Challenged Book: Invisible Man

In 1952, Random House took a gamble on a now classic text on Black identity, politics, and the lived experience of Black Americans. It turned out to be a good move; the book won the National Book Award in 1953 and has been recognised numerous times since with literary awards and commendations. But Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man had a rough year in 1975:

Excerpts banned in Butler, PA (1975). Removed from the high school English reading list in St. Francis, WI (1975).

19 years later, parents in Washington were complaining that the book was too violent and sexually explicit, and wanted it removed from the reading list. Invisible Man continues to be a topic of contention on some school reading lists. Like many of the books I’ve read this year with a specific eye on banned and challenged books, it continues to be widely praised and lauded, it is considered a classic, and yet, some parents definitely do not want it in their schools.

Somewhat unusually, this is one of the few banned and challenged books I’ve covered this year that I actually read in high school. Actually, I read it numerous times in high school; I read it once for an English class, and I also read it aloud for a friend in the same class. As a result, I have a very intimate relationship with it. This is a book that I have rolled around in my brain, and off my tongue, that I have talked about in classroom settings.

Yes, sex and violence are in this book. The battle royale scene is pretty unforgettable and all the more chilling when you read it with the understanding that it is not entirely fiction. Setting young Black men against each other as objects of entertainment was a popular pasttime in some communities, and continues to be in some places. Invisible Man is an unsettling book to read and it is a complex one.

Ellison’s goal was experimental, and he certainly accomplished that. Looking back on my relationship with the book in high school, there’s a lot that I simply missed, in an all white class with a white instructor, and there’s a lot more material we could have delved into. If anything, I think this is not a book that should be taught in classes where instructors are going to handle the text irresponsibly and where students are not going to learn about the loaded context of many of the scenes in this book, but that is not an argument for a ban.

Take, for example, the scene where the narrator discovers that he has been given shock treatment against his will. You cannot talk about this scene without discussing the pathologisation of reactions to oppression. There is a long history of racial inequalities in mental health diagnoses and treatment, of treating young Black men in general as sick, dangerous, and in need of a ‘cure.’ This is not just a scene about a narrator waking up in an institution to learn that he’s received electric shock treatment against his will, something that most readers would find frightening and appalling because of what they have been taught about institutionalisation and ECT.

This is a scene, very specifically, about the history of race-based psychiatric abuse. And that is not something we discussed in my high school class. I barely remember discussing this scene at all, actually. And this is also a scene about the history of using experimental medical treatments on people of colour, again, particularly young Black men. Of using Black bodies for medical experimentation and treating them like the property of the experimenter. Sometimes with a side of patronising attitudes about all the ‘good’ that these things are doing for the community. Our narrator’s very identity is pathologised here.

And this is a scene about the abusive use of ECT not just on the Black community, but on all mentally ill people. This is a treatment that continues to be forcibly used today, something that often comes as a surprise to people who are not familiar with disability justice issues and psychiatric abuse. Let me repeat that, because it bears repeating: This scene, in Invisible Man, is about an issue that continues to be a problem, that has been documented in a number of mental health facilities.

And, again, it is often young Black men who are targeted for such ‘treatment’ because their resistance to racism is treated as a sickness and a pathology. It is also, of course, young Black men who are more at risk of being mentally ill, because experiences of discrimination, particularly racism, can lead to mental illness; the psychiatric community admits that more research needs to be done on this.

The theme of invisibility, of not being a real person, that runs throughout the novel ties into this relatively brief scene, a blip in the narrative. People with mental illness are often considered unpeople, not real, not worthy of attention or respect or equal rights. When you have clear racial disparities in diagnosis of mental health conditions, it creates a situation where many people of colour are effectively told they are inhuman on the grounds of the fact that they, quite understandably, object to racism, and are not happy with the social order. You are erased from society both because of your race, and because you are crazy.

The fact that I can pick so deeply into just one scene in Invisible Man illustrates what a rich text this is, and shows how much room for analysis and exploration there can be in a classroom with an instructor who knows what is what and can guide a conversation effectively. Absolutely this book contains profanity, sexuality, violence, racism. All of these things are textually appropriate and perhaps even necessary for exploring the themes of this book and what it says about society.

Furthermore, a tremendous amount of textual exploration of this book has emerged from the Black community, which had and has a very mixed reaction to it. That is important to address in any classroom where students are reading Invisible Man, especially if most of those students are white; as always when you read the voice of a minority, you cannot take that voice as representative of the whole population. Supplemental reading opportunities and discussion points abound here and provide ample fuel for discussion.