School Board Votes to Ban Classic Novel From Libraries

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man

In another unfortunate instance of Morgan Reynolds Publishing’s home state of North Carolina making national news for doing something embarrassing and wrong-headed, last week the Randolph County school board made the decision, in a 5-2 vote, to remove Ralph Ellison’s classic novel Invisible Man from Randolph County libraries.

What prompted this move? It was a single complaint from an outraged parent, who in twelve page letter, complained that the book “is not so innocent; instead, this book is filthier, too much for teenagers.” The parent detailed many of the novel’s depictions of sex and rape, with little to no consideration of the context of those scenes, or what they mean to the novel and it’s depiction of a racially divided America.

Of course, credit must be given to this parent: she seems to at least have read the book. Or at least skimmed it. Randolph County’s school board members were given copies of the book in anticipation of voting on it, and when asked about whether or not they had read it, the only response came from Board Chair Tommy McDonald, who stated “It was a hard read.” Efforts to find out if the board members had read the book didn’t pan out, either: the school board’s attorney encouraged its members not to speak to the press regarding the decision about the book, or even answer the question of whether or not they read it.

Still, this didn’t stop school board member Gary Mason from stating, authoritatively, “I didn’t find any literary value.” Of course, some people might disagree; people such as the critics and scholars who selected Invisible Man for the National Book Award in 1953, or the Library of Congress, who named it one of “The Books That Shaped America,” or even the writers of the AP English Literature exam, who have included passages from Invisible Man on the AP exam thirteen times in the last fifteen years.

So the board voted to remove Invisible Man from Randolph County libraries. It should be noted here that two of the board members, Emily Coltrane and Todd Cutler voted against removing the book from libraries. But their five fellow school board members out voted them. There names are Tommy McDonald, Gary Mason, Gary Cook, Tracy Boyles, and Matthew Lambeth.

They may have expected this matter to be over and done, but in today’s internet era, when news can be spread from the smallest corners to the whole of the world in a matter of seconds, things don’t stay hidden long. So word of this decision got out, and spread around the world, warranting mention from dozens of news organizations such as the Huffington Post, National Public Radio, the Christian Science Monitor, and even getting a mention on Russian news sources.

So quickly, the Randolph County School board decided to hold another meeting, this Wednesday (the 25th of September), to reconsider their decision. How that meeting will go remains to be seen, but at the moment, it seems as though the school board is hastily trying to reverse course and cover up a major potential embarrassment.

I hope they do reverse their decision, but even if they do, it does not excuse the staggeringly stupid and arrogant action they initially took, and that action should not be forgotten. These people compromise a school board; they are responsible for determining the educational course of the children of their county, and yet they couldn’t read or properly comprehend one of the most well known and respected novels of the twentieth century. This is completely unacceptable, and even if they right their wrong after being nationally shamed, it is frankly unforgivable. Again, the names of the school board members who voted to remove Invisible Man from Randolph County Libraries are: Tommy McDonald, Gary Mason, Gary Cook, Tracy Boyles, and Matthew Lambeth.

Maybe I am being overly critical. Maybe these board members are just stealthily trying to direct kids’ attention to this literary classic. After all, what better advertisement for a work of art is there then that some cabal felt the need to hide it from innocent eyes? What better enticement to read something than “you are not allowed read this?”

"You know you're not supposed to go in there. What is your fascination with my forbidden closet of mystery?"

“You know you’re not supposed to go in there. What is your fascination with my forbidden closet of mystery?”

(For any young readers whose interest is piqued, free copies of Invisible Man are being made available.)

Coincidentally, this controversy has coincided with the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week. In this annual event, the ALA celebrates the freedom to read by examining all of the books that have frequently been challenged (and too often banned) throughout American history. (A Randleman High School student will also be holding her senior project, a banned book Read Out, Thursday. Her project was planned before the Invisible Man banning.) It is grim reminder that some people have always sought to suppress any knowledge or ideas they find objectionable or simply don’t understand. But it’s these challenging ideas and works that allow for meaningful discourse on complicated issues (such as racism and racial equality, subjects covered eloquently in Invisible Man), and allow society to change.

The national outrage that has come down on Randolph County’s school board is certainly heartening, but this is an issue that should never even have come up. The fact that there is still debate over whether or not certain books should be suppressed for the public’s perceived best interest is unacceptable.

Suppressing speech or art doesn’t protect a society, it stifles and ossifies it. It was works of art like Invisible Man and the protected freedom of expression of countless activists that spurred on the Civil Rights Movement and helped ensure the freedom of all Americans. By deciding that books with challenging ideas might be offensive and should be banned, and by believing that they have the authority to decide what is and isn’t appropriate for the public, what injustices are people like the Randolph County school board allowing?

-Josh Barrer

Associate Editor

To learn more about Invisible Man and the life of its author, please check out Ralph Ellison: Author of Invisible Man from your local library (ISBN# 978-1-931798-69-3) or order it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing.


UPDATE: The school board met again Wednesday (the 25th) and reversed their decision.  Invisible Man will again be available in Randolph County libraries. Only Gary Mason, the board member who claimed the book had “no literary value,” voted to uphold the ban.