We are accustomed to Black people demonstrating expert athletic skills in mainstream media, but intellectual prowess seems to be downplayed and completely missing from the daily news hour. Every once in awhile shining stars pierce the veil to reveal some brainy titans in spite of the tremendous odds against them. The purpose of this post will be to highlight books about champions of chess and spelling bees. The list also includes a chess game for those who want try their hand at it.
Black People in Spelling Bees, and Playing Chess
The origin of chess can be traced back to Africa. There are Ancient Egyptian papyrus depicting early versions of the game as well as original wooden boards with pawns on display at the British Museum in the King Tutankhamen exhibit. The early name of the game was called "senet." The game board had 3 columns and 10 rows to make a 30 square grid. Though there are claims of similar games in other parts of the world, they do not predate those found in Africa. In Ethiopia, there is a game that’s very close to chess as we know it today called "senterej." Most of the pieces look the same as modern day chess except an elephant is substituted for the bishop. The game board is a 64 grid square and all of the movements are the same for the most part. The Emperor Menelik II and Queen Taitu who reigned in Ethiopia in the 1800’s, are said to have enjoyed the game. When I think of the mighty African king Hannibal's, use of the elephant to protect him in battle, it is quite fitting to have this reflected in a board game. There's an African proverb from Sierra Leone that says, "An orange never bears a lime." To be able to identify the tree by the fruit it bears is empowering. Knowing that placement of the elephant on the chess board is linked with its use in battle is a powerful connection that fortifies our heritage. Of course, the next question is when and why the bishop was substituted for the elephant; but this is worth researching separately.
The late great scholar and psychologist Dr. Frances Cress Welsing mentioned the practical application of lessons from the game of chess as an analogy to how African people should understand and strategically move in response to racism-white supremacy. Her discussion of these analogies is worth considering and can be listened to in a Youtube video interview of Welsing by Listervelt Middleton called, “ Welsing on FTP-Part2A: Checkmating the Black King ." She points out the symbolism behind why the white side always goes first when starting the game. Welsing's deep insights deserve pause, reflection and continued discussion on this complex topic.
Chess is a highly competitive sport that can become extremely complex. I remember my older brother playing chess with boards on three separate levels. Considering the history behind the game, hopefully there will be more winners of African ancestry like America’s youngest winner, 10 year old Tanitoluwa Adewum. He has a new book out called, “My Name Is Tani” which comes in three different age levels with a slightly different title. Here’s a recent interview with him on ABC News .
This book list also includes a female 13 year old prodigy from Uganda named Phiona Mutesi who won Uganda’s national chess championship in 2010. The film “The Queen of Katwe” showcased her story which starred Lupita N’yongo. The coach in her story was named Robert Katembe. He initiated chess in her war torn village for the youth. His book is called, “A Knight Without a Castle: A Story of Resilience and Hope,” and was awarded support in part from The Obama Foundation for his work in the village.
When Zaila Avant-garde won the Scripps National Spelling Bee championship this month, social media was a buzz (pun intended). When I watched a video of the win and heard the word she had to spell, I thought to myself, “is that a word?” I quickly checked the online dictionary and it wasn’t listed. Plus, when the announcer said the word, he made it sound like “mer-ree-a.” Listen for yourself on the video footage on the Scripps National Spelling Bee Youtube channel. Since the word describes a tropical green shrub named after Johan Andreas Murray, that explains why it sounded like it would if just pronouncing that last name. Quite a tricky word to have to know to then spell it with a ‘u.’ This is a smart girl aged 14 who was actually homeschooled in Louisiana. Congratulations Ms. Zaila! For those parents inspired by her story, there are other books on spelling bees that feature black children featured on this list, and a DVD we can order for you from the wonderful film called, “Akeelah and the Bee” released in 2006.
Blog Post "Chess Originated in Africa"
As always, I appreciate that you have read through this blog post. I hope that you’ve become curious to seek out books about Black people playing chess and winning spelling bees. We ask that you consider purchasing your books from our Black owned business, Afriware Books, Co. If there is a title you’d like to purchase that is not mentioned here, or could not be found on the website, feel free to email us at: email@example.com
 Face-off: King Tut’s Senet Board ‘v’ Lewis Chessmen
 Senterej – Ethiopian chess with a flying start
By Dr. René Gralla, Hamburg/Germany