Scott Woods: Jeopardy! Proves You Don’t Have to Ban Black Studies

Even contestants on the country’s top quiz show can’t answer basic questions about Black history and culture.

Scott Woods
Columbus Monthly
Host Mayim Bialik behind the Jeopardy! podium

You know what the hardest questions are on Jeopardy!, the ones that most consistently stump contestants? The Black history questions. Case in point: This clue under the category of “Study: Guides”: “From 1936 to 1967 this ‘colorful’ guide aided African Americans in traveling safely during segregation.”

For those who didn’t see the episode, the contestant who picked this clue got it wrong. This is an easy layup as Jeopardy! questions go, Black or otherwise. All you have to do is name the right color, and no, it isn’t “black.” You can safely assume it’s going to be a basic color, and the “colorful” signifier suggests the answer isn’t black. Anyhow, if you watched the HBO series Lovecraft Country or remember the Best Picture winner at the Oscars from four years ago, you’d have easily nailed “Green Book.” Me? I came by the answer honestly: Black folks have talked about Green Books my entire life. It’s one of those things you pick up as a Black person about your history because schools barely teach Black history. 

That said, the player’s error is a travesty but a completely unsurprising one.  

Black Jeopardy! clues are almost never particularly hard. Half of them can be answered by the average Black person who never attended college. I was expelled from one college and dropped out of another and still get all of the Black questions right. We’re not dealing with collegiate Black studies canon here. 

Jeopardy! taps some areas of Black history so consistently that any training regimen for the show should include heaping spoonfuls (but just) of the Harlem Renaissance, the top 5 most popular Black poets in America, and a random music reference that will likely end up being either Aretha Franklin or Dizzy Gillespie. The questions are almost always surface level, regardless of where they fall on the board, and they are overwhelmingly answered incorrectly or not at all. It’s not a coincidence that Black questions are stumpers. Black history is pretty far down the list of American discourse. And that’s true because there is no perceived benefit to knowing Black history. 

Which is why the recent flare-ups about banning the teaching of Black history in schools is so odd. Schools already don’t teach it. You can graduate from the best high schools in the country, enroll in the best universities in the world, battle the gauntlet of weaponized intellect that is a Jeopardy! casting call, and still not know who Duke Ellington is. Don’t even get me started on the two years we wasted debating critical race theory in public, which, as predicted, was nothing more than a Republican feint for deeper, more insidious legislative maneuvers.

I don’t know why folks are so scared of any infusion of Black history into, well, anything. If America’s brightest minds can’t answer basic Black history questions, the country’s in no danger of being overrun by whatever it is folks think an association with Black history might accomplish. Black folks know all of this stuff, and we haven’t been climbing the walls of the Capitol armed with our copious amounts of trivia. History can’t hurt you, but erasing it only foments ignorance and hate. I’ll know we’ve made racial progress in this country when the contestants on Jeopardy! actually start getting Black history questions right.

Scott Woods

As I type this, Jeopardy! Is on in the background. It is the first round. An answer requiring a question is asked, and none of the players even attempt an answer. The Black Jeopardy! clue has struck again! For the record, the answer is “Who is the RZA?” and yes, this is also a gimme. And I’d worry about spoiling that for someone, but you can’t spoil what you see no value in knowing.

Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild.