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Black history in 'Jeopardy' [Commentary]

For years, a group of black men has gathered daily at a cigar shop across from Cross Street Market, here in Baltimore. We talk politics and sports amid plumes of pipe and cigar smoke. However, conversation halts at 7 p.m. when the quiz show "Jeopardy" begins. The wide-screen display, mounted high on an exposed brick wall, shutters conversation when the words: "This. Is. Jeopardy!" bellow from the speakers.

An eclectic group of business owners, active/retired police officers, firefighters, salesmen and educators congregate and shout "questions" to the proffered answers. Raised eyebrows, knowing chuckles, and embarrassed chortles animate the din. However, it gets serious when contestants of color appear. They're representing. Don't embarrass us.

Height, complexion, dress, diction, even the school they represent are dissected in between the shouting out of those questions (with varying degrees of success). We burst with pride or shrink with disappointment as the contestant's fortunes rise or fall.

So, it was with some dismay that we learned three white 20-somethings in a college championship round on Jeopardy last week avoided the "African American History" category until the very end. They instead opted first to tackle esoteric entries such as "Kiwi Fauna" and "Weather Verbs" over their own country's past, leaving the black category untouched until it was the only option left.

What's worse, the three college students got two of the five questions wrong, flubbing answers about the Scottsboro Boys (nine black teens falsely accused of gang raping two white girls in 1931) and the state from which the U.S. military's first African American unit of free men came (Rhode Island).

Black folk took to Facebook to express their collective angst and outrage over the lack of knowledge — read "interest" — during Black History Month, our annual tribute to Blackness, no less.

Some may argue the angst has merit.

In Kiwi Fauna, these semi-finalists were asked about native New Zealand frogs who skip a larval stage, going directly from egg to adult — not exactly common knowledge. But in the African American History category, they were thrown a softball most middle schoolers could knee-jerk: "In August 2013 bells rang out across the nation to mark the 50th Anniversary of his 'I have a dream' speech.'"

Are we being too sensitive? Possibly, yes. However, asking who said "I have a dream?" to a group of college students is like asking Joe Six-pack "What's 'less filling, but tastes great?'"

With all that has happened and continues to happen to us, as black Americans, we're vested in seeing ourselves in a positive light. Getting a question right among cigar shop peers is neat. It garners a knowing nod, a fist-bump — that "attaboy" we all can use.

This week on Facebook, I joined the fray, writing that "The embarrassing question is not whether a white millennial w/o children knew the answers — it's whether we, black American parents, knew the answers, or more importantly shared these q/a with our children, explaining to them why it's important 'they' know."

Twenty or 30 years ago, Black American History was hard to find. Historically, black scholars collected it all, published it on local presses, and lectured on it in dusty classrooms in historically black colleges, many in the South.

The Internet has opened up volumes of historical text too expensive to reprint. Black History Month should be viewed to be as much about "introducing" as "re-acquainting" old and young generations of all colors to the vast collection of historical knowledge compiled throughout this country — without having to matriculate to a college campus.

The "Jeopardy" episode showed that college does not exactly a black scholar make. It sparked a conversation, maybe for the wrong reasons — a conversation we should have been having already.

From middle-aged men in a cigar shop to mothers posting on Facebook, Black History Month is about education and conversation. Good or bad. Doesn't matter. What matters is: We all learn.

Johnny Slaughter is a veterinarian; author of the memoir "Brother In The Bush: An African American's Search for Self in East Africa" (Agate Bolden, 2005); and a graduate of Tuskegee Institute, where he participated in the first Black College Quiz: Tuskegee vs. Fisk University, hosted by Nipsey Russell, in 1981. His email is slaughterdvm@gmail.com. Twitter: @DrJohnnyDVM.

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