There can be a great deal of power in a single voice. But is that always a good thing? The end result of a single parent’s complaint make us wonder. Here’s what happened: The parent of a grade 11 student in Randolph County, North Carolina wrote a detailed grievance to the school district about Ralph Ellison’s National Book Award-Winning novel, The Invisible Man. In part, the grievance said:
The narrator writes in the first person, emphasizing his individual experiences and his feelings about the events portrayed in his life. This novel is not so innocent; instead, this book is filthier, too much for teenagers. You must respect all religions and point of views when it comes to the parents and what they feel is age appropriate for their young children to read, without their knowledge. This book is freely in your library for them to read.
As the school district’s policy requires, the parent’s complaints lead to votes on the school and district levels. Both held that the book should remain available to students in the library. However, in a 5-2 vote, the school board voted to ban the book, with one board member, Gary Mason, stating, “I didn’t find any literary value.”
Mason’s blunt assessment however, runs counter to decades of intellectual criticism of the novel, which won the 1953 National Book Award for fiction, beating out Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.
In 1995, writing for the New York Times, Roger Rosenblatt praised the novel as a masterpiece.
“Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” which won the National Book Award in 1953, was instantly recognized as a masterpiece, a novel that captured the grim realities of racial discrimination as no book had, ” Rosenblatt wrote. “Its reputation grew as Ellison retreated into a mythic literary silence that made his one achievement definitive.”
Including the book in its list of 100 Best English Language Novels since 1923, Time literary critic Lev Grossman also expressed great admiration for Ellison’s work.
And now students perusing their school libraries in Randolph County, North Carolina won’t have access to the book. How can that be seen as anything but sad?