Social Studies

Cultural Challenge

By Steven Knipp — May 01, 2003 8 min read
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The Black Saga Competition gets kids interested in African American history by asking tough questions.

It’s a Saturday in early spring, and the sky is the kind of brilliant blue that draws kids outside like bees to honey. Yet deep inside the student union building at the University of Maryland, College Park, the 30 middle schoolers sitting patiently in groups of three on an austere stage seem oblivious to the fact that they could be hitting the mall or the basketball courts.

Charles M. Christian, a University of Maryland geography professor, strides across the stage. He’s a tall, charismatic man who looks much younger than his 62 years. He has the robust voice and crisp diction of a radio announcer, but he’s a former middle school teacher and doesn’t stand on ceremony when it comes to setting the tone for the day’s event. “What time is it?” Christian shouts. The kids and an audience of several hundred attentive friends, parents, and teachers roar back: “It’s Black Saga time!” The pressure is on during this, the final round for middle schoolers in the Black Saga Competition, an academic quiz created by Christian 10 years ago to test 4th through 8th graders’ knowledge of African American history, but the professor doesn’t see any reason why things should be solemn.

It’s taken nearly six months for these 30 middle schoolers to get here. (The elementary division competed this morning.) Back in October, the 50 schoolsthat registered for the competition received Black Saga booklets containing more than 800 questions and detailed answers about the African American experience that might be asked in competition. The queries span the 1500s to the present day, covering a breathtaking range oftopics from geography, economics, and politics to art, sports, and music. These teams of students, selected to compete based on their performance on a multiple- choice test, studied the material and placed 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in internal school competitions in February. Then they beat other schools’ teams in regional quizzes, earning a place among the top 100 elementary and middle school teams invited to the state championship. Now that group has been whittled down by two-thirds, and the remaining students prepare to compete.

Turning toward the kids, Christian commences the questioning: “In 1641, this colony became the first to recognize slavery as a legal institution,” he says. “Name it.”

The teams huddle together, conferring like young United Nations delegates, then write their answers on cards. After 15 seconds or so, Christian calls out, “Time’s up! Cap your markers, please.” He repeats the question and provides the correct answer: Massachusetts. In turn, the teams hold up the cards and read out their answers. Christian leads the audience in applauding the students, even if they have the wrong place.

Volunteers from a variety of organizations, including the Maryland Council for the Social Studies, the Maryland Geographic Alliance, and the Maryland State Department of Education, tally the scores and place team rankings on an overhead projector for the audience to see. As each round is completed, the team with the fewest correct answers quietly leaves the stage.

At the end of the day, one group each from the elementary and middle school divisions is victorious, and Christian happily poses onstage with the winners and a $300 check the size of a beach towel, representing the amount of cash that each kid wins. Members of the second- and third-place teams collect $200 and $100 prizes, respectively. While Christian gets a kick out of the competition, he admits that Black Saga has a more profound objective. “The key goal of the challenge,” he explains later, “is to bring African American history into the mainstream curriculum. If you don’t know African American history, you simply don’t know American history.”

The third son of six boys, Christian grew up on his grandfather’s 160-acre farm in rural Blackjack, Oklahoma. “We picked peaches, we picked apples, whatever needed to be done,” he says. “My mother refused to accept welfare. She had two years of college and was adamant about this. I remember being awakened at 5 a.m. on cold mornings to work in someone’s field,” he says, laughing at the memory. “As kids, we didn’t know anything about embarrassment. We just wanted to stay in bed on chilly mornings!”

Christian says the Black Saga Competition “grew out of a personal need to understand the many stories that my mother told me—stories that her grandparents had told her. They were all wonderful, but they lacked historical context. So I started researching. I began to build a database of historic facts about the African American experience that would wrap around the stories that my parents had told me.”

Seven years later, what he’d learned could fill a book—so he wrote one. Black Saga: The African American Experience, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1995, provides an overview of both the oppression and achievements of African Americans, combining facts with compelling narratives.

‘If you don’t know African American history, you simply don’t know American history.’

Charles M. Christian,
Black Saga Competition

It was while writing the book that Christian received a call from two 5th grade teachers at Beltsville Academic Center, a K-8 magnet school in Maryland. The professor had judged their school geography bee in the past, and the teachers asked him to mentor 29 chronic underachievers in their classes. Racking his brains to come up with a way to capture the kids’ attention, he drew material from his book and put it into Q&A format, announcing to the students that he would host a series of competitive quizzes. He also rounded up some graduate students to act as coaches for the student teams.

“Amazingly, these kids were soon fired up with knowledge that they didn’t even know they had—information that somehow they had been exposed to, but nobody had inquired about,” Christian recalls. “It was ignored in many textbooks and ignored in the curriculum.” He notes that when kids got answers right, they often remarked that they’d picked up that piece of history from their parents or grandparents.

“It became apparent that these children knew more than they presented in the classroom,” Christian says, arguing that the competitive format made it cool for them to admit their knowledge. “This allowed them to shine, probably for the first time in the lives,” he adds. “That was powerful stuff—the importance of feeling good about an accomplishment.” Teamwork also became a key element. “These kids quickly discovered that while you personally may not know the answer to a question, one of your team members might,” he says.

Inspired by his success with the Beltsville students, Christian worked to share the Black Saga Competition with other schools, distributing a study guide and traveling around Maryland to help set up competitions and organize practice sessions. For several years, he covered the costs and promotion himself, spending an average of $3,000 a year on travel alone. Then in 1999, the University of Maryland awarded Christian a $120,000 grant to pay for the competition for three years. Christian and the university are now soliciting funding from foundations and the private sector, with an eye to expanding the regional competition into a national event.

Brenda Davis, a reading teacher at Drew-Freeman Middle School, a science and technology magnet school in Suitland, Maryland, first heard of the Black Saga Competition in 2000, when she was a language arts teacher at another school and a colleague handed her a brochure about the event. “I liked the sound of it right away and got to work coordinating it,” she says. That year, one of her teams placed 5th in the state. At Drew- Freeman, where she also coordinates teams, her enthusiasm for the quiz has infected her principal, Joyce Edwards, who decided to broadcast one Black Saga question over the school’s PA system each day in the weeks leading up to this year’s championship. Classes discussed the questions and learned the answers the following morning.

“This competition,” Davis says, “really captivates the kids. Many girls are naturally interested in social studies, but with this particular event—the way it’s been designed to be fun—even the boys who might otherwise only be interested in sports want to be involved.”

Charles M. Christian presents an oversize check, representing $300 cash, to students from Beltsville Academic Center, the elementary division winners of the 2003 Black Saga Competition.
—Photograph by Hector Emanuel

Seventh grader Ronald Walker is a case in point. He says that before he won a spot on a Black Saga team, his main extracurricular activities were playing outside or spending time with friends. But he studied at least one hour a day after school and sometimes on Sundays to prepare for this year’s competition.

Unfortunately, Ronald’s team was knocked out of the quiz the week before the finals, though he hopes to compete again next year. Ronald notes that his father helped him a lot. “If there’s something I don’t know, my dad will tell me because he really loves history,” he says. “But sometimes there’s stuff that I know that even my father didn’t know.”

Davis says that the content is definitely part of the appeal for students at her majority- black school. “This is something that they can relate to personally,” she notes. “While over the years they hear about people like Jackie Robinson, Dr. King, Rosa Parks and their contributions to history, there are many other people whom they learn about when they are a part of the Black Saga team. They begin to make connections through so many avenues. They learn more about chronology, and this helps the students relate people and events to themselves.”

At the same time, Christian says, his competition is designed to appeal to students of all races. “We are all Americans, and this is all a part of our history,” he says with conviction.

Christian has a supporter in writer and historian Joy Hakim, who sees the Black Saga Competition as a much-needed antidote to lackluster attitudes toward black history. “African American history isn’t taught well in most schools,” shesays. “And middle schools may be where it is most neglected. For some reason, we just don’t seem to see the connection between history and thinking skills. Learn history, and it gives you something to connect to the present.”

In his attempt to change such attitudes, Christian is encouraged by the crowds at the competition in March, which exceeded the university auditorium’s 850-seat capacity. Someday, he says with a smile, the Black Saga finals might be held at Baltimore’s famous Camden Yards baseball stadium, where the Baltimore Orioles now play to crowds of nearly 50,000.

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