African-American History in a Game
The Evolution of Bid Whist, by Ronald L. Allen is a guide to the classically American game, as well as an exploration of its roots, how it has changed, and its connections to American history. Bid Whist probably originated with enslaved people, sometime in the mid 19th century, and has endured and adapted as the country has. As Allen points out,
“Bid Whist started near the end of slavery and traveled with African American soldiers in every military engagement since the Civil War. The game of Bid Whist has lasted through the Industrial Revolution, The Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, and the struggle for Gay Rights. Since Bid Whist began, the mode of transportation has gone from horses to cars, to trains, to airplanes and space travel.”
What is Bid Whist?
Bid Whist is 4 player partnership trick-taking card game that was almost certainly devised by enslaved African Americans by combining elements of whist and bridge. It involves complex bidding and scoring and requires the mental acuity and strategic thinking of bridge. It has several variants, some of which are location-based. Bid Whist aficionados in the Northeastern U.S. may play a slightly different version than those in the South.
Preserving Bid Whist’s Roots
With the advent of the Internet, the game formerly known as “Black Bridge” has gained fans all over the world. While the author applauds the game’s growing popularity, he is also keenly aware of the need to preserve its history and to protect it from the appropriation that many forms of African American art and culture have experienced. In short, Allen is a lover of the game and he wants to make sure its roots and do not get lost as it becomes more popular outside of the African American community. He has spent years studying Bid Whist and has conducted extensive research, despite scant existing documents. He had to employ considerable detective work to unravel the history of Bid Whist’s evolution, including interviewing former Pullman porters now in their late 80s and 90s, reconstructing the ancestry of similar games, poring over personal diaries, and conducting surveys. The result is a truly comprehensive history of the game that follows the path of African Americans from slavery to the Great Migration, the Civil Rights era, and beyond.
Much More Than a Book About a Game
It may be hard to imagine a reviewer calling a book about a card game a ‘tour de force’ but this one is. The degree of scholarly research and passion that Allen put into its writing is evident, but he never allows the book to get bogged down in technical language or the minutiae of bidding or strategy. Instead, he invites the reader to accompany him as he unravels the mystery of Bid Whist: where did it come from, how is it connected to Black culture, and how has it changed as the African American communities it lived in changed? Anyone interested in American history, particularly the cultural history of little-known aspects of American life will find this book fascinating.
About the Author
Ron Allen is the retired founder of the A. Allen Insurance Agency Ltd. in Chicago, IL. Allen, a graduate of Chicago State University, was a former business education teacher with the Chicago Public Schools. Allen joined the Allstate Insurance Co. in 1967 and was one of Allstate’s first African American claim adjusters.
He is a lifetime member of the NAACP DuPage County Branch and was a founding member of the first Diversity Task Force at Wheaton North High School. He was formerly was the co-host of “The Financial Forum” radio show broadcast on WVON 1690AM in Chicago.
Allen’s new book, The Evolution of Bid Whist, is quickly becoming a definitive benchmark for Bid Whist players across the nation. Allen has been researching the origin of the game for several years, and was quite amazed to discover an extensive relationship between the game and the African American community dating back to the 1860’s.