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Iowa students, like students across the nation, struggle to make sense of their nation's history. It is a story of high ideals and hypocrisy, democracy and human exploitation, the rule of law and racial violence. It is not all good; it is not all bad. But one of Iowa's state legislators does not trust teachers, scholar and most importantly our children with that complex history.
House File 222, sponsored by Rep. Skyler Wheeler, seeks to forbid the use of the New York Times' 1619 Project in any state school curriculum, from kindergarten through Iowa's college classrooms.
What is the 1619 Project and why has it become the target of Wheeler's wrath? The Times, under the editorial guidance of Waterloo-born staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, launched a digital and print project exploring 1619 - the date that enslaved African people were first brought to America's British colonies - as central to the nation's founding history. The Times asserted that 400 years later, Americans have an opportunity to consider what race-based slavery has meant and continues to mean for our nation. As the contributors to the project argued, many of us have not yet come to terms with this history. We do not fully understand what race-based slavery meant for the colonies or the nation they became. Most Americans are unfamiliar with the human story of enslavement, of surviving and resisting the torture, the relentless exploitation, the threat of sale and separation. Nor do we fully understand how the laws, practices and profits associated with race-based slavery linger in our lives today. Wheeler offers a good example of what it means not to wrestle with this past when he argues that racism must be insignificant since we elected a Black president in 2008. The 1619 Project successfully brought these issues to readers, drawing on the best of recent historical scholarship on the subject.
Why does Wheeler want to block our children and young adults from accessing the lessons of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project? Wheeler has argued that the project is full of historical inaccuracies, but his examples are almost all wrong. He argues that innumerable historians condemn the project. This, too, is untrue: a small handful disputed interpretive points, but most historians have responded with constructive debate and discussion. This, after all, is what historians do: we consider past events from different perspectives in our efforts to gain the fullest possible understanding of the past.
Supporters of HF 222 underestimate Iowans. Wheeler apparently does not trust our teachers, who have sacrificed so much to continue serving our children during the pandemic. But most egregiously: Rep. Wheeler does not trust Iowa learners, be they fifth-graders or college students. He does not think Iowans are capable of grappling with this complicated history. Instead, he fears that acknowledging that history would undermine any other lesson to be learned from the history of our nation. And he misses perhaps the most important lesson: learning from this history will help us to shape a better future.
For nearly 30 years I have taught a history course on slavery in the U.S., and I have news for Rep. Wheeler and his supporters: every year, my students express anger that they have not been trusted with this material before coming to college. They are angry that some adults don't trust their ability to engage with complicated histories. Iowa students know that this history is important. They want to explore it, engage with it and think about what it means - not only for the past, but for the future.
Let's give young Iowans their due. Let's recognize their intelligence, and let's help them to pave the way for a better future. The Iowa House should reject HF 222.
Leslie Schwalm is professor of history and gender, women's and sexuality studies at the University of Iowa. She has written extensively on the history of slavery and emancipation, including her exploration of those topics in the upper Midwest in 'Emancipation's Diaspora: Race and Reconstruction in the Upper Midwest” (2009).