Students from 52 Maryland schools are taking part in the Black Saga Competition, developed in 1992 by University of Maryland Prof. Charles Christian to teach African American history to elementary and middle school students. The students show off their newly gained knowledge in a series of academic competitions, culminating in the state finals next month. Christian, who teaches social geography and wrote a book titled "Black Saga -- The African American Experience," answered questions from staff writer Vikki Ortiz.

Q How did the Black Saga competition come about?

A The Black Saga competition came about when 29 young black boys came to the University of Maryland. I was asked to mentor them. I had stretched my imagination on what to offer them during their visit, and when everything was said and done, I still had time left over. I was writing "Black Saga," my book, at the time, and it seemed logical to pull from the book questions and answers pertaining to the African American experience and put it to the test before these young people.

They simply were excited -- ecstatic and noisy in answering questions. Many of them were responding to difficult questions, but recognizing that Mom and Dad had told them something about the African American experience.

Teachers were awed and surprised. The teachers were the encouragement. They knew their students better than anyone else, and . . . they began to say that this is transforming some of the students. For example, they would say: "Anthony, the only time he raises his hand is to be excused. Now we're seeing Anthony in this competition -- his hand is forever raised and he is yelling, screaming, wanting to answer the question."

We knew we had something then, and the teachers knew as well.

How does the competition work?

In October, teachers are sent a packet of material discussing, explaining and introducing them to the Black Saga Competition. They take that material and do a qualifying examination to determine the interest from students in learning this material. Parents also sign onboard with a signature . . . an indication that they're willing to help the students learn about this material on weekends, after school and in other venues.

Once they take the qualifying examinations, the students are put on teams. Those teams have an in-school competition, which I am generally the host of. We identify the winners (and they are all winners), but we identify the first-, second- and third-place teams who will then be invited to participate in the Maryland State Black Saga Competition.

Is the competition aimed at reaching mostly African American students?

No, it is not. We think the African American experience is a part of American history, and that simply means that everyone should study it and everybody should know about it.

Why wasn't anything like this in existence already?

It's new because of the way in which the African American experience has been made available to us. . . . A lot of research has taken place, and the nation has grown beyond the timidity associated with learning about the African American experience. At one point, somebody said it is kind of "in" to know something about the African American experience now. And because of that, I think the Black Saga Competition is going into many homes.

How far would you like to see this competition go?

It's apparent that we're going to be national within two years, not because we've designed it that way, but because we're being pulled in that direction.

CHARLES CHRISTIAN