Perhaps by now you’ve heard that the school board in Randolph County, North Carolina, voted last week to ban Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” from the county’s schools, after a parent wrote a letter objecting to the book’s presence on her son’s junior-year reading list.
This 61-year-old American classic, Ellison’s eloquent, aching account of the black man’s cultural isolation, was deemed filthy by Randolph County parent Kimiyutta Parson. With one mom’s sensibilities offended, the board voted by a 5-2 margin to remove all copies of the book from school libraries—and proclaim its ignorance for all the world to hear.
“I didn’t find any literary value,” board member Gary Mason said of the 1953 National Book Award winner.
Objecting to the language in the book, Mason said of one of Time magazine’s 100 best novels of the past century, “I’m for not allowing it to be available.”
You should know that this attack on enlightenment came just a week after the president of Ohio’s state school board described Toni Morrison’s breathtaking novel,”The Bluest Eye,” as “pornographic”—though she was kind enough to clarify that this was a personal opinion, not a board position.
After kicking up a firestorm of censure from across the globe, the Randolph County school board has called an emergency meeting tomorrow at 5 p.m. in Asheboro “for the purpose of reconsidering the status of the book entitled ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison,” according to the board announcement.
In 2013, it feels almost comically boneheaded and ignorant to imagine that school boards are still at this book-banning nonsense. One is tempted to dismiss it as some horribly ill-conceived and misguided backwoods ridiculousness—Hey Randolph County, 1973 called and said it wants its culture wars back!
But on second thought I realize this is ignorance that serves a purpose: It reminds us that the enemies are still out there among us, doing their dirty work below the surface, quietly corrupting young minds, surreptitiously poisoning potential, slowly shutting down hope. So we should offer a thanks to the Randolph County school board for reminding us that we can never get complacent. Perhaps we should send a bouquet of roses to Ohio School Board President Debe Terhar for letting us know that the forces of darkness are still active in the lives of our children.
I’m not the first to point out that we live in the Information Age—the Internet puts just about every morsel of information from across the globe just beyond our fingertips, accessible to anyone with a device that can sniff the worldwide web wafting through the air. So any inquiring mind can find anything it desires—including “Invisible Man” and “The Bluest Eye.” No, banning books isn’t about keeping information away from our children—it’s about who will have cultural dominion over their minds. Any attempt to make them think more critically about their world must be beat back—even if that “radical” thinking was conjured more than 60 years ago.
What the Randolph County school board did was to try to steal away with one of our cultural heroes and turn him into a demon—just as mainstream culture has been demonizing the image of the black man in America for centuries.
We cannot let this happen. We must let them know that we revere our heroes and will fight for them. If the folks in Randolph County and in Ohio want to scream their ignorance out loud, they can do it somewhere else. We will turn down the sound.
I should point out here that not only is African-American culture not to be silenced—perhaps some in the mainstream community might have noticed that African-American culture is a worldwide force. If you are truly trying to silence the voices of black men, you got there about four or five decades too late.
(And by the way, Randolph County, you’re seriously going after Ralph Ellison of all people? Have you ever heard of Lil Wayne?)
Randolph County should be commended for its timing: This is actually National Banned Books Week, an annual event started 30 years ago by the American Library Association to bring more attention to the many attempts to ban literature that happens every year in the U.S. After watching a video presentation on banned books in her school library, my sixth-grader came home incredulous that people would try to deny kids the right to read.
“It’s so stupid!” she said. “If you don’t want your kid to read it, don’t let them read it. But how are you going to stop every kid from reading it?!”
Indeed, my child.
But something tells me that Mr. Ellison, that well-known activist and agitator, might be pleased to see he could still get a rise out of the powers-that-be, all these years later. To paraphrase Eddie Murphy: if your words are scaring white people in middle America, you must be saying something right.
Here at MyBrownBaby, we urge you to join the petition started by colorofchange.org, urging Randolph County to return Ellison to the shelves. As the colorofchange team says, “If a couple of bad press hits is enough to make Randolph reconsider, imagine how powerful thousands of our voices can be.”
Sign the petition here to let your voice be heard.
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.