Feb. 24 2014 05:44 PM

Game-show contestants save the hardest category for last

Aaryn Belfer

    Since nobody in their depraved CityBeat-reading mind watches Jeopardy!, I'm going to guess that you missed this year's College Championship tournament and all the excitement that ensued. And, oh, how chilling it was, my friends. Like the talons of a gnarled claw being dragged in slow motion across a 3-mile long chalkboard, the second round of one particular episode offered what has to be the most uncomfortable, awkward and socially illuminating moment in the long history of a show that, by definition, invites lots of discomfort and awkwardness. (The jury's out on overall illumination.)

    Last Monday, three of America's whitest and brightest faced off for cash to pay down the educational debt they're accruing alongside so many useless facts. Knowing the name of the guy from the Old Testament who ripped the gates off the city of Gaza, then lugged them up a hill on his back is impressive on trivia night. But it was during the second round where things really got rocking. The topics were: Thomas, Write?; Weather Verbs; International Cinema Showcase; Talk Nerdy to Me; Kiwi Fauna; and African American History.

    You have to know where this is going.

    There they were, Laurie, Whitney and Tucker Pope (I'm not making that up) behind their podiums, each exhibiting the trademark joystick twitch, and barreling through category after category. They nailed Weather Verbs. And Kiwi Fauna, too, expertly dispatching the clues about bats and tadpoles and colonies, leaving behind a giant glowing blue wall of nothingness—except for one full category lurking conspicuously over there on the far right. 

    Perhaps sensing imminent danger, African American History had smartly removed its hoodie so as to be plainly visible and less threatening. But it was blaring its relentless Jeopardy! theme song and throwing an increasingly disrespectful side-eye at the three nervous contestants, Alex Trebek and everyone else in America. I dare you to come at me, it seemed to be saying. It definitely instigated. 

    With no choice but to confront, Tucker Pope went for it, and he must have been super-relieved when the first—and, at $400, the cheapest—clue included reference to a certain someone's "I Have a Dream" speech. How predictable was that? Martin Luther King Jr. The one black historical figure that every single American school manages to talk about at some point during K through 12. Heckuva job, education system. Heckuva job.

    Emboldened, the contestants plowed forward. African American History for $800.

    In 1976, Clarence Norris, the last member of these "boys," was pardoned in Alabama for a 1931 rape conviction. Here, all three kids stood *blinking* *blinking* until—at the boop-boop-boop of the buzzer—Trebek filled the gaping silence with the answer (The Scottsboro Boys) and forgave their lack of knowledge. "Way before your time," he consoled. Sort of like Dr. King and Old Testament stuff, if you ask me. Perhaps a more contemporary, Belfer-style clue would allow the coeds' little lights to shine:

    African American History for $10,000: This teenagerwas gunned down in Florida without any convictionof his killer. The contestants shifted nervously on their feet before Trebek gave each a pat on the head and acknowledged that, yes, this multi-part answer was unfair.  

    Hmmm. African American History for $30,000: This child's murder in 1955—the trial for which resulted in acquittals for both defendants after only 67 minutes of deliberation—was a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement. Uh—blinkfest and Trebek again with the before-your-time schtick.

    Finally, the $64,000 question: This is the measure of how far we've come since 1955. All three contestants buzzed in, joyous to have this one in the bag, cited Barack Obama (in unison), and Trebek gave them blonde American Girl Dolls as consolation prizes.

    Yeah, my version of Jeopardy! College Championship doesn't mess.

    People. We know down under, but we don't know black history? (I don't use "African-American." Too PC for me. In a recent accidental viewing of the TMZ channel, a "reporter" mentioned that 2013 had been a "great year for African-American history in film." And he didn't take a breath before naming the film Mandela as an example. That guy wouldn't do so well on Jeopardy!, either.) "In other words," as Lindy West of Jezebel put it, "these kids were more confident in their knowledge of weird animals in New Zealand than black human beings in America."

    So it goes. So it goes.

    To be fair, most kids—of all ages, regardless of color—don't know much about black history mostly because nobody is teaching it to them. Teachers are about as comfortable talking about it as they are revealing their true feelings about the common core (that will be another column). Plus, there's the all-important math and English to cram in. When I inquired as to what was being done for Black History Month at my daughter's school, I got the we-covered-MLKJ-at-his-birthday platitude. I don't even begin to have the energy to fight that sad-ass battle. 

    Of course, like many black families, I teach it at home as best I can, but I'd love all children to be getting it and getting comfortable with it. That is really the only way we won't end up with more generations of Lauries and Whitneys and Tucker Popes who can't be held responsible for not knowing stuff that came before their time. I'm sure they're all very nice people and will be great conversationalists when talking about larvae at a cocktail party. But I'd like to hope for more. 

    Email Aaryn Belfer. Aaryn blogs at aarynbelfer.com and you can follow her on Twitter @aarynb.


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