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Milwaukee's own Blackistory app is a fun way to test yourself, stay up on Black history

Deborah Blanks
Courtesy of Deborah Blanks
Deborah Blanks with her son, Geraud.

Editor's Note: this story originally aired on April 13, 2022

A new app, created in Milwaukee, asks: Which renowned jazz saxophonist had the nickname “Bird?” Or, there’s this one: Which 2013 Supreme Court decision struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act, addressing discrimination in voting?

You can be quizzed on these topics and more on with the Blackistory app. It has questions about anything from the African diaspora to writing, acting and art.

The app is the brainchild of Milwaukeean Deborah Blanks. She championed it after inspiring her son Geraud, Milwaukee Film’s chief innovation officer, to start learning Black history as a kid decades ago.

Deborah and Geraud are also co-founders of Kairo Communications in Milwaukee. The business focuses on introducing Black culture and Black history into the community, and also looks at issues of racial equity and inclusion. And in their view, every day is an opportunity to celebrate Black history.

Deborah loves history, especially Black history. Her mother was a history teacher for a brief time and they lived on a Black college campus in Raleigh, North Carolina, because that’s where her dad worked. Her life was infused with Black culture.

Beginning several decades ago, she wanted to make sure her now-adult son valued it as well. “So, I came up with 500 history questions,” she recounts. “I would put them in a notebook, and he would take them to study hall in, I think it was, sixth and seventh grade, and study and come home every day. He was excited asking me to ask him questions."

Year after year, decade after decade, they would refine and add questions. This had a profound effect on Geraud.

"Over time I memorized hundreds and hundreds of questions. But here was the great thing though. It wasn't like, I was just memorizing questions and answers, I actually wanted to dig deeper,” he explains. “So, it was like if the question was who invented the cotton gin? Or who invented the traffic light? I wanted to know more about Eli Whitney ... or Garrett Morgan.”

What started off as a contest of sorts with himself, turned into a lifelong passion for Black History — and now, the Blackistory app.

Blackistory app
Screenshot of Blackistory app
The question categories in the Blackistory app.

So, how does the app work? WUWM digital producer Kobe Brown and I decided to try it out. He used his iPhone, I used my Android. We both downloaded the app: its icon is a beautiful bird in pan-African plumage — in red, black and green.

There are a couple different ways to use the app. You can practice, you can challenge the timer — so you’re playing against yourself, and you can play against someone else. It’s also multiple choice.

There are 10 categories: Africa, civil rights, community development, diaspora, government, individual achievements, equality, music and movement, quotations, and then writing, acting and art.

Kobe chooses government, and gets this question: “For his actions in which military mission did sailor Doris ‘Dorie’ Miller become the first African American to receive the Navy Cross?”

Kobe got four answer options: (1) the rescue of the 13th Cavalry and the years before World War I, (2) the Pearl Harbor attack of 1941, (3) the Battle of the Bunker Hill and the Revolutionary War, and then (4) the Battle of Gettysburg in the Civil War.

He used some deductive thinking to narrow down the answer: “I would think the Pearl Harbor attack just because the Battle of Gettysburg from my recollection, it didn't take place on water. We can cross that one out!”

We both laugh over his solid point.

Kobe also deduced that African American engagement in America’s wars solidified in World War II. Turns out Pearl Harbor was the right answer.

Maayan Silver's extended conversation with Deborah & Geraud Blanks.

Deborah Blanks developed the app with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's App Brewery. The Brewery partners student developers with community members and groups to create apps.

Deborah says one of the highlights is that people can also take quizzes on quotes. Some of the quotes are her favorite tidbits. “So, Frederick Douglass has this quote that I'll murder a little bit, but it basically says, 'we want to build up our youth so we don't have to repair old men.’”

The actual quote frequently attributed to Douglass is: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Although several bloggers, including a Dartmouth professor, have questioned whether Douglass said those words.

“And then the Carter G. Woodson one, 'If a person doesn't feel good about themselves again,' I'm paraphrasing," says Deborah, "'you don't have to ask them to go to the back door, their very nature will demand it.'"

Carter G. Woodson wrote in The Mis-Education of the Negro, "If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told; and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one.”

Geraud chimes in. “You kind of beat up all of those quotes ma, just to be honest," he laughs. "But the Carter G. Woodson one is one that I distinctly remember. I remember you saying that to me a number of times, and that was that one always stuck with me.”

Deborah says this makes the important point — it’s not about getting every answer exactly right, it’s about getting the essence. For her, "[That's] our pride in being who we are, our enthusiasm about sharing it, our understanding of the Black journey, the Black assets, the Black wisdom, as well as the Black struggle. For me, that’s Black history,” she says.

Deborah will also be adding 200 questions related to Wisconsin Black history to celebrate the history and accomplishments of Black people throughout the state.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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