ASHEBORO, N.C. — High school students in Randolph County once again can get “Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison’s classic 1952 novel of alienation and racial discrimination, at school libraries.
Nine days after the county school board banned the book, it reversed itself at a hastily called special meeting Wednesday night, voting 6 to 1 to return the novel to school bookshelves. Several board members apologized for the ban and said they had been chastened by an outpouring of angry objections from county residents.
The backlash caught board members by surprise. Several said they had been inundated with emails begging them to reconsider. Others conceded that they had acted rashly and should have consulted with the superintendent and rank-and-file teachers in the 16,000-student district, about 85 miles northeast of Charlotte.
Several said the public reaction had opened their eyes to viewpoints they had not considered and broadened their outlook on the importance of all types of literature.
“We may have been hammered on this and we may have made a mistake, but at least we’re big enough to admit it,’’ said board member Gary Cook, who had voted for the ban but reversed himself Wednesday.
The meeting, in a packed boardroom, lasted only 45 minutes. The vote to rescind the ban took a few seconds, with only board member Gary Mason dissenting. He called the book “not appropriate for young teenagers.”
The board’s abrupt reversal came in the middle of the annual Banned Books Week sponsored nationally by the American Library Assn., which celebrates the freedom to read. The association and the Kids’ Right to Read Project wrote the school board condemning the ban and asking that it be reversed.
Board Chairman Tommy McDonald said the torrent of emails he received was “very enlightening,’’ although a few were “downright vulgar and very hurtful.’’ The backlash made him realize, he said, that “my job is to make sure that book is there whether I want to read it or not."
The board had banned the book Sept. 16 by a 5-2 vote after the mother of a high school junior complained about its language and depictions of rape and incest.
That parent, Kimiyutta Parson, was not at Wednesday’s meeting but said in a statement read in her behalf that she still believed the book was not suitable for teenagers. “School libraries are not public libraries,’’ she said.
Juniors at the mostly rural county's Randleman High School had been asked to choose as assigned summer reading either “Invisible Man,’’ “Black Like Me’’ by John Howard Griffin or “Passing’’ by Nella Larsen.
“Invisible Man,’’ which ranked No. 19 on Modern Library's list of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century, explores the effects of racism on its perpetrators and its victims. The unnamed narrator notes, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
Before Wednesday’s vote, board members heard from two district teachers who stressed the novel’s literary and instructional value. They said that 21st century students can still relate to the sense of invisibility the novel’s narrator experiences as a black man in the segregated 1950s.
“Some of the students in our classrooms right now feel that same cloak of invisibility,’’ English teacher Justine Carter said.
Board member Tracy Boyles, who voted for the original ban but joined in rescinding it Wednesday, choked back tears as he said his son had been in combat overseas in the Air Force, “fighting for those freedoms that I’m here passing a vote to take away.’’
“Is that right of me? No,’’ Boyles said.
The ban had galvanized book lovers, educators and ordinary townspeople. Residents flocked to the county library and the local bookstore for copies of “Invisible Man,’’ only to find long waiting lists.
An Asheboro native who works as an editor in New York persuaded the book’s publisher, Vintage Books, to donate 100 copies to a local bookstore for free distribution to high school students. Several customers paid for copies of the book and asked that they be held for any students seeking a free copy, a bookstore spokeswoman said.
The local newspaper, the Courier-Tribune, received more comments on the ban than on any issue in recent memory, editor Ray Criscoe said -- and virtually all of them ridiculed the ban.
At Wednesday’s meeting, board member Matthew Lambeth apologized for voting to ban the book without consulting the board’s lawyer or the district superintendent. He said the board had made an honest, if poorly informed, mistake.
“We’ve been accused of being ignorant bigots and racists,’’ he said. “That is simply not the case.’’
Lambeth added: “We should all be proud. When concerned citizens bring their displeasure at what their government has decided . . . that is the pinnacle of the democratic process.’’