Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" Banned By North Carolina Schools

Invisible Man, Helen Lovejoy

It is with deep regret this writer must inform you about yet another unwarranted book banning spurred on by pearl-clutching parents. In Randolph County, North Carolina, The Courier-Tribune's Kathi Keys reports that Ralph Ellison's classic novel Invisible Man, which "addresses many of the social and intellectual issues facing African-Americans in the first half of the 20th century," will be removed from school library shelves. The Randolph County Board of Education banned the book with a majority vote of 5-2.

The board's decision to review Invisible Man stems from a complaint by Kimiyutta Parson, who was upset about the book's inclusion in the school's official summer reading curriculum. Students could choose between Ellison's novel, Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, or Passing by Nella Larson. Parsons did not register a complaint about the other two books. 

So what's the big deal? Well, apparently, Invisible Man features a potty-mouthed first-person narrator. Here's an excerpt from Parsons's 12-page essay on why the book should be banned:

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.

Sexual content was also a problem. The board, overall, sided with Parsons, with one member, Gary Mason, stating, "I didn't find any literary value." 

Hmm. Really, no literary value? I'm going to let The Huffington Post field this one:

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.

‘Evenhandedly exposing the hypocrisies and stereotypes of all comers, Invisible Man is far more than a race novel, or even a bildungsroman. It’s the quintessential American picaresque of the 20th century.’

Thanks, HuffPost. Couldn’t have said it better myself. 

This isn’t the first time Invisible Man has been banned for its “offensive content,” according to the American Library Association

Okay, here’s where we roll out the usual arguments about book banning—is it okay in some instances, or is it never okay? Cath Murphy tackles this issue pretty well in her column Should Some Books Be Banned

While I think in some instances—like, as Cath points out, when we’re dealing with issues of national security—it might be wise to limit access to certain books, this business with Invisible Man is nonsense. Sheltering and shielding youngsters from reality is never a good idea. I’m particularly irked by Parson’s complaint that the county’s children are required to read a book “without their [the parents’] knowledge.” That indicates you’re not very involved with your kids, lady, and the only person really capable of polluting their “impressionable” young minds is you. 

What do you think? Is Ellison’s novel really that offensive?

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ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading Wanderers by Chuck Wendig September 20, 2013 - 10:16am

Actually, I'm confused. It doesn't read as though the book has been banned, just removed asa choice for summer reading, but would be "readily available in the library". While the reasons for taking it off the list are dubious at best, but the book is still available if children want to read it, and let's face it-- all the hubub will likely lead to more students wanting to see what the fuss is about.

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On September 20, 2013 - 10:59am

This just reeks of more right-wing straw men being put up as pseudo-intellectual posturing (no literary merit, etc) to deflect from bigotry, latent or otherwise. Saying that you're able to still get it at the library is just the acceptable way of saying that while I can't ban it outright because laws don't let me, I don't want this in my neighborhood.

Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading Blindness by Jose Saramago September 20, 2013 - 11:02am

I hope Renee is correct and the foolishness of Parson's and Mason will incite young people to read Invisible Man. Ralph Ellison's masterpiece goes far beyond race. It is a stark warning of just how hard it is to maintain an identity in our one-size-fits-all world.

Stephanie Noël's picture
Stephanie Noël from Canada is reading The Hunger Games September 20, 2013 - 11:14am

Well now that it's banned, kids will want to see why and are going to be more likely to read it.

Book banning is ridiculous and the reason Parson wants it banned tells us a lot about him.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine September 20, 2013 - 11:45am

Sounds like the person who wrote the letter should have done a little more reading in high school.

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer September 20, 2013 - 11:53am

I'm with Renee on this. To me, there is a big difference between a book being banned and just being removed from summe reading. I'm not ready to burn the school board upon stakes if that is the case. Although the one guy who said he didn't find any literary merit should seriously consider resignation.

Daphne Vogel's picture
Daphne Vogel September 20, 2013 - 11:59am

The song Pick-A-Little will now be going through my head all day. And yes, the book is readily available for anyone who cares to read it, whether or not their mother is an uptight prig.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts September 20, 2013 - 1:23pm

Pretty sure this is one of the books that we judge the definition of literary merit by, not the other way around.

Benjamin Martin's picture
Benjamin Martin from Portland, OR is reading ... September 20, 2013 - 7:14pm

News reports like this are scary. They actually frighten me, believe it or not. I tremble to think that we live in a world where a parent does not want their child to read a book. I like to refer to these parents as "Sheila Broflovski"s, named after the character Kyle's mother from South Park.

Thankfully, despite a parent wanting a book removed from school libraries and reading corriculums, we live in a country where, should they choose, an individual has the ability to pursue those books which are "banned" at their own leisure. And that's the fall back on banning books. If you're trying to protect your children from the corrupting power of a book (let the audacity of that statement sink in a little...), when all you're really doing is harmfully sheltering said children, it really only serves to pique that child's interest and urge them to read the book even more.

Score one for literary acheivments.

Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading Blindness by Jose Saramago September 21, 2013 - 8:44am

Amen, Renfield!

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list September 21, 2013 - 9:48am

I'm sick of parents speaking on behalf of all other parents. They had two other (fantastic) options. If you don't want your kid to read one then pick another, but leave the option open for others who aren't so uptight. My AP kids asked if we could read banned books this year, and I agreed to structure the novel list accordingly. This is one of the books I thought about having them read, but it is too lengthy to fit into our schedule. Now I sort of regret not having them read it so we could discuss this. Will have to work Battle Royal into the course, so we can touch on it at the very least. The book is at the height of literary merit, and I believe that after having grown up with a father who was a Fundementalist Baptist preacher. He is very anti-book banning, and thought this was ridiculous when I told him. Guess he was just too darn careless in allowing his children to read the books we wanted to read, but I am deeply thankful for his "carelessness".

Anton Selessi's picture
Anton Selessi September 21, 2013 - 1:04pm

Enjoyed the article...for a non-fiction account of interracial relationships in early America, google and read a book titled "Color Struck! by Ray Charles.   In the book, which is a compilation of wills; petitions; laws and commentary, Ray shows that sexually, all who were subjected to the color line crossed it, and in most cases, WILLINGLY, as a result, America tried unsuccessfully to legislate itself out of the Melting Pot.

Thomas Haj's picture
Thomas Haj September 21, 2013 - 1:47pm

An article obviously written by a liberal, using a liberal media post, which itself contains reviews by other liberals- how is one expected to put belief into it?

I have never read "Invisible Man" which puts me at a disadvantage to the obviously enlightened other posters, yet my perception of extreem intolerance contained in many of the above posts could expose me to hate mail from the "tolerant", so I willingly abstain.

blackie's picture
blackie September 21, 2013 - 6:54pm

this book needs to be updated such as a white woman on the cover to help improve the image of the negro black man to show that he has advanced not only taking all the ugly fat white skanks that he sees as real prize and makes himself a man of respect from other negro species  that have the average iq of 60 to 85 60 is mental retardation . can't argue with a black person because they are not smart enough to understand

afrank63's picture
afrank63 September 26, 2013 - 10:29am

I’ve never understood why book are banned. We teach and learn through books, that’s the beauty of authors having the freedom to write about different topics; controversial or not. But that's just my opinion. I personally enjoy books that push the boundaries, especially when having to do with race or taboo topics. Although I’ve never read “Invisible Man”, I will definitely be picking it up. I’d love to recommend another book that, considering the topic and time period, is very interesting. It’s called “The Children of Gavrilek” by Julie Kirtón Chandler, http://www.juliekirtonchandler.com; it’s been a fantastic read. Thanks for this great article!