Sunday, October 15, 2017

Fill in the Gaps

White people know nothing about black history in this country. My sample may be odd, because it’s based on years of watching Jeopardy, but I think it would hold up to more scientific scrutiny.

Jeopardy players should know more about just about everything than the average person, right? Yet when there’s a category or question about black people, their history or literature, the white players get it wrong or don’t even try to answer. (Music and sporting achievements by black people are a different story.)

The latest example was last week, during the $411,000, 12-game run of Austin Rogers. He knows a lot of stuff, but a fairly easy question about black Americana went right over his head. I don’t remember the wording exactly, but it was, in effect, “This song is considered the black national anthem.”

And as any black person would know, the answer is Lift Every Voice and Sing. One player, who was Asian, had obviously heard of it, but bobbled the wording of the title and was ruled incorrect. The other two players, Austin and a white woman, let the time elapse without ringing in.

I don’t remember the other instances I’ve seen over the years, but there are many. Whole categories left unanswered or answered wrong. One that I do recall is when Melissa Harris Perry was on Celebrity Jeopardy last year, and she was obviously irritated that Matthew Weiner (creator of Mad Men) couldn’t come up with the name "NAACP" when his Daily Double gave this clue: “The late Julian Bond was its chairman from 1998 to 2010.”

Anyway. That’s background for two places white people can go to get some education, or at least pieces of media we can read or listen to about those places.

One is the Whitney Plantation, just outside New Orleans. It’s the only plantation museum that focuses on the enslaved people who lived, worked, and died there. It was written up in today’s Star Tribune Travel section, which I normally never read, but this piece by Kerri Westenberg of the Strib staff is an exception.

The other is the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, located in Baltimore, which was the subject of a recent segment on This American Life. The commentator is a black woman from Baltimore, and her words are framed around what she thought of the museum as a child on school trips, what she thought later as a teenager, and how it seems to her now as an adult, and to her adult friend who has never seen it before. This museum is not the usual wax museum. That’s all I’ll say.

There are lots of other ways white Americans can learn about the history and culture of black Americans. All it takes is a bit of awareness that there’s something to learn and some basic curiosity about people who are not you. There's always more to know about everything, of course, but our gaps on this subject are revealing.

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