Mat Johnson’s Incognegro Analysis

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Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution were historical milestones in which the ever controversial topic of racial equality was first challenged. In theory, these two movements laid the groundwork for a racially equal United States of America. A country in which every member, regardless of skin color, or race were to be treated equally under the eyes of the law and to one day be treated as equals within all realms of society.

As historic and powerful as these movements were, they did little to quell racism and unfair treatment of African Americans in the United States. Following these two movements and the ending of the civil war, African Americans continued to be harshly mistreated by members of white America, as numerous members of the African American race were threatened, falsely accused of crimes, beaten, raped and killed as a result of Jim Crow laws and the Southern tradition of lynching, or hanging African Americans.

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Mat Johnson’s graphic Novel, Incognegro, chronicling the trials and tribulations of Zane, an African American journalist who pretends to be white to expose the brutal reality of segregation against African Americans in the South, is a graphic manifestation of both the historical accuracy and cultural reality of segregation and brutal mistreatment of African Americans within the Jim Crow South.

Johnson’s vivd dramatizations of African Americans being brutally murdered by lynching, African Americans, “passing,” as whites, and African Americans being unfairly tried under the eyes of the law, sheds historically accurate light on an important, yet swept under the rug tradition of a time when racial segregation against African Americans served as a cultural identity that came to define cultural practices and social institutions for many white Americans living in the South.

One example from Johnson’s, Incognegro, of how racial segregation of African Americans morphed into a defining identity for cultural practices and social institutions within the White American South is in the historical institution of lynching of African Americans. Within the first panel of Johnson’s, Incognegro, Johnson’s main character Zane provides a chilling account of a lynching. In his account, Zane describes a scene of hundreds of onlookers drinking and carrying on as if it were a great social event, while a helpless African American man was strung up on a noose, beaten, emasculated, dressed as a clown and eventually hung.

According to Zane, “Like house cats with dead mice, they tend to play with the body. Particularly if it was a Soldier. Crackers hate to see a Uniform on a Soldier. They usually strip those guys first. ”(Johnson part 1) All the while, a photographer captured pictures of the event, to create postcards to be sold as keepsakes, so says Zane, “After that, it’s memento time. They take pieces of the body as keepsakes. Pictures are taken to remember the special day. (Johnson. part 1) While Johnson’s portrayal of lynchings provides an account that favors the appeal to the emotions, historical accounts of lynchings of African Americans in the South, takes a scholarly approach that presents lynchings as a widely accepted social institution that was used to both intimidate African Americans and create a cultural identity for white Americans in the South as the dominant race.

To quote social Historian Steven F. Messner in, “The Legacy of Lynching and Southern Homicide”, “Lynching not only serves as a powerful example of the use of lethal violence for social control; it also represents killing as a punishment without the sanctioning of formal law. Thus, we suggest that a legacy of lynching might facilitate the emergence of culturural supports for the use of lethal violence as a way to settle disputes, manage interpersonal conflicts and to punish those who, in the eyes of the perpetrator, deserve to die because of their offensive behavior. (Messner. 636) Thus, while the two representations of lynchings differ slightly, both prove that overwhelmingly, as a result of segregation and the Jim Crow South, harsh and brutal treatment of African Americans was both justified and encouraged, as it grew to form a cultural identity in which whites were superior to blacks, as cultural practices and social institutions such as the previously mentioned lynchings, served as a means to cement this cultural identity into moral fabric of White Americans in the South.

A second instance of a historical institution which demonstrates the harsh treatment of African Americans and with that the cultural reality of segregation and oppression of African Americans in the Jim Crow South was the institution of passing. “Passing”, as it is known is the historical practice of light skinned African Americans, pretending to be white in order to better assimilate into the White American dominated culture of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Incognegro’s main character Zane, personifies this practice of passing as he is employed as an African American Journalist who passes as a White Journalist in order to unearth true and unbiased accounts of the brutal mistreatment of African Americans in the Jim Crow South. According to Zane, “I am Incognegro/I don’t wear a mask like Zorro or a cape like the shadow, but I don a disguise nonetheless/My camouflage is provided by my genes;the product of the Southern Tradition nobody likes to talk about. Slavery. Rape.

Hypocrisy”(Johnson. part 1) Zane goes on to further explain that in passing he is redefining race, not as a question of skin color, but as a set of rules and ways of thinking, “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. ”(Johnson. part 1) In addition to passing in order to reveal truths of segregation in The South, countless African Americans pretended, or “passed” as whites for many other reasons.

According to Jennifer V. Jackson in her work, “Black Versus Black: The Relationship among African, African American and African Caribbean Persons”, “Passing for white offered not only opportunities, but also the opportunities white people received. During slavery, it could mean freedom. There are many documented instances of fair-skinned slaves who posed as white to escape. In modern times, it meant being able to vote in the South. It meant a job in the office rather than a job cleaning the office.

It meant schools with the latest equipment and books, instead of dilapidated buildings and out-of-date texts. It often meant better housing. It meant being treated with respect, not disdain. ”(Jackson. 578) Thus as shown by Zane in Incognegro and the historical account previously mentioned, as it were, the cultural identity of White America in the segregation of African Americans forced African Americans to pass as white. As passing allowed African Americans to circumvent social institutions of the Jim Crow South that were put into place in order to clearly define race roles in ociety and to ensure that Whites would remain the supreme race. A third social institution which Johnson portrays in his graphic novel, Incognegro, is the unfair treatment of African Americans under the eyes of the law. In the Jim Crow South, Blacks were often used as scapegoats and tried and condemned for crimes they did not commit. In the process, the trial would be swift and biased, more than likely ending in a sentencing of death for the innocent Black Party.

Johnson portrays this in his novel as Zane’s brother Pinchy has been arrested for a murder he did not commit. In conversation with the sheriff who arrested Pinchy, the sheriff admits, “Let’s cut the shit then. I know You didn’t kill Michaela Mathers, Pinchy, I never thought you did. ” (Johnson. part 2) While he admits that Pinchy is innocent, he cannot protect him because in the cultural practice of lynching, a mob was forming to lynch Pinchy and the Sherrif would have been unable to control the mob.

One historical example of legal inequality of African Americans is in the Scottsboro rape case, where nine African American boys ranging from ages twelve to eighteen were accused of raping a white woman while on a freight train. To quote Hugh T. Murray in, “Changing America and the Changing Image of Scottsboro”, the case was a, “story of nine young negroes snatched from a freight train, nearly lynched, quickly convicted and sentenced to death. (Murray. 82) Additionally stating that it was a “court room drama in which one of the white victims denied she was raped, and in which the prosecution appealed to anti-Negro, anti-semetic and anti-Northern prejudice. ”(Murray. 82) Further showing that the cultural practices of segregation even translated into practices of law, where justice was dealt upon the principles of immoral social institutions and prejudices against the African American race.

Mat Johnson’s graphic novel, Incognegro, explored racial tensions in the post civil war Jim Crow South, by means of exploring the three main social institutions of lynching, passing and inequality under the law. In illuminating each of these three institutions, Johnson provides historically accurate accounts of how the cultural reality of segregation in the Jim Crow South came to define cultural practices and identities as the White American South followed an array of cultural practices in which to clearly define ace roles in society and to solidify the White American identity as the dominant race. In his description of the the institutions of lynching, passing and inequality of justice for African Americans, Johnson dramatizes such instances, while remaining historically accurate in including the motives and justifications which prejudice White Americans used in order to justify their actions against the African American race.

Thus, in conclusion through the use of historically accurate portrayals of the social institution of racism, and the revealing of the true cultural reality of segregation in the Jim Crow South, Mat Johnson accurately depicts how racism and segregation came to define the cultural identity and practices of White Americans in the South, as racist sentiments became woven into the fabric of morality and with that dictated the harsh treatment of African Americans in everyday life.

Work Cited

Johnson. Mat. Incognegro. New York, NY: DC Comics,2008. “The Legacy of Lynching and Southern Homicide. ” Steven F. Messner, Robert D. Baller and. Matthew P. Zevenbergen. American Sociological Review , Vol. 70, No. 4 (Aug. , 2005), pp. 633-655. American Sociological Association. www. jstor. org “Black versus Black: The Relationships among African, African American, and African Caribbean Persons. ” Jennifer V. Jackson and Mary E. Cothran. Journal of Black Studies , Vol. 33, No. 5 (May, 2003), pp. 576-604. Sage Publications, Inc. “Changing America and the Changing Image of Scottsboro”. Hugh T. Murray, Jr. Phylon (1960-) , Vol. 38, No. 1 (1st Qtr. , 1977), pp. 82-92. Clark Atlanta University. www. jstor. org

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Mat Johnson’s Incognegro Analysis. (2017, Jan 07). Retrieved from

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