I’ve spent the past two days in my hometown of Asheboro, North Carolina, talking to residents in the small Randolph County community about books — the banning of them as well as the reading of them.
Last night, Jessi Bowman, a senior at nearby Randleman High School, held a “Banned Books Read-off” at the Asheboro Public Library. The event came a day after the Randolph County Board of Education voted in a special emergency session to reverse its controversial decision just days earlier to ban Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man from the school system’s libraries.
The day before, I had attended that special school board meeting and watched as board members squirmed, attempted explanations and groveled out apologies — ultimately un-banning Ellison’s enduring novel about racial identity in pre-civil rights America. Several board members said they’d received emails and letters from around the country condemning them for taking such a radical action.
“We’ve been accused of being ignorant, bigots, racists — and that is simply not the case,” said board member Matthew Lambeth, who had voted to ban the book during the board’s Sept. 16 meeting but reversed his vote on Wednesday. (The board rescinded its original decision in a 6-1 vote.) Lambeth’s original vote, as well as his change of heart, he said, “comes from concern for the well-being of our students.”
He should have asked Jessi Bowman about her intellectual well-being. She’s an exemplary student — engaging, articulate, and passionate about books.
Bowman didn’t plan her read-off in response to the county board’s action — she had planned it earlier for her senior project — but she admitted to the Asheboro Courier-Tribune that the timing was impeccable.
The gathering at her read-off was relatively small, but the audience sat at the edges of their seats as students, teachers and other Randolph County residents relayed the wisdom of the ages from books community leaders and politicians in other areas of the country have, over the years, deemed unfit for public consumption.
Bowman’s mom, Ann, read from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; Randleman teacher Nathan Russell read from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (excerpts from their readings are included in the video clip above). Bowman showed how far and wide censorship has come when she read from the Harry Potter series.
She asked if I would read from Invisible Man. It was an honor.
Please note: The video accompanying this post is a very crude, lo-fi clip I made using iMovie.