If you look at photos of NAACP leadership from the 1930s, you’ll find a wiry, professorial-looking man with blond hair and fair skin at the center of many. This is Walter Francis White who, despite his appearance, was a black man. He used his white looks to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan and wrote many on-the-scene articles exposing the horrors of lynching.
White is the inspiration behind Incognegro, the graphic novel by literary prose writer Mat Johnson and British artist Warren Pleece.
“Incognegro” is the pseudonym of Zane Pinchback, a Southern-born, Harlem-based reporter who, like White, takes advantage of his appearance—attending lynchings, taking names and addresses under the guise of selling personalized postcards of the event, and writing exposes of the hatred and violence visited upon blacks in the `30s.
The work is dangerous—at the opening of the novel, he barely escapes with his life when a lynch mob figures out he’s a spy of some kind and pegs him for a—shall we say, “negro”?
Pinchback, aware of his good fortune at eluding discovery or worse, returns to Harlem determined to give up the undercover work. Besides, he’s an ambitious young journalist, chafing under the knowledge that while the “Incognegro” byline is famous, almost nobody knows the work of Zane Pinchback. He wants to write commentary and arts criticism to find out just where his talent might lead.
When Pinchback learns his twin brother has been arrested for murdering a white woman, however, he heads South one last time.
From that point Incognegro becomes a mixture of pulp mystery, Southern gothic, and Jim Crow parable. Pinchback’s brother, Alonzo, who looks just like him, but with dark skin, is a moonshiner charged with bashing in the face of a white woman named Michaela Mathers.
Posing as a Klan official, Pinchback interviews Alonzo in jail. Michaela was, in fact, his brother’s girlfriend and partner in the illegal whiskey operation. In the best crime fiction tradition, Pinchback must investigate the crime to find the real culprit—and before a mob overwhelms the sheriff’s determination to protect his prisoner.
It’s a journey that takes Pinchback to the remote still site, into the town’s black enclave, and out into the hinterland where a family of mentally unstable hill folk may have information.
Pinchback’s best friend, Carl, a dandy-ish tag-along, complicates matters by pretending to be a rich Englishman charming the local white elite, insensible of the risks.
Johnson, an award-winning literary novelist and short-story writer who teaches at the University of Houston, shows a feel for both the seriousness of his subject, and the lurid conventions of the pulp mystery and the graphic novel.
Among the admirable facets of Incognegro is the way Johnson develops substantial characterizations through action. Pinchback’s brusque editor is a familiar type, but one with more nuance than Superman’s Perry White or Spiderman’s J. Jonah Jameson. A local black man Pinchback enlists to help shows the dignity and keen sense of self-preservation required of people living under extreme oppression. Even the hill people, the closest Johnson comes to stereotype, are individually delineated characters.
Perhaps the characters Johnson most impressively captures are the racists. They feel fully justified in their actions, preserving the natural hierarchy of humanity, yet some, at least, know they are motivated by self-interest.
One character, abducting a black man, explains both: “On one side we got God’s white people, and all of our spoils of war, such as this very land. And on the other side we got all the mud people, the invaders, who want what’s ours.”
He adds: “It’s understandable. We got the best stuff. Who wouldn’t want all that we have? But I’m not going to let you take what’s mine. I don’t care if it’s something I stole, I’d be a fool if I let you have it. That’s just common sense.”
Likewise, Johnson’s understanding of the period—and Pleece’s as well—seems thorough and convincing. I detected not a single anachronism.
Incognegro proves once more, if proof is still needed, that the graphic novel equals prose, film and stage in its potential for all kinds of creative expression.