Some students from Banneker Academic High School talked with me last week about the scheduled visit to their classes by a white South African school inspector. I expected them to be angry, but not because he didn't appear.
"I wanted him to come so we could put him under the spotlight," said Denise Miller, a ninth grader.
"How can so few whites suppress so many blacks?" asked her classmate Sabrina Mays.
"If it's okay for him to come here, why can't I go there?" asked Eric Diggs, also in ninth grade.
The questions poured forth and made me wonder whether Banneker had been mistaken in canceling the visit of Herbert Foxx, a regional school inspector for the Republic of South Africa, who is in America touring predominantly black public schools.
The case against the visit was made by the Rev. Charles Briody, Banneker's Latin teacher, in an open letter to the faculty that was accompanied by copies of the "Freedom Charter of South Africa," published by the United Nations Centre Against Apartheid. Briody urged that the invitation be withdrawn, saying, "It is the practice of many organizations in the U.S. to shun South African functionaries out of respect for a community sentiment of repugnance for the government of that country."
Last week, Briody was officially reprimanded by school Principal Mazie Wilson for "disrupting the educational process and impeding the free flow of ideas."
But Briody has received wide support from some community activists, as well as Washington representatives of the African National Congress, the premier black African liberation group, which has been banned in South Africa. As a result of the controversy, the D.C. school board is expected to consider a policy banning South African visitors from city schools.
Such a move rings hollow. The city has not passed a divestiture bill, and indeed, some leading black institutions, including some District churches, have portfolios that reflect business ties to South Africa.
The point is that now is not the time for knee-jerk responses. Most ninth graders at Banneker know more about what's going on in South Africa than many adults. Their appetites have been whetted. They want to know more and should be allowed to learn more.
The scheduled visit by Foxx prompted many teachers to alter their regular lessons to include lectures on life in South Africa. James Boyd, who teaches history, brought tears to the eyes of his students with a biography of Steven Biko, explaining that he was arrested and tortured, then placed naked and chained in the back of a jeep and driven around rocky roads until he died from head injuries, all in the name of freedom.
When word came of the South African's visit, Boyd called for a vote from his students. About half favored the visit and half were against it. But those against the visit said they simply did not want the South African to return home and tell blacks there he had been "warmly welcomed by blacks in the nation's capital."
But if there was some way to let him know how they felt and learn more about why white South Africans feel the way they do about blacks, they'd be eager to question him.
For his part, Briody should have been commended, not reprimanded, for raising the ethical question.
But it must be pointed out that Foxx also visited Stevens Elementary School and expressed "awe" at the level of performance of black students there, according to Principal Juanita Braddox.
"I didn't think my role was to deal with his politics," said Braddox, who is also a member of the NAACP International Committee and is familiar with issues on South Africa. "But I did feel he Foxx got a better understanding of what blacks can accomplish, given the opportunities and the tools."
But at issue here is not only the reaction of the South African visitor, but the reaction to him by the students, whose voices seem to have been lost. And when that happens, a piece of the future is lost no matter what country you're talking about.