By Michaela Dwyer
Growing up in Chapel Hill, the closest I ever got to illicit literature was during my first year of high school, when my class read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. I should specify, though: those in my class who wished to read The Bluest Eye—which I gather was not included in the 9th grade English curriculum due to its ‘mature’ themes—had to get his or her parents to sign a waiver. The rest of the class read Richard Wright’s Black Boy, and my English teacher hopped between the two groups, huddled alternately in the classroom and in the hallway outside. I felt slightly edgy, dipping into earnest, if slightly jejune, discussions of race, gender, and sexuality with ten other 14-year-old honors English students.
Then, and now, my take on the permissive action is the same: of course my parents signed the form. Why would they not? I was an English-inclined student under the jurisdiction of a fantastic English teacher who upheld Morrison’s work over many other authors’. Reading The Bluest Eye was a chance to work slightly outside the curricular norm—a norm [still] largely populated by a white male canon (Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, Salinger, et al). The novel, Morrison’s first, details a year in the life of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl growing up in post-Depression Lorain, Ohio. Its up-front treatment of racism, incest, and child molestation—among other themes—has landed the book on several banned book lists over the years, including this year. In 1994, school administrators in Fairbanks, Arkansas declared it “a very controversial book” containing “a lot of very graphic descriptions and lots of disturbing language.”
This judgment call isn’t far from the one placed on Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, banned recently—and uncannily in conjunction with national Banned Books Week—in our own state’s Randolph County. One parent, noticing Invisible Man among two other choices for 11th grade summer supplementary reading, supposedly read the novel and was offended by it. “It,” meaning a collection of specific chapters, which the parent excerpted in over ten pages in her appeal to the school board. “This novel is not so innocent,” she wrote. “Instead, this book is filthier, too much for teenagers. You must respect all religions and point [sic] of views when it comes to the parents and what they feel is age appropriate for their young children to read.”
The regular recurrence of book bans throughout American history—and often of the same books, I’ll add—emphasizes the degree to which personal moral judgments continue to rub up against, and assert power over, curricular ones. While public schools are obligated to serving their students in loco parentis, they are not permitted to do so in a way that restricts students’ civil liberties (public libraries, unobligated to youthful charges, do not operate in loco parentis). In most cases, according to the American Library Association, attempts to “challenge” books (requesting removal of “material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others”) are defeated by the communal efforts of teachers, students, parents, and librarians. Randolph County’s case presents a particularly messy tug between individual and community interest: both the school and district levels advocated for the book to remain in school libraries. The school board, however, voted 5-2 to remove all copies of the book, effectively banning it, and thus elevating personal repulsion to county-wide policy.
The irony abounds here, particularly considering the actual book in question. Ellison’s narrative follows, and is narrated by, a black man navigating various geographies and social and cultural strata in the already-potent context of early 20th-century America—all while seeing, and staking, himself as socially invisible. In the introduction to the text, Ellison lays out the conflicted spheres his protagonist inhabits: one of post-WWII American society that, even in “progressive” political communities, denies blacks the civil rights so espoused by the U.S.’s wartime diplomacy, and—crucially—one within himself, grasping for situations and communities in which he can find his voice and become visible. Add to this the novel’s formal experimentation, and we can see why board chair Tommy McDonald called Invisible Man a “hard read” and slammed a “no” down alongside it.
Invisible Man is, indeed, a hard read, and it will be, for anyone who engages with it, for different reasons. Perhaps it’s hard to put stock in a narrator who openly admits that he has “become acquainted with ambivalence,” who outright acknowledges his invisibility—and, by extension, the role we as readers play in maintaining it. Perhaps Ellison’s political references and language switches seem foreign to readers who have not experienced them firsthand. Perhaps a smattering of chapters deal with material that wouldn’t (read: shouldn’t) be brought up at the dinner table.
It is important to note, however, that high school, or any level of formal education for that matter, is not, and never will be, the dinner table.
The committee’s report on the attempted ban puts it bluntly: “The committee all agreed there were parts of the book that were not pleasant, but when reading the whole book those were not as prevalent. They also agreed that ‘life’ is not always pleasant.” No experience or artifact worth engaging—whether it be a work of art, a community, or life itself—is merely a sum of its parts. It’s unfortunate to see a novel pegged and gutted to a few excerpts one person, and then a handful of elected officials, deemed objectionable. It’s further unfortunate that a policy action presumed best for a community operates on the one flawed assumption that literature will never abide: when we all read and discuss the same text, we extract the same narrative, the same meaning, the same understanding of right and wrong. (In this case, emphasis on the “wrong.”)
“Respect[ing] all religions and point [sic] of views” is a practice that necessitates reading and talking about books like Invisible Man. As citizens and educators, we are responsible for promoting the study and discussion of complicated materials that reflect the very complicated world in which we live. This is a fundamentally inclusive approach toward life in a democratic society, the same society Ellison chose to write about because he found it “mysterious and uncertain…and still, despite its raw violence and capriciousness…promising.”
Events like Banned Books Week celebrate and encourage tackling “hard” literature, whether through collecting banned books trading cards in Chapel Hill or grassroots-organizing a massive giveaway of Invisible Man for Randolph County high-schoolers. How exciting it must feel to be a high-schooler in Randolph County today, clutching a free copy of this now-illicit tome. How wrong, however—and yes, I stake this as a moral claim—that these copies may never enter a classroom space, where students can compile their knowledge and experience, curricular and extracurricular, and make the text dance.
And, to sign off, I’ll leave you with a fitting passage from early in Ellison’s novel, in which the main character, the “Invisible Man”, describes a statue at his alma mater:
“It’s so long ago and far away that here in my invisibility I wonder if it happened at all. Then in my mind’s eye I see the bronze statue of the college Founder, the cold Father symbol, his hands outstretched in the breathtaking gesture of lifting a veil that flutters in hard, metallic folds above the face of a kneeling slave; and I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding.”