Staff Columnist

Iowa House bill would put a fresh coat of whitewash on history

FILE - In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, supporters of President Donald Trump are confronted by U.S. Capitol Police offi
FILE - In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, supporters of President Donald Trump are confronted by U.S. Capitol Police officers outside the Senate Chamber inside the Capitol in Washington. Both within and outside the walls of the Capitol, banners and symbols of white supremacy and anti-government extremism were displayed as an insurrectionist mob swarmed the U.S. Capitol. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

In the opening paragraphs of her Pulitzer Prize-winning essay commencing The New York Times’ 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones describes how her father always flew a pristine American flag outside of their home in Waterloo.

“Our corner lot, which had been redlined by the federal government, was along the river that divided the Black side from the white side of our Iowa town. At the edge of our lawn, high on an aluminum pole, soared the flag, which my dad would replace as soon as it showed the slightest tatter,” Hannah-Jones wrote.

Her father’s family worked as sharecroppers in Jim Crow Mississippi, where Black Americans risked their safety just by living their daily lives. They came north hoping to escape danger and discrimination, but found, as Hannah-Jones writes, “Jim Crow did not end at the Mason-Dixon Line.”

The family struggled. Her father joined the military and found crushing discrimination there, too. So after all that, Hannah-Jones couldn’t understand why her father flew that flag. How could he be patriotic after all he endured?

“Like most young people, I thought I understood so much, when in fact I understood so little. My father knew exactly what he was doing when he raised that flag. He knew that our people’s contributions to building the richest and most powerful nation in the world were indelible, that the United States simply would not exist without us,” Hannah-Jones wrote in her August 2019 essay.

The ambitious “1619 Project,” places Black Americans at the center of our American story, while seeking to tell hard truths about the fundamental role slavery, shameful discrimination and white supremacy have played in America’s history. It scrubs the whitewash from our national narrative, boldly reframing the history of great white men we were taught in school.

Not surprisingly, the project has been controversial. It’s drawn both high praise and sharp criticism. Myth-busting tends to make us uncomfortable.

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It’s certainly not the last word on American history. But it’s sparked important, difficult conversations. The kind you’d like to see in a classroom, especially now as racial injustice and systemic racism are front-burner issues in the United State.

So, naturally, an Iowa state lawmaker wants to ban the 1619 Project from Iowa classrooms.

Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, is the sponsor of House File 222 which bans schools, community colleges and state universities from using “any United States history curriculum that in whole or in part is derived” from the 1619 Project. Institutions that do so lose a portion of their state funding.

Wheeler’s bill argues the project “attempts to deny or obfuscate the fundamental principles on which the United States was founded.” The measure seeks to promote “an accurate account of this nation’s history through public schools and forming young people into knowledgeable and patriotic citizens.”

Wheeler is apparently afraid that Iowa students might learn how much sustaining the institution of slavery motivated our nation’s founders and how they shaped our republic. Or how Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, also favored efforts to convince freed Blacks to leave the country. Or how the promise of reconstruction was smashed by white terrorism, creating a society where Black Americans were treated as less than human to justify persecution.

Instead of banishing these lessons from classrooms, we should aspire to face the unflinching truths of our history and learn its lessons. And actually living such an aspiration should make us far prouder of our country than any golden star spangled myth. We should look reality in the eye, not act like some authoritarian regime that edits history and compels patriotism.

We do have a history problem. But Republicans such as Wheeler really should start with the folks who wore Camp Auschwitz T-shirts and carried confederate battle flags into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 with hopes of capturing or even killing members of Congress. It’s his party, steeped in conspiracy theories, that doesn’t want to punish a historically reckless president who lit the fuse on an insurrection.

What are the kids learning from that, Rep. Wheeler?

But to guys like Wheeler, the persecution of conservatives is the real problem. Wheeler recently voted in favor of a bill that would add “political ideology” to the protected classes covered by the Iowa Civil Rights Code.

Conservatives control the Legislature and the governor’s office and GOP appointees fill the courts. But they’re being silenced by the “cancel culture.”

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“It’s really disturbing. They want to shout you down if you have the wrong views or the wrong viewpoints. We’ve seen people get censored,” Wheeler said, according to the Des Moines Register.

And yet, here’s Wheeler, seeking to cancel the 1619 project.

The good news is politicians like Wheeler always fail at the suppression game. Great scholarship on our history is out there, and the kids will find it.

They may even find a sense patriotism, and it won’t be the cheap, fake, whitewashed brand Wheeler is selling.

(319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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