“Race is a strategy, the rest is just people acting. Playing their roles.” This phrase by the books protagonist Zane Pinchback speaks volumes about the climate in 1930’s America and strangley enough today. I’m used to controversial stories from Vertigo, but nothing could prepare me for this one. This hard hitting and brutally real crime drama is a disturbing look into America during the late 1930’s in particular race relations between blacks and whites in the south. I’ll first start off by saying “what a great concept!” To make the protagonist a man of color who because he’s light skinned is able to infiltrate the south and expose the injustices going on there, is brilliant. It reminded me a bit of the book Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin the true story a white Texan reporter who traveled through the south in the 60’s disguised as a black man. Only in this case it’s the other way around and at the end of the day he’s still black…oh and half white. It also reminded me of another book, but I’ll get to that. Let’s talk about INCOGNEGRO by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece.
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 for white. 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.
It’s hard to believe that a world like the one in this book ever existed and I’m fortunate enough to have never experienced it, but books like this are always good for reminding those of us that forget that it didn’t used to be this way and that good people died in horrific ways so that non whites could be treated like everyone else. As heavy as the content in this book is it could’ve gone further in their depictions of what really happened, but what is presented more than gets the point across. It’s easy with stories like this to paint ideas of people who are so larger than life pushing the story into an exploitative/propaganda realm. That doesn’t happen with Incognegro. It’s a real crime story, with amazing characters and great pace. You get a good sense of the danger Zane faces while investigating a murder that his brother is being wrongly accused of. Illustrator Warren Pleece (Hellblazer, The Invisibles) is simplistic perfection. His choice to use black and white illustrates, but at the same time helps the reader focus on the dialogue. You combine that art with the colorful dialogue and you’ve got technicolor! A solid novel and somewhat accurate sociology expose, Incognegro is thought out and very entertaining look at life for blacks in the south and it also sheds light on the light and dark skinned hierarchy than ran a muck back then and sadly still to this day.