Friday, July 6, 2012
Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery, by Mat Johnson
Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery
by Mat Johnson
illustrated by Warren Pleece
New York: DC Comics
A light-skinned African-American reporter passes as white -- "going incognegro" -- to report on 1930s lynchings in Mississippi.
Zane Pinchbeck, a Harlem reporter, goes undercover as a white man to cover a major lynching story -- knowing that he could be the next victim if he's discovered. But he's driven not only by his career ambition but also by fraternal devotion: his own brother is the one awaiting trial for the murder of a white woman. Characters are a bit overblown -- the big-bellied sheriff, the well-meaning but ill-spoken field hand -- but recognizable as representations of larger themes. The "n-word" is used frequently, as might be expected in the South during this time before the civil rights movement, and there's some (black-and-white) bloody violence in several scenes that calls for a strong constitution.
While the implausible plot twists of this detective story are somewhat less than stunning, and the graphics fall short as well, the heart of the novel lies in the complexities of racial boundary-marking. What does "being black" mean? Is it about genetics? Appearance? Social or familial enculturation? If someone has pale skin, light-colored straight hair, and blue eyes (as do the author and his protagonist), what does that mean for his identity as an African-American? What does it say about the history of blacks and whites in the U.S.? If ancestry is diluted so much that a white man can't be distinguished from a black man by sight, it begs the question: why do people care so much? Adolescents can start passionate discussions about racial identity and mixed heritage while learning about black history and undercover journalism.
Media: pen and ink