Review – Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery

An exploration of race and lynching in the Deep South

Black man in the middle of a white mob with a noose in the background

Overview

Synopsis Incognegro explores the complexities of race and identity, and the horrors of race-related murder in early twentieth-century America. While exploring America’s shadowed past, it asks questions that ring startlingly true today.

Author Mat Johnson

Artist Warren Pleece
Genre Crime

Length 133 pages

Release Date 1st Edition 2007, 2nd Edition 2018

Early in the 20th century, white-passing African-American reporters traveled into the southern United States to document lynching. They would then return to the North and publish their experiences in an attempt to expose the reality of racially motivated murder in the Deep South. Zane Pinchback is one such “incognegro” reporter. When his own brother is implicated in a gruesome murder, Zane is drawn into a complex web of secrets and lies in a small Mississippi town. An engaging and gut-wrenching story, Incognegro is an experience and has won numerous accolades. Writer Mat Johnson draws on his own experiences as a white-passing, mixed-race man, and Warren Pleece’s black-and-white noir-esque drawings bring to life a dark and menacing world that is all too real, and closer than we might think.

Content Guide

Violence: Incognegro deals frankly with lynching in America. It opens with a brutal lynching that includes emasculation. While nothing explicit is shown, we do see the victim screaming in terror and pain. Another beating and lynching happens before the story is through. Various other characters are hit, punched, dragged behind vehicles, and shot in the head. While violence is not gratuitous, it is not shied away from.

Sexual Content: There are no explicit sex scenes. However, various characters are engaged in extramarital sexual relationships, and this is discussed without being graphic. There are two instances where female characters are seen partially nude, and their breasts are visible. The first is a woman with her shirt unbuttoned; the second is a side view of a nude dead body. There is also discussion about a character who is a prostitute.

Drug/Alcohol Use: Characters are seen drinking and smoking. One subplot involves characters who make moonshine. 

Spiritual Content: Religious themes are nearly absent, save a few comments by Klansmen and others about white people being the people of God and destined to rule over Black people.

Language/Crude Humor: If this were a movie, it would be rated R. Language includes f*** (though infrequent), g******, b****, h***, d***, and s***. Racist language is heavily prevalent with n*****r being used quit frequently by white and Black characters. Other pejorative and antiquated terms are also present: negro, high yellow, and octoroon.

Other Negative Content:  The story revolves around the deep racism that permeated the American South in the early 20th century. It presents this view of America with unflinching honesty. This is neither casual nor light reading, and will likely warrant some deep discussion when the reading is done. Many characters are lying and manipulating others to their own ends. Zane routinely lies to pass as white and gain access to information.

Positive Themes: Zane and his friends risk their lives to do what’s right, though this doesn’t end well for everyone in the story.

Story

Zane Pinchback is a reporter for the New Holland Herald. He is one-eighth Black and white-passing. According to one-drop rules, he is considered to be Black in 1930s America. Using his light skin color as a shield, he routinely travels to the South to investigate lynchings. He writes about his experiences in his syndicated column “Incognegro” and lists the names of those in attendance. While he is lauded for his work, he must keep his identity secret, yet longs to write and publish under his own name. The Harlem Renaissance is in full-swing, and it is an unprecedented time of creative growth and prosperity for many Black Americans.

Men discussing unlimited options for Northern Black men, as opposed to those in the South
Incognegro, 2018 Berger Books/Dark Horse

On the brink of resigning unless he can write under his own name, Zane learns his brother Alonzo is implicated in the brutal murder of a white woman in Mississippi. As Alonzo will most certainly be lynched, Zane travels to Mississippi with his friend Carl to try and clear his brother’s name.

In the Deep South, Zane and Carl are drawn into the twisted system of racial politics under the iron grip of the Ku Klux Klan. Alonzo is accused of murdering Michaela Mathers, a local prostitute, bootlegger, and Alonzo’s lover. While few of the townspeople truly mourn Michaela’s death, it serves as a focal point for the racially motivated hatred that permeates the town. Complicating matters is the disappearance of Frank White, a local deputy who may have been the only one to see what truly happened.

Zane initially poses as a member of the Klan to gain access to the local townspeople and information about Alonzo. However, the murder has also drawn the attention of a high-ranking Klansman who is searching for Zane himself. With the clock ticking, Zane must solve Michaela’s murder, free his brother, and thwart those who want to put an end to Zane and his column, once and for all.

Zane wants fame and fortune but doesn't want to give up his undercover ops.
Incognegro, 2018 Berger Books/Dark Horse

Review

Mat Johson’s writing is tight and the narrative full of suspense. Warren Pleece’s black-and-white illustrations lend a dark, brooding feel to the story that allows for a building sense of menace and terror.

As previously mentioned, this is not light reading, but it is worthwhile reading. The subject matter is heavy, and the language, violence, and imagery used in the book are appropriately raw without being gratuitous. Adult language is most often used in moments of anger and fear, while the pejorative racial language permeates casual conversation. 

One-Drop

I discovered Mat Johnson’s work several years ago while doing my own research into racial identity in the United States. Johnson grew up as a light-skinned child who identified as Black but looked white. It was through Mat Johnson’s writing that I learned about Walter White who led the NAACP from 1929 to 1955. White, who had blonde hair and blue eyes, routinely went undercover to report on lynching in the Deep South. It was White’s story that inspired Incognegro.

The graphic novel explores the strange play of racial genetics on appearance. Johnson himself is the father of twins, one who was born with lighter skin and looks white, the other darker and looks Black. In the novel Zane and his twin brother share the same distinction. Zane was born lighter and able to pass, while Alonzo is darker.

Racial classification and miscegenation laws in the post-Civil War United States created a web of oppression for Black and mixed-race Americans. Mixed-race individuals, straddling the racial lines, were usually classified as Black. Slavery-era words like mulatto, quadroon, or octoroon were used to denote the level of African ancestry and whether a person was to be oppressed or not. Occupying this strange middle ground, mixed persons often found it difficult to be fully in one world or the other. Many, with light enough skin to pass, chose to vanish into white society, shedding their Black identity altogether.

Zane is constantly avoiding death.
Incognegro, 2018 Berger Books/Dark Horse
Socially Sanctioned Murder

While the early days of lynching before the Civil War saw mostly white men being murdered, the height of this mob “justice” came after the war and targeted Black Americans. Of the more than 4,000 people murdered via lynching after 1877, Black Americans make up the majority of the victims. Lynching was used to instill fear and further white supremacy. Victims were often falsely-accused successful Black business owners who were a threat to their white counterparts. The narrative was often put forward that this was justice for sexual assaults against white women, but this was far from the truth.

Incognegro is brutal, but not gratuitous. It does not shy away from or sugarcoat the horror of lynching, though it certainly could have been much more graphic and still fallen far short of showing the reality. More than just a hanging, lynching victims were often tortured first, even maimed and their body parts given away as souvenirs.

Numerous photographs survive to document these killings. They were sometimes conducted in secret by small groups, but often in large crowds numbering in the thousands. Postcards depicting the victims were sold as mementos. The crowds, as the Sheriff in Incognegro puts it, were “church-attending, moral-living, average men and women in all their glory. Normal people (who) need something to hate.”

Faith and Bigotry

It may seem strange to some, to think of people sitting in church on Sunday after attending the local lynching on Saturday night. On the other hand, religion and racism have gone hand in hand for millennia, that it should rear its ugly head from the pew in the modern era should come as no surprise.

KKK members with a sign that says "Jesus Saves" in the background
KKK meeting circa 1920, Oregon Historical Society.

In Numbers 12 we read of a terrifying encounter Moses, Aaron and Miriam have with God:

Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite. (Numbers 12:1 NIV)

They also complained that they too were hearing from God like Moses and should have been getting a bit more credit. However, this little disagreement began with a spat over Moses’ wife. This may have been Zipporah, although she is previously said to be from Midian, or another woman entirely. Either way, it seems Aaron and Miriam are critical of Moses’ wife because of her race.

In a truly frightening manifestation of Old Testament divine judgement, God immediately summons all three to the tent of meeting and visibly descends in a pillar of cloud to speak to them directly. The Bible says the Lord’s anger burned against them. Miriam and Aaron are reprimanded and Miriam is stricken with leprosy, indicating that maybe she was the ringleader of this discussion. Arguably the Lord was angry for a variety of reasons, but among them was the issue of Aaron and Miriam’s racism.

Scripture has long been used to justify racism, division, and oppression of people deemed “other”. Even the early church had to wrestle with it. Ironically, the Bible points to equality and treating those other than yourself as you wish to be treated. Prophetic literature speaks of “every tribe and tongue”, a celebration of the variety of humanity, before the throne of God.  Somewhere along the way, some of those who claimed to be the “people of God” like Aaron and Miriam, forgot this.

America during the heyday of lynching was infested with the Ku Klux Klan. Klansmen held power across the social and political spectrum. White supremacy and the ideals of the Klan were veiled in language that championed morality, patriotism, and Christian ideals. Klan rallies often invoked scripture and Christian symbolism. Churches on Sunday mornings were chock full of parishioners who could sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and justify the cold-blooded murder of “lesser” races. Klan ideology worked its way into social discourse, political action, and community organization. Shockingly, a side-by-side comparison of Klan language used 100 years ago and political language used today shows frightening similarities.

Sins of the Past and Present

Although it presents an era in American history, some of the themes explored in Incognegro still ring true today. In fact, Mat Johnson offers an afterword in this edition, published in 2018, 10 years after the original. He writes about the intervening decade, the election of the first black president, and the re-emergence of racial tensions and white supremacy assumed by some to be long-dead. In the novel, lynchings are attended by the entire family, and children are seen throwing rotten fruit and shouting racial slurs. It is this indoctrination that is most effective at perpetuating de facto racism and the most frightening.

"Our race is our nation" KKK poster
KKK propaganda distributed in New York in 2016. Photo Credit: ABC 7 New York

Incognegro strikes a deeply personal chord for me. Like Zane, and Mat Johnson, I am racially mixed, more white than Black. Due to the genetic lottery, I bear few outward traits of my Black heritage. I remember hearing about my mother’s experiences as a bi-racial woman in the Deep South of the 50s and 60s. She recalled segregated bathrooms, movie theaters, and restaurants. I remember in particular hearing her talk about my grandmother’s fears for her light-skinned daughter. In a time where instant judgements based on skin color could mean life or death, my grandmother feared my mother would be mistaken for a white girl fraternizing with Black men and be “strung up right along with them.”

These stories remind me that this is a living memory for an entire generation. Tragically for some, this continues to be a lived reality today. These memory and reality also highlight the continuing tensions around skin color and bias we are facing today.  

Within the narrative of Incognegro, race determines value. When Zane is perceived as white, the world is open to him. Color is power. But when he is invariably exposed as a Black man passing, the reality of prejudice and bigotry comes crashing in.

Incognegro feels disturbingly relevant and would serve well as the start of a discussion about race, identity, bias, and hatred. It is a sad reminder that none of us are far from self-justification of the darkest parts of ourselves. It is a lens into our past as a nation, that will hopefully cause us to examine our present and our future.

Positives

+ Beautiful artwork
+ Engaging and thought-provoking story

Negatives

- Language
- Bloody violence

The Bottom Line

A page-turning, taught mystery, Incognegro is thought-provoking and challenging. The violence and language serve the narrative, but may be disturbing to some readers. This is a worthwhile read and warrants discussion after the story is finished.

 

Story/Plot 10

Writing 10

Editing 10

Art 10

10

Timothy Taylor

Timothy Taylor is a lifelong creative, nerd and story teller. He spent more time reading and drawing as a kid than being outside. He is an artist, a teacher and a writer of fantasy, science fiction, and the occasional play. He continues to devour books, plays tabletop games and video games, and obsesses over the minutiae of made up worlds, including his own.

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