It can be hard to tell who’s black in America. This is something our history books tend to downplay when not denying it outright. It’s also something that can be used to one’s advantage in certain situations. In the early part of the 20th century, Walter White, the former head of the NAACP went undercover as a white man in the deep south to investigate and report on lynchings. At the risk of his own life, he made multiple trips investigating 41 lynchings and 8 race riots for the Chicago Daily News, the Chicago Defender, The Nation and The Crisis. His story is the basis for Mat Johnson’s graphic novel Incognegro.
A book like Incognegro serves two purposes. Like all books it can’t help escape being an entertainment, but Incognegro is also an education. It certainly works as an entertainment. The artwork is black and white, film noir style, dramatic and frightful when called for, dry and sophisticated in between times. Mr. Johnson peoples the story with a cast of characters who advance the drama while they illustrate how wide spread and ingrained the problem of lynching was in early 20th century America.
Warren Pleece’s artwork calls the concept of race into question as the novel progresses. The hero is a black man who can pass for white. His companion is in the same position. As they appear in the same panel as white characters it soon begins to dawn on the reader just how difficult it is to tell who is black and who is white. Many of the supporting white character at the close of the book look just like the supporting black characters in the opening pages. In the end we can’t help but begin to wonder why we are asking who’s black and who’s white in the first place. What difference should it make? Why does anyone care?
It would be interesting to read this one again in light of the Rachel Dolezal story. Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show, which C.J. and I love, created a character who’s sort of an adventure safari figure on the hunt for white people who disguise themselves as black called ‘Incognegros.’ It’s a pretty funny bit, but I did wonder if I was the only reader of Mat Johnson’s book watching.
I first ran this review on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. way back in 2009. It’s really a very good book. More people should read it. Walter White should be a household name. He was a true American hero.