By Colleen Jenkins
WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (Reuters) - A North Carolina school board is rethinking its ban of Ralph Ellison's heralded novel "Invisible Man" from school libraries after being ridiculed by residents and undercut by a giveaway of the book at a local bookstore on Wednesday.
The widely publicized vote by the Randolph County Board of Education in central North Carolina came after a high school junior's mother complained that the sexual content in the book chosen for a summer reading program was "not so innocent" and "too much for teenagers."
Five of the board's seven elected officials agreed on September 16 to bar the novel, with one member saying he "didn't find any literary value" in Ellison's account of African-American alienation in the United States in the early 20th century.
A fierce backlash by hundreds of citizens, including the county's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has prompted the board to reconsider the ban at a special meeting called for Wednesday evening, board member Matthew Lambeth told Reuters.
Insisting that he and the other board members who supported the ban were not "a bunch of racist, ignorant bigots," Lambeth said he was happy to revisit the book's status after gathering more input from the community during the past week.
"I think the board might have been a little too hasty to make the decision," Lambeth said, adding he did not know yet whether he would change his vote.
Ellison achieved worldwide fame and critical success with "Invisible Man," which won the National Book Award for fiction in 1953 and was named by the Library of Congress as one of the "Books That Shaped America." Ellison died in 1994.
"Invisible Man" is commonly included in the curriculum of U.S. high school and college literature classes.
Word of the ban, which spread quickly thanks to national news coverage and social media, inspired one former resident to ask the book's publisher to donate free copies to area high-school students.
Vintage Books agreed, and a giveaway of "Invisible Man" began on Wednesday at a local Books-A-Million store, said Evan Smith Rakoff, a New York-based writer and web editor who grew up in Randolph County.
"I think banning any book is abhorrent, but banning a book that's so undeniably great is incredibly upsetting," Rakoff said.
Lambeth, who said he has read the book twice and enjoyed it, declined to explain ahead of the special meeting his reasons for barring the novel.
"This book obviously has literary value," he said. "We can't go back and change the past, but we can rectify our decision, if it needs rectifying."
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Leslie Adler)