We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘Books On Our To Read Shelf’, where we pick books that we’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to.
For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!
Book: “Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery” by Mat Johnson, Warren Pleece (Ill.)
Publishing Info: Berger Books, February 2008
Where Did We Get This Book: The library!
Book Description: In the early 20th Century, when lynchings were commonplace throughout the American South, a few courageous reporters from the North risked their lives to expose these atrocities. They were African-American men who, due to their light skin color, could “pass” among the white folks. They called this dangerous assignment going “incognegro.”
Zane Pinchback, a reporter for the New York-based New Holland Herald, is sent to investigate the arrest of his own brother, charged with the brutal murder of a white woman in Mississippi. With a lynch mob already swarming, Zane must stay “incognegro” long enough to uncover the truth behind the murder in order to save his brother — and himself. Suspenseful, unsettling and relevant, Incognegro is a tense graphic novel of shifting identities, forbidden passions, and secrets that run far deeper than skin color.
Two years ago when Serena and I were at the annual conference for ALA, we went to a panel that talked about graphic novels and how they convey stories. One of the panelists highlighted “Incognegro” by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece, a story based on true accounts of a black news reporter who could pass for white, and would go undercover to expose racial violence in the deep South. I knew that I wanted to read it eventually, but filed it away and didn’t think about it. So when book club decided that our theme should be selections from the TBR pile, I decided that we were going to read “Incognegro”. I knew that it was going to be a very raw and emotional read, but also had a feeling it was going to be as interesting as I thought it would be.
“Incognegro” doesn’t hold back from the get go, as the first pages depict a violent lynching in graphic detail. While it is horrific and set me immediately on edge, Johnson clearly had every intention of making the reader feel abject horror at what was on the page. The injustice and violence perpetrated against black people during the Jim Crow years is something that we learn in school, but it can still get a bit lost as to just how awful it was. This book exposes all of it, and while it’s absolutely hard to read and take in, it never feels like it’s exploitative. It also shows that it was what we would potentially see as ‘regular people’ who participated in lynchings, not caricatures of racists that we may think of thanks to TV and movies. While a Klansman is the main named antagonist, it’s also ‘regular’ people who go to watch the lynchings and even get souvenirs to commemorate the murders and tortures they witness. It makes it so that the reader can’t see this as merely something only mustache twirling villains did, and that it could be anyone who held such toxic and violent ideals, including the people you’d see walking down the street or at a picnic. Johnson also has a note at the end of the ten year anniversary addition, in which he talks about how the rise of far right and white supremacist hate groups in the last few years makes this story feel all too relevant still.
Not only were the themes strong, so were the characters. It is clear that the work that Zane (who is based on a man named Walter Francis White), is doing is necessary and incredibly dangerous, and we see him as he is starting to feel his dedication run thin, not because he doesn’t believe in it anymore, but because of the various tolls it is taking. He has managed to make his job both personal, as he is a black man who would be targeted if he wasn’t able to pass, and yet impersonal, because he’s escaped the South for Harlem and is the famous ‘incognegro’ who is doing important and applauded work. But it becomes wholly personal when it’s his own brother Alonzo that could be the next target, after Alonzo is accused of murdering a white woman. I liked seeing his experience and weariness, especially when contrasted with that of the younger and less experienced Carl, someone who is probably going to be his replacement. The way that they react to the conditions that they see on Zane’s supposed last assignment show their different approaches and feelings regarding what their mission is supposed to be, and I liked that Johnson doesn’t really show either of them as being right or wrong in their ethos, but also naive in their own ways. You care for both of them, and that makes it all the more upsetting when the violence they’re meant to evade can’t be avoided.
I am so glad that I finally picked up “Incognegro”, and I urge people to read it, as challenging and upsetting as it may be. It’s a story that is still incredibly relevant, and has a lot to say about the society we are still living in.
As Kate mentioned, I was at the same panel that discussed this book and was very intrigued by it. Unlike her, I was not organized enough to put it on my Goodreads TBR list and so had completely forgotten about it. Thank goodness, one of us had it together there!
I agree with every Kate has said, so I won’t repeat her on those same topics. In brief, I thought the characterization was excellent for most of the characters (there is one exception with a woman character who reads a bit caricature-ish at times, but this is a super minor point). And, while incredibly hard to read about, I too appreciated the eyes-wide-open approach to such a tough subject. There is no hand-holding or soft-selling the horrors of this point in history. And like Kate mentioned, it’s made clear that it wasn’t only “villains” the way we would like to think of them. It could be anyone. And more so, there’s a good commentary about mob mentality throughout the book. That even people who on their own might not be moved to such violence can be easily caught up in a swell of anger and hatred and then subside back into their ordinary lives, as if nothing had happened. This is the kind of anger that I think we are seeing more of today at protests and rallies. This book is a good reminder of just how far that behavior can go if not held in firm check by those reporting honestly on the issues and the unequivocal recrimination by society and leaders of society of those participating in ways that lead towards this type of hatred.
I also really enjoyed the artwork in this book. It is done in variations of black and white with some hints of browns. It does a nice job of keeping the reader focused on what is being said by the story itself, rather than being distracted by the very thing the book is discussing: the color of individuals. The art was used in a really strong way, both slapping readers in the face with some pretty tough images, but also playing well to a few comedic moments as well as portraying the action of the story and emotion of the characters quite effectively.
The last thing I want to discuss is the mystery itself. While yes, much of the book is a discussion of the themes we’ve discussed above, there’s also a compelling murder mystery at its heart. I felt that by having this plotline, the authors were able to prevent the reader from feeling too overwhelmed by the dark nature of the story. I also really liked how it pulled in the idea that Black individuals were not the only ones who were disenfranchised at this time and who might find the idea of going “incognito” as a white man appealing in order to pursue the life they want but that is denied them in their natural state.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. “Enjoyed” seems like a strange word, given the context, but I think that it is still appropriate. I did find the mystery fun at times, and the darker aspects of the book were important reminders of a period of history that often gets briefly touched upon and then quickly moved past.
Kate’s Rating 9: A raw, emotional, and suspenseful look at a dark time in our history, and a story that shows the importance of speaking up for the truth no matter what the risk may be.
Serena’s Rating 9: Excellent. A tough read, but one that speaks to a subject many would rather avoid, and one that is always relevant when we see ourselves beginning to be ruled by fear and hatred of an “other.”
Book Club Questions
- Were you familiar with the role that people like Walter Francis White played in exposing the facts about lynching in the South during this time period?
- Both Zane and Carl have different approaches to gathering intel when trying to infiltrate racist circles, and different approaches with how to approach conflict. Let’s say that Carl hadn’t been found out due to someone with outsider knowledge. Whose strategy do you think is more effective or appropriate when lives are at stake: Zanes more covert one, or Carl’s more direct one?
- This book has two stories about people passing for identities that they were not: Zane passing for a different race, and deputy Francis passing as a man. We know the consequences for Zane were he found out, but what do you think the risks and rewards would have been for Deputy Francis?
- Many people today see the concept of race as a societal construct. What are some ways that this concept is hinted at in this story?
- What do you make of Alonzo and Michaela’s relationship?
- Mat Johnson has said that he wanted to re-release “Incognegro” in the aftermath of the Charlottesville far right/ White Supremacist rally and the racial terrorism it inspired. In what other ways do you think “Incognegro” is relevant to social issues of today?
Find “Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery” at your library using WorldCat!
Next Book Club Book: “Kindred” by Octavia Butler