If you don’t think race played a role in the banning of Invisible Man from a rural county school system in the Piedmont area of North Carolina, you haven’t listened to the nuances in the reasoning of the men who chose to censor the Ralph Ellison classic.
On Wednesday, after outrage over the Randolph County Board of Education’s September 16 decision to ban Ellison’s 1952 novel shamed the county from California to London for more than a week, the board held a special meeting to reconsider its move. In a packed meeting room on the southern edge of Randolph County’s seat of Asheboro, the board heard from legal council, a school administrator and two classroom teachers, all of whom gently suggested the board’s radical decision had not been well-thought-out. It was a monumental understatement. And after an hour-long discussion, the board — in a 6-1 vote — reversed its original decision. Copies of Invisible Man are now back on library shelves in Randolph County schools.
“I want to apologize for myself,” said board member Matthew Lambeth, who admitted that he had taken action before getting enough good information from school officials and educators. (Wonder if he’s ever heard of Wikipedia?) Lambeth was brutally honest in describing why he voted for the ban — and his reasons speak to the massive disconnect that still exists across this country between people of color and white leaders who choose to remain mind-bogglingly oblivious to contemporary American life.
“I come from a very privileged background … a very white background,” Lambeth said. “Race never played in any decision.” When he first read Invisible Man in college, Lambeth said, the novel “gave me insight into the fact that not everybody has the same viewpoints and life experiences that I have.”
If he’d been so enlightened in college, why, then, did Lambeth vote for the ban in the first place? His decision, he said, was based on the novel’s depictions of rape and incest. Lambeth confessed to county residents and members of the press who packed the meeting room that his cousin had been raped by her father, and that this critical event had left a deep scar on him and other members of his family. Never mind that rape and incest occur in other materials that are freely available to students — from the works Shakespeare to the books of The Bible — it was the rape and incest in Invisible Man that was particularly unacceptable to Lambeth.
Another board member, Tracy Boyles, said he changed his mind after tapping into his conservative ideas about patriotism. He still considers Invisible Man “immoral,” he told the audience, but reconsidered his decision to ban the book after facing up to an irreconcilable dilemma: while his son had joined the military and gone overseas to fight for American freedoms, “I’m here taking [one of those freedoms] away. Is that right of me? No.”
Echoing Boyles, the board’s chairman, Tommy McDonald, also maintained his opinion that Invisible Man is “immoral,” but said, “My job is to make sure the book is there, whether I want to read it or not.”
The one member who upheld his decision to ban the book was former Asheboro police chief Gary Mason, who’d earlier said that Ellison’s novel had “no literary value.” Mason claimed that he had an obligation to vote in the “best interests” of Randolph County students. “I have read the book again in its entirety,” he told the audience, “and I still hold my opinion.”
That is, that Invisible Man is immoral.
But what makes Invisible Man immoral and not the books of The Bible? Could it be that Invisible Man was actually written by a very visible black man, and that The Bible (if you buy into the American fundamentalist version of the myth) was written by a genuinely invisible man, most often depicted as a white man — in a robe — on a cloud — in the sky?
I’m being facetious, of course, but this is the kind of logic we have to deal with when we put extremists on school boards. Can these religious nuts really not understand that students can learn as much about the human condition from Jim Trueblood’s rape of his daughter in Invisible Man (and the white exploitation that followed) as they can from Amnon’s brutal rape of his sister Tamar in the Second Book of Samuel. Sadly, I’m afraid it’s not a matter of understanding. It’s a matter of not wanting white children to know about the difficult history of white oppression of people of color. Plain and simple.
The lesson that Lambeth ultimately learned, he told the gathering, was that he should not let personal issues get in the way of his decisions with regard to public education. Besides, if Invisible Man’s messages helped Lambeth to understand that not everybody experiences life the same way he did as a privileged white man, then perhaps that same message will help his own children. (Duh.)
“What if one of my children decides to step out into a community of people who are invisible?” Lambeth asked. “I wonder if this book would help them to know how to treat people … to know how to see those invisible populations … I would want them to know this.”
BY THE TIME WE GET TO ARIZONA
Despite the angry comments people have written on websites and social media about the school board decision in Randolph County, the issue of banning books on the basis of racial misunderstanding and far-right religious agendas is hardly new and not confined to small towns in the South. Conservatives — mostly white and male — with fixed, antiquated ideas of history continue their attempts to subvert educational systems across the country, banning science books, history books, books dealing with ethnic studies — whatever doesn’t fit their own ideas of what a “moral society” looks and acts like.
In 2010, the Arizona state legislature passed a law banning a Mexican-American studies program. Authorities in Tucson actually went into classrooms and, in front of students, boxed up numerous books — among them, Bill Bigelow’s Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, Richard Delgado’s Critical Race Theory, Francisco Arturo Rosales’ companion to the PBS special Chicano! The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement, even Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Why? Because some far-right conservative extremists claimed that these classes and materials encouraged left-wing political activism and hatred of white people.
That all started when Arizona’s superintendent of schools, John Huppenthal, visited one of the classes and heard the teacher, Augustine Romero, raise the issue of whether Benjamin Franklin was racist. “[Romero] was taught in the university system, so that raised questions in my mind about what’s going on in the university, too,” said Huppenthal, who also would like to change curricula in higher education. “I think that’s where this toxic thing starts from, the universities.”
Romero told Fox News Latino that he was simply teaching truths as we know them now: “I didn’t say [Franklin] was a racist. What I did say was that we need to recognize — beyond all the good things that Benjamin Franklin did — that he also warned the country of the tawning of America, which for all intents and purposes means the browning of America.”
In terms of accuracy, Romero is right on target, according to historian David Waldstreicher, a Franklin expert who wrote Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery and the American Revolution. While it is true that in later years Franklin was involved in the Abolitionist movement, according to Waldstreicher, the Founding Father’s involvement was largely political. “I think that based on the few things that [Franklin] wrote in his life, it is fair to say that he was a racist and that he was not anti-slavery most of the time,” Waldstreicher said.
As any educator knows, history, science and literature — unlike some views of religion — are constantly evolving, malleable disciplines. We continually learn more about how the world works, and we adjust the facts to allow for new evidence and new insights. High school students must be exposed to great books, both past and present, as well as legitimate new ideas, in order to be prepared for college — and ultimately, in order to be prepare for a constantly changing world. When members of school boards get in the way of the educational process rather than help sustain it, they quite literally retard the development of young minds.
I followed the case in Randolph County — straight to the board meeting on Wednesday — because I was born and raised there, educated for the first 12 years of my academic life in the Asheboro school system. But educational freedom should be something that we all constantly follow, watch and monitor. Our future depends on it. And these people who are trying to subvert our educational system to fit their white, Christian views of the world are not going to stop.
A RANDOLPH COUNTY STUDENT BRINGS IT ALL BACK HOME
Jessi Bowman, a senior at Randleman High School, which is part of the Randolph County system, is holding a banned books reading at 7 p.m. tonight (Sept. 6) at the Asheboro Public Library. It is part of her senior project and was already scheduled for Banned Books Week before the shit hit the fan at the Randolph County Board of Education.
“It was just a coincidence that this happened,” Bowman told the Asheboro Courier-Tribune; she added, however, that “it worked out well.”
Bowman was in attendance at the Wednesday school board meeting and said she looked forward to a good show of support for her event tonight. “I just hope that people come at all,” she told me after the board meeting.
Two things are for sure: 1) I will be there, and 2) you can bet someone will be reading from Invisible Man.
[Randolph County commissioners pictured in opening photo are (from left): Gary Cook, Matthew Lambeth, Emily T. Coltrane (vice chair), Tommy McDonald (chair), Gary Mason, Tracy Boyles, and Todd Cutler.]
Stay tuned to this blog for updates including highlights from Bowman’s event. And watch the Bill Moyers clip below called, “The Bane of Banning Books.”