New Book Lists More Than 2,000 African Bios

Read the introduction to a dictionary that captures the rich history of Africans with rigorous, scholarly depth.


Below is the introduction to the Dictionary of African Biography, which was co-edited by The Root's editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr.

On November 18, 2011, Professors Emmanuel Akyeampong and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard University launched their new Dictionary of African Biography at the African Studies Conference in Washington, DC. The DAB's 2129 entries are published in six volumes by Oxford University Press. Written and edited by leading scholars of Africa, the DAB constitutes the largest ever collection of African biographies to cover the entire continent and all time periods of history. An online edition of 10,000 entries will follow.

It is perhaps impossible to capture the full diversity of Africa -- a continent of one billion people, and the most continuous site of the evolution of the human species on our planet -- in 2000 biographies.

But the DAB provides arguably the most thorough sampling to date of the astonishing richness and variety of African lives over the past 5000 years. Indeed, the earliest figure to appear in the DAB, African Eve, takes us back even further, to the emergence of modern homo sapiens 200,000 years ago. That entry shows how modern DNA analysis has enabled us to reconstruct our Mitochondrial Eve, our most recent common matrilineal ancestor, and the metaphorical mother of the human race.

Early Women Rulers: Amerinas

The DAB provides a glimpse at the lives of the earliest female rulers--from 17th dynasty Queen Ahhotep, who reigned in Egypt in the 1500s BC, through the 18th dynasty's famous Nefertiti and Nefertari, to Queen Abar of Kush, Sophoniba of Carthage, and, of course, Cleopatra VII of Egypt. We also include mythical and semi-mythical mothers of Africa, such as Elissa or Dido of Carthage; Nehanda, the founding mother of Mutapa, and Makedda, better known in the West as the Queen of Sheba

Another fascinating character is Ameniras the Meroitic Queen of the ancient empire of Kush (fl. first century BC). She defended Kushite sovereignty against the Roman Emperor Augustus' s attempts to subjugate and annex the kingdom. Ameniras's stand against Rome's most powerful ruler, inaugurated a period of economic prosperity that encouraged the flourishing of trade, commerce, intercultural exchange between Kush and the Mediterranean world. This era is often called the Golden Age of Meroe, and it lasted until the middle of the fourth century AD. Monnica, a Christian Saint and the mother of Augustine of Hippo, is the earliest woman in the DAB, who was not a ruler. We know of her only through the writings of her son, who depicted her as an ideal and devout Christian mother. Other early women are the Christian martyrs Perpetua and Felicity.


The first female scholar of whom we have reasonably detailed and firm knowledge on the African continent was Hypatia of Alexandria, who lived in the 4th century. She was an astronomer and mathematician, and took a leading role in the civic affairs of Alexandria, delivering public lectures on philosophy. While her career alone was sufficient to accord her a pioneering role in African history, the lurid nature of her death would have done so as well. She died in AD 415, murdered by a crowd of Christian zealots who declared her a heretic, seized her, stripped her, and proceeded to dismember her, and then burned her mangled corpse. Christians were not the only martyrs in the early centuries after Christ.