Thursday, January 22, 2009

Incognegro--Mat Johnson (Book review)

Maybe I shouldn't tell you. This is embarrassing and makes me look like a little bit of an idiot. And yet, it's an important part of the story, I think.

First, let me tell you that I read Incognegro for two challenges: the Graphic Novel Challenge and my own Diversity Rocks challenge. I'm drawn to graphic novels that depict realistic scenarios, so I was intrigued by a this tale of a lighter-skinned African-American newspaper reporter who goes undercover in the 1930s to expose public lynchings. But I did pick this one up specifically to diversify my reading, because I'd read that the author is black.

So, I opened the book and, as I sometimes do, flipped to the back to check for a picture of the author. (Am I the only one who likes to occasionally picture them writing, while I'm reading?) Imagine my surprise: "Oh, crap. I listed this guy as a black author on Diversity Rocks and he's white!" Why had I assumed he was black? Because of the subject matter? How odd of me. I jumped on the internet to recheck my sources. And found...

That I should have read the Author's note at the beginning of the book.

I grew up a black boy who looked white. This was in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, during the height of the Black Power era, so I stood out a bit. My mom even got me a dashiki so I could fit in with the other kids, but the contrast between the colorful African garb and my nearly blond, straight brown hair just made things worse.

Oh. Incognegro. Got it.

Being confronted by my own clinging assumptions about skin color as it relates to ethnic heritage was a powerful introduction to the fictional experiences of Zane Pinchback and his friend Carl, two New York black men risking their lives by posing as whites in the Deep South of the U.S. in order to solve a mystery and try to prevent a lynching. But even without this, the story packs a huge punch. Touching, uncomfortable, at times horrifying . . . exactly what this era of history calls for. Incognegro has stuck with me long past the couple of hours it took to read it.

Author Mat Johnson

Soundtrack: Cab Calloway, one of the great jazz singers of 1930s New York, singing the St. James Infirmary Blues.


  1. That was pretty much my reaction to the cover of Flygirl. Which I guess is the point!

  2. Wow! I took me a little while to figure out the title, but once I did, I think it's fantastic. I'd love to read this.

  3. I definitely want to get my hands on this one! Thanks, Ali! I'd never heard of this one before.

  4. Lenore, I'll have to look into Flygirl!

    Kathy and Debi, you should definitely read this one. I think both of you would appreciate it.

    And to the inevitable person out there who is quietly feeling offended by something I wrote, go ahead and speak your mind. I'd love to have further discussion on this.

  5. Thanks for sharing that little story, I think it illustrates some of the ideas of the book (at least, from your description of it). This sounds like a very interesting read!


  6. Well, I certainly don't think that makes you look like an idiot.

    But it's a great opening for a post, 'cause I love people to look as silly as I often do

  7. Excellent review. Thanks. I may add this to my GN challenge list.

  8. I agree with caite and Kim: I don't think you look like an idiot. Your reaction just helped support the author's point. I hadn't heard of this GN before, but now I really want to check it out.

    I also like the picture of the dashiki - I have one that belonged to my dad, and I loved wearing it...until I was told that it was offensive to my African-American friends. :(

  9. You don't sound like an idiot. I like it when I come across something that helps me realize what my assumptions are.

    Anyway...this book sounds amazing. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, Ali.

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