Ban or no ban, high school students in Randolph County, North Carolina, will have easy access to Invisible Man. Thanks to a former resident, the novel's publishers will be giving away copies for free.
After the county's board of education banned Ralph Ellison's 1952 classic on black identity from school libraries, former Randolf County resident — and current New York-based Poets & Writers editor — Evan Smith Rakoff arranged for Vintage Books to donate copies of the novel, which local high schoolers can pick up for free starting September 25.
Rakoff, a culture and literature journalist based in New York, said he was "deeply ashamed" when he heard about the ban. "I follow news really closely and I often encounter these kinds of stories," he told The Atlantic Wire. But in this case he found the news on Facebook, where an old classmate had linked to the news reported by the local Courier-Tribune.
"This saddens me beyond measure. All should be ashamed," Rakoff tweeted on September 18. The next day Laura Miller of Salon suggested organizing a giveaway at an indie bookstore. "All we had to do was ask and Vintage Books was eager to help," said Miller of the novel's publishers.
And while teens will be able to get a hold of the book, that doesn't undo the ban, or the circumstances that allowed it. There's something sad and unsurprising about a Southern city, one where 90 percent of residents identify as white, banning Invisible Man, a book that actively explores the alienation of African-Americans in white society. "I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me," Ellison's narrator, an unnamed black man, says. Invisible Man, which won the 1953 National Book Award, has been called one of the books that shaped America by the Library of Congress. "I didn’t find any literary value," said one member of Randolph County's board of education.
And yet Rakoff, who was born and raised in Randolph County, said the board's decision doesn't reflect the hearts and minds of his hometown. "People are very friendly," he said. "I'm of the place and I know that people don't feel that way." He shared a similar sentiment in a press release issued to promote the giveaway, noting that "the people of North Carolina want their children to have expansive, open minds."
The board may not feel confident in their decision either. On September 25, the same day donated copies of the novel will be passed out to high schoolers, the board will meet to reconsider. Rakoff said he was confident they would reverse the decision, and he though the original verdict was well intentioned but ill-conceived. "They know is cast them in a bad light," he said, referring to all the high profile media coverage in the last week, "and it doesn't reflect what's in everyone's hearts."
(Photos of Ralph Ellison winning the National Book Award, Ellison portrait, via AP Photo.)