Stressing the facts at Black Saga finals

Intense competition teaches kids history and how to keep their cool


A team from Patuxent Valley Middle School in Howard County won the statewide Black Saga Competition in African-American history yesterday, ending a sudden-death playoff by correctly naming the jazz guitarist who worked with Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk to create bebop.

The answer was Charlie Christian. The winners were the cool, experienced eighth-grade team of Whitney Dixon, Bilal Khalid and Ben Jordon. Their final answer, capping a come-from-behind win, sent their less-collected parents leaping from folding chairs and into pandemonium on the floor of a Towson University gymnasium, where the trivia contest was held.

"I was feeling a little bit nervous because we got second place last year," Whitney said afterward, clutching a trophy, two African-American history books and a large, fake check for $300 (her actual cash prize will be double that) for her efforts. "I knew it could be done."

The middle school win, over Howard County rival Folly Quarter, came after a nail-biting, seven-question playoff for the elementary school title. The statewide winners in that division -- fifth-grader Tacara Elliott and fourth-graders Morgan Prioleau and Olu Omonijo -- came from Church Lane Elementary Technology School in Baltimore County. They won by correctly answering that Oliver Lewis was the first black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby, in 1875 astride the horse Aristides.

"My heart was racing, and I thought I was going to cry," Tacara said afterward about how she felt as the playoff progressed.

Her jitters seemed surpassed only by Morgan's parents, who groaned and nervously shifted in their front-row seats each time Church Lane and a rival team from Cromwell Valley Elementary failed to best the other.

"I've been in law enforcement for more than 20 years, but I don't think I've ever been in a more pressurized situation than watching Morgan compete," said Gregory Prioleau, a member of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police. He videotaped the finals, forgetting his camera when he jumped into the air and then hugged his wife, Desiree, after competition founder Charles M. Christian announced the winner.

The competition has become serious business since Christian held the first one in 1992, based on his book Black Saga: The African American Experience. About 450 students from about 80 schools signed up for yesterday's state finals after working their way through local and regional competitions.

Christian, a Coppin State University professor, hopes the competition will grow into a national one. Yesterday, he said he has visited with school officials in Northern Virginia and mental health professionals in Connecticut to promote the competition.

"You can see the composure on the stage," Christian said, noting the teams -- many of which were multiracial -- are likely to push for better African-American history courses at their schools. "These kids know their stuff. They're confident. They don't feel any shame. They don't feel any uneasiness."

The Patuxent Valley team adopted a systematic approach to win. Each member took 280 questions to memorize, quizzed one another in practice sessions during school two or three times a week and crammed on their own.

Whitney, 14, read the questions and their answers into a tape recorder she played back for herself, even listening as she fell asleep at night.

Bilal, 13, drilled up to three hours a day as the competition neared with his mother, Tiju Khalid. Ben, 13, was on a number of previous Black Saga teams before joining Bilal and Whitney last year.

Their teacher and Saga Competition coordinator, Judith Cephas, has helped train nine teams, all of which she said have placed in the top three.

"Hard work gets you everywhere," Bilal said about what the contest taught him.

"Perseverance," Ben said about what he had learned.

"I think it's important to learn different cultures' history," said Whitney, who is African-American, as she sat next to Bilal, who is of Indian descent, and Ben, who is white. "I think everyone should learn."

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