Researching an historical novel can take you many different places. Looking to expand my understanding of my young, light-skinned African American character, I searched my local library for books on multi-racial issues. One of the books which popped up was Incognegro, a graphic novel written by Mat Johnson and illustrated by Warren Pleece (DC Comics, 2008).
I am new to this genre, and admittedly brought a dose of skepticism to the book. I wondered if it would really be anything more than a glorified comic book. My embarrassment aside, I can now unequivocally say that yes, this illustrated novel is far different than the Archie comic books of my elementary school years.
Johnson tells the story of a light-skinned Harlem journalist, Zane Pinchback, who reports on lynchings. Zane can easily “pass” and publishes under his pseudonym, Incognegro . But he longs to “come out” and be a part of the Harlem Renaissance. Before he has a chance to do that, his boss asks him to investigate the arrest of a black man in Tupelo, Mississippi, accused of murdering a white woman. The black man is his dark-skinned brother Alonzo, and Zane has no choice but to go undercover again.
The short novel portrays the dangers he and his light-skinned friend Carl experience as they fool the “crackers” they meet in Mississippi. There are multiple twists and turns in this short 134-page book which surprise and confront the reader. Through realistic dialogue and vivid pictures, the time period is explicitly portrayed--including sub-plots depicting rural southern white prejudice.
Since Johnson did not hold back on time and race appropriate language or on his portrayal of violence and sexual liaisons, I would recommend this book for mature teens. My main issue with the book is that I found transitions between events difficult to follow; I had to reread sections to totally understand what was happening.
Incognegro’s portrayal of historical events will be an asset in the social studies and American history classrooms.