Want a 'dialogue on race'? It's happening

Baltimore Sun

National leaders including President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Eric H. Holder have recently called for a "dialogue on race" in America. Such a conversation is no doubt needed, but it should be noted that for more than 15 years, thousands of Maryland elementary and middle school students participating in the Black Saga Competition have been gaining knowledge and perspective about African-American history that allow them to discuss and reflect on issues about race.

The Black Saga Competition is not just about black America. It is about the African-American experience in American history, something that affects us all. It's about an inclusive American history that follows the tradition of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black History Month. Woodson said: "We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, racial hate, and religious prejudice." The conversations on race among students in the Black Saga Competition underscore Woodson's belief.

Black Saga has become known for academic excellence, teamwork, cultural enrichment, teaching life skills and community building. It has also become an award-winning learning activity, one in which competition and conversations about race go hand in hand. For instance, many of the teams in the competition are racially and ethnically diverse. The bonding that goes on among these students and families, although peripheral to the competition, become part of the community building process that is healthy for schools and communities.

To take one example: In Baltimore County, three girls who had been members of winning teams at their elementary school there - and who are now members of winning teams at a middle school - are returning to their elementary school every Friday and helping to coach the Black Saga Competition teams there because their teacher-coach retired. They want these elementary students to gain the same knowledge, perspective and experience they did in the Black Saga Competition.

In another instance, an African-American family met regularly on Saturday with a nonblack family to help their children study for Black Saga. Numerous discussions arose when both families and team members sought clarity and background for difficult questions related to race. These two families say that their discussions were far more valuable - and considerably less intimidating - because they arose in the context of studying with their children for the competition.

You can't have a meaningful dialogue on race if you don't know much about the African-American experience. I strongly believe that the experiences of thousands of elementary and middle school students in the Black Saga Competition over the years continue to provide some of the most genuine conversations on race.

These young people are having a dialogue about race and related issues every day. Maybe they can show the rest of us the way.

Charles M. Christian, founder and director of the Black Saga Competition, is a Distinguished Professor at Coppin State University and author of "Black Saga: A Chronology of the African American Experience." His e-mail is cchristian@cop pin.edu.

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