Things Aren't Always Black and White
Mat Johnson, writer of Incognegro, knows discrimination all too well. As a light skinned African-American, he encountered a lot of prejudice growing up as he did not fit conveniently into any race category. His feelings on this, as well as the real life story of Walter White, are what led him to create Incognegro.
From the outset, the book is disarmingly frank, opening with the public lynching of a young black man and the indifference - and even glee - of the white crowd around him. The book continues in this vein, never flinching, never tip-toeing around the issue of discrimination. Johnson maintains a balance throughout, conveying the true horror of the Ku Klux Klan mentality without either vilifying all white people, or deifying all black people - as some lesser writers have a tendency to do. Instead the book presents us with three dimensional characters whose actions can often only be understood within the context of their time and environment.
Incognegro tells the story of Zane Pinchback, a man of mixed ethnicity who can "pass" as a Caucasian. Zane utilises this and goes undercover to expose the hatred around him. But things become especially complicated when his brother is arrested for murder - crucially, the murder of a white woman.
Johnson's depiction of the old South, as well as his fearless exploration of racial identity and self-perception, is an intriguing and enjoyable read. It is not only a study into racial stereotypes, but into the human tendency to attach labels to others, and most of all to ourselves. He does this effortlessly, without ever making the reader feel as though he is preaching his cause - although when it comes to a subject as sensitive as this one, to do so would be completely understandable.
As Zane himself says:
"That's one thing that most of US know that most white folks don't. That race doesn't really exist. Culture? Ethnicity? Sure. Class too. But RACE is just a bunch of rules meant to keep us on the bottom. Race is a strategy.The rest is just people acting. Playing roles. That's what white folks never get. They don't think they have accents. They don't think they eat ethnic foods. Their music is classical. They think they are just normal, that they are the universal, and everyone else is an odd deviation from the norm."
Also of interest is the artwork, which is presented in black and white, with no difference in skin colour between characters. This acts as a very powerful visual reminder of the subject at hand.
Regardless of ethnicity, Incognegro is simply a must read for anyone. All politics aside, this is a damn fine story, and a wonderful addition to any collection. A poignant, and humbling work.