September 27, 2013
School board relents: Invisible Man is “vulgar,” but it’s back on the shelves
by Kirsten Reach
Wednesday night, the Randolph County School Board reversed its ban on Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, just nine days after they had removed the book from school library shelves. The vote was six to one. Only board member Gary Mason deemed the book “not appropriate for young teenagers,” according to David Zucchino of the Los Angeles Times.
Mason also said he did not see any “literary value” in the text, though it won the National Book Award in 1953, was deemed one of the “Books That Shaped America” by the Library of Congress, and was listed as of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century by Time magazine.
Board member Matthew Lambeth voted to reverse the ban this week, saying he had now read the book twice and apologized for not consulting with teachers before casting his vote the first time around. “I felt like I came to a conclusion too quickly,” he said to Reuters. Another member of the board, Tracy Boyles, said he had a hard time explaining his vote for the ban to his twelve-year-old daughter.
The novel was banned last week after parent Kimiyutta Parson complained about the language, rape and incest, and even its depiction of one character’s “loss of innocence.” Juniors at Randleman High School were allowed to choose Ellison’s novel as part of a summer reading assignment, and Parson, the parent of a junior, wrote the board a twelve-page letter of protest. She pulled all of the juiciest passages out to support her case, which might explain why the nearest bookstore ran out of its ten copies fast.
The timing couldn’t be better, since this is the middle of Banned Books Week and we all needed something to do. The American Library Association, the PEN American Center, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the Kids’ Right to Read Project quickly campaigned for the school board to reverse its ban. Meanwhile Evan Rakoff Smith and Laura Miller convinced the book’s publisher, Vintage, to make one hundred copies free available for interested students.
“Banning any book, but especially a great American novel like Invisible Man, just doesn’t fit the values of the Randolph County I know,” Rakoff said in the Los Angeles Times. “The people of North Carolina want their children to have open, expansive minds.”
According to the Courier-Tribune, board members were provided copies of the book before their meeting on September 16. “I doubt the entire board read the book before they decided to ban it,” one reader wrote to the newspaper. “No worries. No surer way to elevate a book to the Must Read list of teen readers than to ban it.”
Books-A-Million reports other customers paid for copies in advance for any students who might need one. Two district teachers stood up for Ellison’s book at the board meeting on Wednesday, reminding board members that 21st century students can still relate to the sense of invisibility the novel’s narrator experiences as a black man in the segregated 1950s.
Board member Gary Cook told the Los Angeles Times, “We may have been hammered on this and we may have made a mistake, but at least we’re big enough to admit it.”
Julia Fleischaker contributed to this post.
Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.