Open Letter to the Randolph County Board of “Education”

Earlier this morning, I sent the following letter to the Randolph County Board of “Education.” For those who haven’t read the news, this board voted to ban Ralph Ellison’s literary classic Invisible Man from the schools’ reading list. For me, this terrible decision was very personal. I was educated in the small Randolph County town of Asheboro. So, I wrote the board’s chairman, Tommy McDonaldto tell him how personal it was to me, and I copied each of the other board members, as well as school superintendent Stephen Gainey and the local newspaper’s education reporter, Kathi Keys. I encourage others to do the same.

Dear Mr. McDonald,

My name is Mark Kemp. I was born, raised and educated in Asheboro. In large part because of the terrific teachers I had growing up — educators who introduced me to such essential classics of literature as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man — I am today a successful, 30-year veteran journalist and published author (Dixie Lullaby: A Story of Music, Race and New Beginnings in a New South) who has traveled the world, lived in New York City and Los Angeles, and now calls Charlotte home.

I read with tremendous regret today that the Randolph County Board of “Education” has voted to ban Ellison’s literary classic from the school system’s reading list. This makes me profoundly sad for the students of Randolph County and ashamed of my hometown and its surroundings. Your myopic, anti-intellectual, fundamentalist agenda is precisely why so many American students are so terribly ill-educated and ill-prepared to compete in a world where success is based on intelligence and cultural understanding. What you’ve done is indefensible.

If your decision was based on your religious, philosophical or political views, you’ve done a disservice to students. And I would say the same thing if an atheist, left-leaning board member voted to ban classic pieces of Christian-themed literature, from Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost up to C.S. Lewis’ wonderful Christian allegory The Chronicles of Narnia. We are living in times in which fundamentalism is robbing bright young students of essential information, and your decision just adds insult to injury.

Have any of you who voted for this ban — Tracy Boyles, Gary Cook, Matthew Lambeth, Tommy McDonald or Gary Mason — actually read this book? Have you read enough literature to glean an understanding of how intellectual development occurs in young people? Do you even comprehend the idea that students learn by reading all kinds of different ideas? Based on comments like “it was a hard read” (McDonald) and “I didn’t find any literary value” (Mason), my guess is that you haven’t and that you don’t. And, in that case, you do not belong on a board that makes decisions about educating our young people.

I am quite sure this letter will not change your minds or make you reconsider this awful decision. After all, as Ellison’s narrator says in the book you’ve banned, “like almost everyone else in our country, I started out with my share of optimism. I believed in hard work and progress and action, but now, after first being ‘for’ society and then ‘against’ it, I assign myself no rank or any limit, and such an attitude is very much against the trend of the times. But my world has become one of infinite possibilities. What a phrase — still it’s a good phrase and a good view of life, and a man shouldn’t accept any other; that much I’ve learned underground. Until some gang succeeds in putting the world in a strait jacket, its definition is possibility.”

You are part of the gang Ellison writes about. Fortunately, despite your banning of it, some students will read Invisible Man, and they will come to realize, as Ellison also wrote, that “life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.”

Yours sincerely,

Mark Segal Kemp

“It’s impossible to be a serious student of American culture and Afro-American culture without going through Ellison…” — Cornel West

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19 thoughts on “Open Letter to the Randolph County Board of “Education”

  1. Unless we are exposed to various facets of an issue, we would have difficulty coming to rational conclusions. Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” now confronts a problem similar to Ralph Ellison’s book. Good for you for writing your open letter!

  2. I agree that this is a travesty for any school. On a side note, are you an AHS grad? I think that the book is still on the shelves at AHS as the board of education in this story is not the board that makes those decisions for Asheboro city schools.

  3. Mark, I agree with you 100%. Do remember that the Randolph County and the Asheboro City School Board are 2 entirely separate boards. Our Asheboro City Board has too many educated members to do such a horrible thing. I used to work for the Randolph County Board and am ashamed of them. I also wonder if their new superintendent approved of this or was he even consulted?

  4. It should be noted that great American novels [as well a great Russian or French or etc., etc... novels] are more often than not concerned with complex, quite disturbing, and provocative issues. If every book was simply another Hardy Boys Mystery [a delightful series BTW] then Norman Rockwell [certainly one of America's finest dauber/illustrators] would be the only American painter.

    So, some nice mom isn’t entirely comfortable with the more gruesome aspects of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” Okay, I can certainly understand that, but we all must realize the irony in the fact that it is this very “discomfort” that Mr. Ellison is in many ways attempting to evoke in the reader. He wasn’t writing a Harlequin Romance. He was telling a larger audience of Americans of a reality of which they had very little knowledge.

    “Invisible Man” is a profound and, yes, unsettling work of art. It will continue to offend and rattle moms and school board members for decades to come. But please, don’t miss the forest for the trees. All the nudes displayed at the North Carolina Museum of Art out on Blue Ridge Rd can’t be removed because mom is offended.

    Imagine a world where the merit and meaning of important art and its significance is left to one particular mom and five school board members to adjudicate.

    Come on Randolph County, get real.

    I do not in fact believe that the men who banned this book actually read it. Can there actually be a group of people who, having read “Invisible Man,” could ban it for any reason? Surely not.

  5. Kay and Jef: Thank you so much for your insightful comments.

    And Joshua and Becky: Thank you, also. If my letter implied or suggested in any way that the Asheboro City School Board had also banned this book, please accept my apology.

    The sentence that reads, “This makes me profoundly sad for the students of Randolph County and ashamed of my hometown and its surroundings” could simply have read, “ashamed of my home county.” However, the shame I was expressing for my hometown was my disappointment that the Randolph County board includes a former Asheboro police chief, Gary Mason — the one who made the shockingly embarrassing comment that he “didn’t find any literary value” in Invisible Man.

    It’s important to note that the Asheboro school board has not made such a grievous decision and that students at AHS today are still able to read Invisible Man in high school as I did so many years ago. Thanks for clarifying this.

  6. I regret that you are ashamed of Asheboro. Asheboro City Schools did not ban the book. We still have, thankfully, two separate public school systems in Randolph County. Please don’t throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Asheboro is a fantastic, growing, diverse, beautiful town. I invite you to visit your hometown. I believe you’d be pleasantly surprised.

  7. Hi Micki. Thanks so much for reading this piece. I appreciate your comment. Please note that I addressed the concerns you have raised in the comment above yours.

    I do visit Asheboro on a fairly regular basis, as my parents still live there, and I have seen the wonderful progress my hometown has made over the years. The town has, indeed, become quite vibrant and much more culturally inclusive. As I pointed out in my open letter, even when I was in high school the Asheboro school system had some terrific teachers, fantastic role models and access to important books.

    Unfortunately, there are still people in leadership positions who would like to keep the area from going forward, and those are the ones who bring the sense of shame I feel when I see censorship happening in the county school system. Their recent actions have made the area a laughing stock, not just regionally but around the world.

  8. Mr. Kemp, thank you for clarifying in your comment. This story has gotten lots of negative press, which sadly and inaccurately has reflected on the entire county. Thanks for weighing in and taking action on this issue.

  9. I have read many comments on this issue and this is the best so far. I may be misinformed on the matter, but I was told that this book was banned due to one person complaining about it to the board. Since when, if this is correct, does one person’s opinion control what happens in an entire school system? In addition, since when does something being a difficult read make a case to ban a book? If that’s the case, you better never ask a high school student or you will have nothing in the library.

    Another question is this: Since when does any governing body in this country have the right to tell the American people what they or their children can read? I would understand if it was blatant pornography, but it’s an award winning book! If it’s being banned due to content, let’s see, how about The Scarlet Letter ( adultery), The Iliad by Homer (violence and wife steeling), as well as many other literary classics that are very violent or have other questionable subject matters. Should we ban them all? Why stop there???

    Now, honestly, how ignorant does that sound? What were our elected officials thinking when they came to this decision? Why would you do something that is so asinine that it makes newspapers in California? Thanks for making the people in this area seem uneducated and ignorant to the rest of the country.

    If a parent doesn’t like the reading assignment, or doesn’t like the content, here is an idea, ask the teacher for alternate material. I have never met a teacher who wouldn’t give you this option. Why would this even ever make it before the board? I understand being watchful of the material your children are exposed to, that’s being a parent. I have 3 children as well, so I fully understand that, but the school system has a chain of command. Ask the teacher. If you don’t get satisfaction, go to the administration.

    As for the board, I know we as a county elected you, but come on! I don’t know any of you that are employed as a literary critic or, for that matter, are employed in this field at all. I may be wrong, but even so, in this country, we don’t ban anything lightly. All you have accomplished is raising curiosity and more people will read it now.

    Just think before you act.

  10. I’m anxiously waiting for Wednesday, when the board reconsiders their ban. I am afraid the damage has already been done. However, I will be celebrating Banned Books Week on Thursday at the Asheboro Library at 7pm, if anyone else is interested! Come and read an excerpt from your favorite banned or challenged book. Hopefully by Thursday, Invisible Man will be a challenged book in our county, and not a banned one.

  11. I enjoyed reading Invisible Man as well at AHS. Thanks for speaking up. It was one of the most important novels that I read as a teenager, next to Richard Wright’s work. I’m surprised at the attempted censorship that still goes on. The good news is that more students will want to read the novel since it was banned.

  12. I agree wholeheartedly with your opinion; however I would like to know where the information originated. I ask because according to the RCS website, they are holding a final meeting on Wednesday and thus far have disagreed with banning the book. I am trying to be well informed and want to review the material you have reviewed.

  13. There are still many people in this county that think if something makes you uncomfortable, you should just act like it doesn’t exist and keep it away from the children. However, we can’t learn without discomfort. How can we exist in a world without knowing that not all people think or act like us? Knowledge is the only way we as a society can continue. Or, in my country way of speaking, just cause you ain’t Baptist don’t mean I cain’t learn somethin from you.

  14. Having lived in Randolph County for over 20 years, I am not surprised at this controversy. I’ve never lived anywhere where so many people are so against their kids going forward. Too many kids here are shamed if they try to expand their minds or become better informed. Their families seem to believe that “if it was good enough for your daddy and his daddy, it should be good enough for you!” I’ve never understood this attitude. What ever happened to wanting your kids to do better than your generation? Doing better in the wider world means trying to understand complex relationships.

  15. Thanks, all of you, for these thoughtful comments.

    Jessi Bowman: Good for you for holding your “favorite banned books” event. I hope to attend. If I can’t make it, I’ll be there in spirit.

    Marie: Having traded emails with one board member, from what I understand, they initially voted FOR the ban but are now reconvening to reconsider that vote. We’ll see what happens on Wednesday. Hopefully, they’ll come to their senses.

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