WASHINGTON - Black History Month was never intended to make people uncomfortable - unless maybe they ought to be.
Nevertheless, despite the best of intentions, a misunderstanding of what the month is all about can lead sometimes to a whopper of an embarrassment.
That's sort of what happened recently at Connecticut's Suffield High School when a group of sociology students decided to hang posters around the school to promote April as "White History Month."
Shortly after they were nabbed, the five students explained to their upset principal, Thomas Jones, that, alas, it was all a misunderstanding, according to The Hartford Courant. The students had been assigned to "explore the effect of rumors." They decided the posters would be a real nifty way to do that. Needless to say, their experiment triggered a lot of rumors, especially in the school's small but understandably alarmed black student population.
The principal scolded the white students for their insensitivity and turned them over to a teacher who reportedly specializes in civil rights and cultural sensitivity issues. In this way, the school at large was able to turn the incident into what one school board official called a "teachable moment," an opportunity to educate both the offenders and the offended about differences in how the world looks through each other's eyes.
Good for them. No long-term harm done, I hope.
This particular high school poster flap is the most embarrassing incident related to Black History Month that I can recall since early 2001. That was when then-Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III revoked a proclamation declaring May to be "European Heritage and History Month." The governor had learned to his deep dismay that the request for the commemoration had come from a white separatist group headed by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Such an embarrassment.
But you don't need to be a Klansman, past or present, to ask "Why don't we have a White History Month?" I've heard that question quite a few times over the years. So have other black people I know.
Some of us have come up with a list of appropriate responses to it, such as:
1. "Because every month is white history month."
2. "Because white history has not been lost, stolen or suppressed over the years as much as black history has."
3. "Yo' mama!"
4. "History is taught so poorly in our schools these days that maybe we should have a White History Month."
5. "That's right. I said, 'Yo' mama'!!!"
Now, now. We should all try to manage our anger at such moments. Such encounters reveal precisely what Black History Month was intended to remedy: an ignorance about history - black and otherwise. That's why I oppose so-called political correctness. We need more dialogue, not less.
For example, when someone asks "Why is there a Black Entertainment Television network? Wouldn't all hell break loose if somebody started a White Entertainment Television?" simply respond, "There is. It is called ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox ... "
Such questions can be a departure point for cross-racial, cross-cultural dialogue - a teachable moment, in modern education-speak. After all, when the late black scholar Carter G. Woodson dreamed up what was then called Negro History Week in 1926, he too dreamed of the day when it no longer would be needed.
He imagined a day when every student's education would include such African-American figures as Crispus Attucks, who died in the Boston Massacre; Matthew A. Henson, who co-discovered the North Pole with Robert E. Peary; and Benjamin Banneker, the pioneer scientist who helped conduct the first survey of Washington.
It was important, Mr. Woodson believed, that African-Americans understand that we had more to our history than our victimization. In fact, there was a much greater all-American story to be told in how mightily many of our ancestors had triumphed despite adversity.
Mr. Woodson imagined a day when the contributions of people from various races, ethnicities and, for that matter, genders would be taught fairly and properly. Then Americans might move more swiftly toward a society in which such differences would no longer matter.
Unfortunately, history seems to be given such a low priority in today's schools that I sometimes wonder whether Mr. Woodson's dream day is slipping further away.
As a parent of a 14-year-old, it seems to me that the schools are teaching quite more black history than they did back when I was a kid, but they're teaching less overall history. The result is a deficit of knowledge about where we all have come from as Americans.
And, as the old saying goes, if you don't know where you came from, you're going to have a hard time figuring out where you're going.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.