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September 25, 2013

'Invisible Man' reinstated by Randolph County School Board

ASHEBORO — "Invisible Man," a novel that the Randolph County Board of Education voted to remove from high school shelves on Sept. 16, has been reinstated by a 6-1 vote during a special called meeting Wednesday.

The vote was the culmination of what board member Matthew Lambeth said "has not been an easy week and a half for this board. I'm proud of what's going on in this room."

The book ban has been the source of intense criticism of the board, even reaching the national news media. But what changed the minds of all but one board member were the "thoughtful consideration" of exchanges from local people, according to Lambeth.

The novel by Ralph Ellison, which received the 1953 National Book Award in Fiction, was on a summer reading list for juniors at Randleman High School. A parent, Kimiyutta Parson, objected to the book based on language and sexual content. She filed a complaint with the school asking that the book be removed from the library. A school committee as well as a Central Office committee decided that the book's worth went well beyond any objectionable material.

"Invisible Man," according to the report by the District Media Advisory Committee, "is listed on the NC Standard Course of Study: English Language Arts Resources. It is listed as one of the top 25 for English III and IV. …

"In summary, the committee appreciated the parent's concern for their child and the interest taken in their education. The District Media Advisory Committee unanimously agreed that the book, 'Invisible Man,' does relate directly to curriculum and that RCS (Randolph County Schools) should keep the book on the shelf and as a literature piece for instruction."

To begin the special meeting, Attorney to the Board Jill Wilson advised that in considering book challenges, it's important that the board understand the legalities before making a decision.

"This is your Constitution in action," she said, and book challenges is a Constitutional issue. She said personal opinion doesn't matter when the First Amendment rights of students is the focus.

Wilson broke it down into the "free market of ideas" and consideration of whether the book in question has value. "Does this material warrant removal?" she said should be the question. "In an advanced placement or upper level, does the book have pedagogical value? Is there a less radical way to deal with it rather than removal?"

At that point, Lambeth moved to reconsider the book ban and the board voted unanimously in favor.

Catherine Berry, assistant superintendent for Instruction, took the board through the process of reviewing "Invisible Man." She said the novel often appears in examination questions on state tests.

English teachers Justine Carter and Courtney Davis both testified as to the value of "Invisible Man" in the classroom. Not only does the novel demonstrate an uncomfortable period in our history, Carter said, but students can look at writing style, which is important in exams. Davis said "Invisible Man" reflects the culture in our history and "makes students think. It's recommended for use in history classes."

Berry said the book discussion has led to Randleman High School adding a synopsis of all books in the summer reading program, providing a disclaimer about future books to inform parents about possibly objectionable material, and placing books in order according to level of difficulty.

Lambeth was the first to speak of the five board members who had voted to ban the book. Emily Coltrane and Todd Cutler had voted against the ban.

"I apologize for myself for not seeking counsel (before voting)," he said. "That was my shortcoming."

Lambeth admitted to having grown up in a "muted background, a privileged white background." He said he first read "Invisible Man" as a college freshman and received insight that not everybody has the same experience as he had.

Lambeth said he still takes issue with the rape and incest in the book, saying he knows people who have experienced that and have deep scars. "We're the product of our experiences … our decisions are a direct reflection of our experiences.

"Since having sought out counsel, I appreciate the exchange," he said. "I'm open to reconsidering."

He said his question was: "What trumps, a child's First Amendment right, or my perspective?"

Tracy Boyles said he wondered as early as driving home from the Sept. 16 meeting about whether he made the right decision by voting to ban the book. "I realized from emails … I can't cast my morals on someone else. That's the parent's responsibility.

"I have a son fighting for our freedoms," said Boyles. "I'm here taking them away."

Chairman Tommy McDonald said his initial vote was "from the view of a moral issue. But my next-door neighbor may want the book. My job is to make sure that the book is there."

Gary Cook said the board should have tabled the issue, the same as they did concerning teacher assistant jobs. "We may have made mistakes, but we're big enough to admit it. These are good people."

The only member of the board to remain firm was Gary Mason, who said he "pondered this for several days.

"I've dedicated the majority of my adult life to the protection of others," said the former Asheboro police chief. "My obligation is to make a choice in the best interests of the child. In reviewing the book, I'm concerned with the language (and the sexual situations). I read the book again and still have the opinion it's not appropriate for children. I stand on what I feel."

Lambeth addressed Mason when he asked, "What if one of my children decides to step out into a community where people are still invisible? I wonder if a book like this could provide the perspective of how to treat those people. That's what I've had to ask myself. … If this book can help, a parent and student might have that option."

Superintendent Stephen Gainey thanked the board for its comments and said, "We want to do what's right for kids. We have many things to do and this is one. I will respect your opinion."

McDonald asked for a motion and Lambeth moved to reinstate "Invisible Man." Mason's was the only "no" vote.


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