When are Iowa students old enough to read books?

Gerald Ott of Ankeny was a high school English teacher and for 30 years a school improvement consultant for the Iowa State Education Association. Top photo of Ta-Nehisi Coates speaking at Oregon State University on February 2, 2017 is by Theresa Hogue, available via Wikimedia Commons.

Steve Corbin made a solid point his latest column (published in Bleeding Heartland and later in the Cedar Rapids Gazette): “Many of today’s GOP-oriented governors and legislators, far rightwing groups, conservative media and Republican presidential candidates have either passed or supported book banning, anti-LGBTQIA and laws prohibiting teaching about racism.” 

“It’s a blatant attack on … the rights of students, parents, teachers, general public and book authors,” wrote Corbin. 

Corbin’s point is well-taken, and others have said the same, but action or litigation to blunt the attack is nonexistent. Where are the fair-minded parents, politicians, students, teachers, et al whose outrage could demand instructional integrity and curtail naive book bans? 

Too bad for our country’s youth, too bad for our nation’s collective recollection of unsettling truths about our past, and too bad for educators whose professional judgement is undermined—by removing books such as the renowned Between the World and Me, a nonfiction classic by American author Ta-Nehisi Coates (excerpted in The Atlantic Magazine in July 2015).

Coates crafts his book as a letter to his then-15-year old son, writing, “I have sought the answer (to the question of racism) through my reading and writings, through the music of my youth, through arguments with your grandfather, with your mother. I have searched for answers in nationalist myth, in classrooms, out on the streets, and on other continents.”

The question, says Coates, “is unanswerable, which is not to say futile. The greatest reward of this constant interrogation, of confrontation with the brutality of my country, is that it has freed me from ghosts and myths.” 

The New York Times reviewer Michelle Alexander wishes Coates had more answers. She says, “I believe we could only benefit from hearing what answers Coates may have fashioned for himself. Whether you (would) agree or disagree, one of the great joys of reading Ta-Nehisi Coates is being challenged in ways you didn’t expect or imagine.” 

When is an Iowa high school student ready to take up Coates’ challenges?

HBO turned Coates’ book into a 2020 film starring Yara Shahidi, whose role gave her a chance to portray an awakening. "I'm a teenage girl who's coming of age in a time in which she is aware of the slanted and unfair portrayals of the civil rights movement," Shahidi says. "You see (my character) coming to another level of awareness through her introduction to Malcolm X." Here's the trailer for the film, which can be rented through Amazon. There's also a podcast version.

When is an Iowa high school student ready for such an “awakening”? According to our state's Republican leaders, never.

Governor Kim Reynolds and her allies would consider works by Coates (and many others) too harsh, too explicit, too disturbing for students’ tender eyes, even if they are in an AP English class for high school seniors nearly of voting age.

Last February, an AP English teacher in South Carolina was forced to halt a lesson on Coates’ book by school administrators, who claimed that the lesson violated state budget provisions.

South Carolina has enacted a law similar to Iowa's, which prohibits lessons that teach that "an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his race or sex" or "an individual, by virtue of his race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously."

This message is politically motivated, meant to deny youth a vicarious experience that could teach empathy (not guilt, as the right claims) for people who may have been denied justice. Teaching “empathy,” in Reynolds’ view, would be “indoctrination" likely turning teens into compassionate progressives.

That’s why the headline on a September 15 New York Times article—"Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson Calls on Nation to Remember Ugly Past Truths"—is so important. The newest U.S. Supreme Court justice was the keynote speaker at the 60th anniversary of the Ku Klux Klan bombing that killed four young girls at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Ketanji Brown Jackson is providing leadership in troubled times when she calls on us as a nation to remember past truths, even if ugly or disturbing.

I was a naïve college freshman the year of the Birmingham bombing. I remember the news coverage, but I do not recall mention of the tragedy in our school’s chapel services. I would have benefited from a critical reading of Coates.

  • High school kids need to read challenging books, preferably in a class under the tutelage of a qualified teacher.

    I am becoming a fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates. As you might guess, a Black writer who is as direct and elegant as Coates has his critics, some saying he’s a Black Nationalist, others sending death threats.

    Iowa’s mostly white student body should be challenged. As Atticus said to his daughter: "First of all, if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

  • the arts won't save us, only direct actions and overt solidarity will

    Iowa Repuglicans deny that there is any institutional/structural racism in our nation and in particular in our state and most of our press report this by telling us that "so & so says" and then leave the issue at that. Just once I'd like to see a reporter confront them with the fact that either all of the enduring gaps (from education to lifespan) between races/ethnicities are the results of slanted systems or there is some racial superiority at work, so which of these represent their governing philosophy?
    We need to ask more of "public" platforms like IPR and IowaPBS and see if there are enough folks out there who can do more then revel in their empathy (or start yet another white fragility book club) and start voting (with their ballots and their dollars) for those who actively side with a multi-racial/ethnic democracy and against those who refuse to fight for it. Is this too much to ask of Iowa Liberals? time will tell...

    • GOTV

      I’m all for getting folks to the polls. Thank you for your comment.

      • Collective Responsibility isn't the same as (nor dependent on) individual guilt or empathy.

        hi iowagerry, glad yer starting to read Coates' work, unlike Atticus (well H.L.) TNC is focused on political-economy and not the feelings of White folks, he is most well known in his own community (and around the world) for his calls for Reparations, he isn't invested in (certainly isn't betting on) White empathy but on White responsibility as the majority of citizens of a country that owes his people (and other exploited/massacred minorities) real goods and services due to their collective/governmental actions past and present.

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