19 September 2013

Banned Books Week: There are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers.

“I was never more hated than when I tried to be honest. Or when, even as just now I've tried to articulate exactly what I felt to be the truth. No one was satisfied.”

Some days you get out of bed and see something in the news and wonder if we wouldn't be better off  leaving the world to the bloodydamn cockroaches.

Go read this. When you're done throwing things at the wall come back and we'll talk.

[Time crawls by. The shattering of crockery is heard. A man comes to fix the holes that have suddenly appeared in the drywall.]

So--let's talk.

I was going to get all incendiary here. I was going to go off on a major rant about the judgmental fools who place themselves above us and tell us they know better than we what is good for our children. I was going to get all self-righteous and declamatory on their asses and launch into a rant worthy of Johnathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" here. I was going to post names and phone numbers and urge you to call these nincompoops at their homes and demand to know where the hell they get the almighty nerve . . . and then I stopped myself.

Because I understood, in a moment of clarity that broke through my smoldering rage, that this would do nobody any good. It would be counterproductive. It would be employing bullying tactics used by some of the worst people on the internet--hell, some of the worst people in the world--to make an argument that, were it valid, would not need to see such tactics used in its service. I cannot in good conscience, after all I have posted on this blog (especially recently), allow myself to return to that brand of snide, smug, holier-than-thou posturing. 

Instead let's try something different. Let's look at the arguments used against the book to remove it from the shelves of the Randolph County school libraries, and let's move on from there to make a (hopefully) better case for ourselves.

"I am an invisible man. 
No I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe: 
Nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms.
I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids
- and I might even be said to possess a mind. 
I am invisible, simply because people refuse to see me."

Those are the opening sentences of Ralph Ellison's still-remarkable novel, a novel that received multiple critical raves when it was released, won its author the 1953 National Book Award, and was named by Time magazine as one of the top 100 English-language novels ever written. That's heady stuff for a book that, according to the Randolph County School Board, is a "hard read" that has "no literary value."

[The blogger holds his breath, counts to ten, prays to St. Anthony.]

Value is, of course, a subjective term, especially when dealing with opinions of literary worth. Even so it beggars the imagination that a North Carolina school board (whose qualifications to judge such matters I would very much like to see presented in the public arena for scrutiny equal to that which they have given Ellison's novel), should fly in the face of sixty years of critical elevation, awards, laudatory essays, tributes, and say that its wholly subjective opinion should mean more, and should be the final word on Invisible Man's literary worth. In fact, not only does it beggar the imagination, it cons the imagination out of its life savings and fucks off to the Seychelles for a nice long vacation from reality.

The reality is, Invisible Man is an astounding, accomplished novel, in a way an American answer to Notes From the Underground. It is beautifully written, by turns heartbreaking, terrifying, incendiary, and always, always, unflinching in its depiction of race relations in America during the last century. To read it and say it has no literary value is to say that the sky is orange. To read it and say it has no literary value is to speak to something deeper, something darker, something unspoken--because to bring it into the light is too discomfiting for that reader to admit to. In public.

In my subjective opinion, of course.

Having dispensed with that aspect of the argument, let's turn our attention to the original complaint against the novel, brought by a single parent of an 11th grade student--who says, among other things:

“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.”

[The blogger holds his breath, counts to ten, and somehow manages not to need St. Anthony's intercession this time.]

Rather than go after the multiple instances of low-hanging fruit that so enticingly present themselves in this parent's letter, I would instead prefer to note the following:

Invisible Man was one of three books on a supplemental summer reading list that the high school juniors in question could pick from, the other two books being Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin and Passing by Nella Larsen. Honors students were required to pick two of the three books. At no point was anyone required to read Ellison's novel. At no point was a gun held to a head. At no point were stentorian voices heard to say "YOU MUST READ THIS WHETHER YOUR PARENTS THINK IT APPROPRIATE OR NOT."

Bearing this in mind it is difficult, at best, to see how anyone's religion or parental authority was disrespected or disregarded.

As to the book being "freely" on the shelves for anyone to read--well, hey. Welcome to America. That's what we're supposed to do here. And we are not required to bow to any religious or parental authority, imagined or assumed, while doing so. If we so choose of our own free will to accede to such well-meaning squeamishness, then that is one thing. But to have the decision forced upon us by such nauseous good intention is something else entirely.

Much is made in certain arenas of the "tryanny of the majority," and how if we are not careful the majority opinion can trample the rights of the minority. And that argument has value sometimes. But it is also, sometimes, just as likely that the real tyranny can arise from a frightened but well-meaning minority, fearful of that trampling, looking to get its licks in before any imagined "tyranny" can take place. And when that happens, we are all lessened because of it. 

In short: It is not for one parent to decide what all other parents' children should read. It never has been. It never should be. It is my hope that the other parents with high school students in the Randolph County system will not walk, but run to their local bookstores and buy copies of Invisible Man. Multiple copies. And leave them in public places to be picked up and read by anyone who chooses to do so. It is not the only appropriate response to this situation . . . but in many ways, it is the most American response to it.

As to the appropriateness of Ellison's novel to an eleventh grade reader . . . allow me to share with you a story.

I came across Invisible Man when I was a high school junior. Not as an assignment, not as part of a supplemental list, but because I was told by an adult I trusted that it was a damned good book, and I could probably get a lot out of it. So I found a copy at the public library, and started nibbling at the first few chapters--and then devoured the damned thing. And in a lot of ways, it changed me. Scenes and images from the novel--the harrowing "battle royal," the shocking reveal of the true contents of Bledsoe's letters, the glass eye, the startling appearance of Ras during the riot--have stayed with me to this day. I have not read the novel since--too many new things to read, all the time--but I'm beginning to think, after today, that I should read it again. And this time I will buy a copy, so we will have it on the shelves of our home for my children to read when my wife and I decide they are old enough.

When we decide. Not the school board. And not my other-fearing neighbor. And we will allow our children to see the world awake, not sleepwalking and fearful.

“For, like almost everyone else in our country, I started out with my share of optimism. I believed in hard work and progress and action, but now, after first being 'for' society and then 'against' it, I assign myself no rank or any limit, and such an attitude is very much against the trend of the times. But my world has become one of infinite possibilities. What a phrase - still it's a good phrase and a good view of life, and a man shouldn't accept any other; that much I've learned underground. Until some gang succeeds in putting the world in a strait jacket, its definition is possibility.” 

Remain in light.

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