In defense of Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 27, 2013

The Randolph County School Board in North Carolina got a jump on Banned Books Week, which is this week, when earlier this month it banished Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel “Invisible Man” from its public schools. According to news reports, the book’s removal resulted from one protesting parent — one — who felt the book was “too much for teenagers.”
“You must respect all religions and point of views when it comes to the parents and what they feel is age appropriate for their young children to read, without their knowledge,” parent Kimiyutta Parson wrote to the board, which voted 5-2 on Sept. 16 to ban the book, one of three options on Randleman High School juniors’ summer reading list.
Ten days later, in the glare of a national media spotlight, the board reversed its decision during a special meeting, voting 6-1 to keep the book on the library shelves. Closer to home, the ban had been opposed by the Randolph County chapter of the NAACP, and a local book store distributed free copies of the book to high schoolers.
The parent who leveled the original complaint reportedly also objected to the book’s coarse language and sexual content. The review of “Invisible Man” sums up the plot neatly: “A classic from the moment it first appeared in 1952, ‘Invisible Man’ chronicles the travels of its narrator, a young, nameless black man, as he moves through the hellish levels of American intolerance and cultural blindness.” Do those who wish to ban books from school libraries believe that doing so will shield teens from undesirable language, bawdy images and intolerance?
Perhaps we should encourage teens to read “Invisible Man” rather than watch “Dancing with the Stars.” Why that particular program? A colleague told me that her students tell her that “Dancing” is a show they can watch with their parents, so she decided to tune in to see what she had been missing. What she saw was highly sexualized dance routines that seemed at time inappropriately suggestive, especially in prime time. My colleague is a parent but has not clamored for the censoring of the show, understanding that others do not share her views.
TV is not the same as school, thankfully. And don’t get me started on Miley Cyrus. Banning a piece of classic literature, though, published a dozen years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, deprives students of the historical context of social and racial repression and its lingering effects.
I grew up working in my father’s drug store in Kenansville, a small rural town in eastern North Carolina. As a kid I devoured the new comic books that came in every week. When I was about 12, a customer saw me choosing some comics off the magazine rack and went to my dad, who was filling prescriptions.
“Do you think Anthony should be reading those comic books?” she asked.
“At least he’s reading,” my father replied. I have moved on to New Yorker-style humor, and am proud of my collection of cartoon volumes.
During high school, I discovered in our small library Down Beat magazine, a publication that I credit with sparking my lifelong love of jazz. Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to hear some wonderful musicians, and I got to meet Dave Brubeck, among others. What a pity it would have been if someone had banned Down Beat, saying the drug-fueled lifestyle of jazz music was inappropriate for a teenager to read about.
I became an English major and later a journalist. I taught a couple of years of high school, and now I’m a college professor. I own books of every description, including a 1911 edition of “Phantom of the Opera,” books by local authors and hundreds of other works, ranging from paperback mysteries to classics. Some of these I read first as a teen and have revisited them over the years. Books have enriched my life immensely.
In a world in which I actually have to teach many students coming out of high school the difference between a novel and a work of nonfiction, I see little harm in allowing our schools to stock difficult works of literature. I am pleased that cooler heads prevailed in this case, and “Invisible Man” is back in the school library.
Let’s hope it doesn’t always take the prospect of a book banning to remind us of how important reading is, no matter how difficult the subject matter.

Anthony Hatcher is an associate professor of communications at Elon University. Email: