume on Africa and people of African descent.
It offers more than 3,000 articles and 2,000 photos, videos, maps and charts. Video clips include several 360-degree views, and there is a text-to-speech reader for the visually impaired.
The two-CD volume was edited by Harvard University professors Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Kwame Anthony Appiah. Its original articles were written by hundreds of contributors, and more came from the generic Encarta.
With all this content, Microsoft avoided the temptation to create bloatware that sucks up hard drive space and requires the latest computer technology. This should make the Windows 95/98 program accessible to more consumers and schools. Sadly, Encarta Africana is not available to use with Mac operating systems, and it will not run under Windows 3.x.
I tried Africana on a 150 MHz Pentium laptop running Windows 95 with 32 MB of RAM. Installation took less than two minutes, and the only unwelcome change I detected was the overwriting of a previously installed version of Macromedia's Shockwave.
The video clips ran very smoothly, (except the 360-degree views, which got a little jerky). The music was acceptable on tinny laptop speakers, and the speech-to-text reader sounded slightly less mechanical than many such programs. Microsoft made good use of all the available media.
Searching Africana is easy, thanks to a "find" feature that allows users to look by article, title or keyword. A continuous scrolling display in the upper-right corner gives a summary of articles. Links are available to related articles and to sites on the World Wide Web.
Most articles have pictures, and users can search multimedia files for video or audio clips.
The video clips are more effective for "lectures" by a variety of experts than for action. Showing African dancers or the 1963 civil rights march in Washington on a computer screen cannot begin to convey the excitement of these spectacles. But seeing Maya Angelou discussing her poetry on the screen conveys a welcome sense of intimacy.
Africana focuses heavily on African-Americans' contributions to sports and the performing arts. Its target audience, according to its editors, are students ages 10 to 21.
But Africana is not America-centric; much of its content involves Africa itself. The geography and history of the continent and the migration of African peoples - both forced and voluntary - get extensive coverage. As with most references, the most interesting features concern people.
I learned about Anton Wilhelm Amo, a slave from the Gold Coast (now Ghana) who was raised and educated as a nobleman in Germany in the 18th century. He earned a doctorate in philosophy, published scholarly works and lectured at universities throughout that country.
I did a search on my hero, Harriet Tubman, who guided more than 200 fugitive slaves to freedom on at least 15 trips along the Underground Railroad. The article includes three pictures and a comprehensive biography, along with links to Sojourner Truth and John Brown and other topics. The Underground Railroad itself is given extensive coverage.
A search for "Baltimore" brought links to Frederick Douglass, Eubie Blake, Billie Holiday and Kweisi Mfume. I also found a mistake: Encarta Africana says Kurt L. Schmoke was Baltimore's first black mayor. Schmoke is the city's first elected black mayor; Clarence H. "Du" Burns became the first black mayor when Mayor William Donald Schaefer was elected governor.
The lone weak spot in this excellent product is its collection of World Wide Web links. Fully three-quarters of the links I tried were broken. That can be laid in part to the Web's ephemeral nature - Web pages are always appearing and vanishing without notice.
But too few links are included in Africana. People such as James Baldwin and Frederick Douglass have bodies of works that are large and well-documented on the Web. Africana provided only two or three links to each.
Microsoft Encarta Africana sells for $49.95, after a $20 mail-in rebate. Minimum system requirements: 486DX (Pentium recommended); 16 MB of RAM for Windows 95, 24 MB for Windows 98 or Windows NT Workstation; 30 MB of hard disk space, a double-speed CD-ROM drive and 1 MB of video RAM. For information, surf to www.africana.com.
Send e-mail to kaseyjones@ compuserve.com