'Invisible Man' ban is a failure to see

September 19, 2013 

The title of Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece novel, “Invisible Man,” speaks to the irony of a narrator who feels he goes unseen because of what many immediately notice about him: He is black.

That irony took another turn this week when the Randolph County school board voted to ban the novel from its school libraries. The novel, a classic that won the 1953 National Book Award for fiction, has drifted into the obscurity reserved for great books read mostly by assignment. But now Randolph County’s school board members, by a 5-2 vote, have made “Invisible Man” visible again, the subject of news reports that circulated around the nation.

Committees at the school and district level in the central North Carolina county of 142,000 people had voted to keep the book, but the board approved its removal after the mother of a student in the town of Randleman complained that it was “too much for teenagers.”

Ellison, who died in 1994, would likely be pleased by this burst of attention that adds his book to the ranks of other great works subject to school bans. Among the most commonly targeted, typically for their use of profanity, racial epithets or sexual references, are “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger and “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck.

As “Invisible Man” disappears from school libraries in Randolph County, it’s worth reading again the novel’s famous opening lines: “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie extoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids –and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

Now the Randolph County school board is refusing to let its student see “Invisible Man.” But even students know that the value of reading such a book is unseen only by those who suffer from a kind of blindness.

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