After hearing a very interesting NPR interview with Mat Johnson, I decided I simply had to read Incognegro. Mr. Johnson’s lives and experiences are clearly an inspiration for the superhero known as Incognegro as well as inspiration for his other writings. He describes himself as “mulatto”, being the son of an African-American mother and an Irish-American father. The struggles of growing up being seen differently by different people is a struggle which I personally often thought about, even though I’m as Western European-American as you can get. As you may know, I’m an Adult Reference Librarian who maintains the adult graphic novel collection at a large urban public library. You may also know that I’m a self-described geek and anti-racist and a family historian.
I’d seen the graphic novel come and go off the shelves. My reading list was so long, I told myself I’d get there eventually. After hearing that interview (linked above), I moved it up the list.
This graphic novel places us in the 1930s where a light-skinned journalist, Zane, goes undercover as a white man in the American South to investigate lynchings for a newspaper based in Harlem. His newspaper publishes his work under the name ‘Incognegro’. This means he goes without recognition outside of the office, which is something he grapples with. He wants people to know that he’s the writer known as Incognegro.
Throughout the graphic novel, we are faced with uncomfortable realities about race in America, past and present. I find the straight forward unapologetically honest tone of this graphic novel refreshing. The writing is grounded and the black and white artwork, done by illustrator Warren Pleece, doesn’t try to blunt the honest tone.
“Race doesn’t really exist,” Zane says. “Race is just a bunch of rules meant to keep us on the bottom. Race is a strategy. The rest is just people acting. Playing roles. That’s what white folks never get. They don’t think they have accents. They don’t think they eat ethnic foods. Their music is classical. They think they’re just normal. That they are the universal and that everyone else is an odd deviation from form. That’s what makes them so easy to infiltrate.”
Other works by Mat Johnson:
- Hunting in the Harlem
- Hellblazer: Papa Midnite
- The Great Negro Plot
- Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story
- Right State
- Loving Day