Censorship made visible

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 24, 2013

This just in, right on cue as we enter Banned Books Week (Sept. 22-28), book lovers’ and First Amendment advocates’ annual celebration of the freedom to read.
The Randolph County Board of Education last week voted to ban Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” from school libraries after a student’s parent complained that it was inappropriate for 11th grade summer reading, citing both language and subject matter.
“Invisible Man” is certainly not a light beach read. The novel, first published in 1952, deals with race in America in the first half of the 20th century. It reflects the stark realities of bigotry, injustice and inequality for African-Americans of that era. It is, by the author’s design, intended to be disturbing, unsettling and provocative. It’s also universally recognized as a powerful literary work, winner of the National Book Award for fiction (1953) and acclaimed by a 1965 Book Week poll of authors, critics and editors as “the most distinguished single work published in the last 20 years.”
It’s on the state Department of Instruction’s suggested supplemental study list for junior and senior high school English students. Nonetheless, the Randolph school board voted 5-2 to remove it from schools because, as one member put it, he couldn’t “find any literary value” in it, according to an article in the Courier-Tribune of Asheboro. The newspaper was unsuccessful in determining how many of the book-banning board members had actually read the work.
Fortunately, word spreads quickly these days. The story went viral, even international, and the board is scheduled to discuss the matter again Wednesday, when, let us hope, this embarrassingly bad decision is reversed.
Make no mistake, however: Campaigns to ban specific books regularly flare up. Since Banned Books Week began in 1982, more than 11,300 titles have been challenged as unfit for public perusal. Last year alone, the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom received 464 reports of banned or challenged books, ranging from “Captain Underpants” to “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Remember the furor over “And Tango Makes Three” — the children’s book about two male penguins raising a chick from an egg? Or the witchcraft worries that still brew over the “Harry Potter” series?
Adults should be able to decide what they want to check out of a library. Parents certainly should monitor young childrens’ reading material, but asking for another option on the reading list is a far better solution than reaching for gasoline and a match. Meanwhile, to celebrate intellectual freedom, you might consider reading a banned or challenged book this week, just to see what all the fuss is about. “Invisible Man” would be an excellent choice.