In preparation for my fall literature class, I reread Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece’s Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery. There are a lot of aspects of the book I could discuss, and that I want to discuss with students. One of these will definitely be looking at Incognergo in relation to themes that James Baldwin discusses in his essay “Stranger in the Village.” As well, we will examine Francis Jefferson-White’s passing as a white male in the text. Zane Pinchback asks, “Who would pretend to be a white man in this world? What could be the possible advantage of that?” Zane’s questions encapsulate Incognergo and the ways that white supremacy and patriarchy oppress individuals. I may discuss these aspects in future posts, but today I want to focus on a specific scene early in the novel, the scene where Zane become “Incognegro.”
The five panels that depict Zane crossing the color line warrant a deep examination, specifically in relation to the history that Zane speaks about and also in the ways that this scene, and the rest of the narrative, plays upon superhero tropes. The historical aspects of the scene, and the novel, link to various things such as the rape of Black women, passing novels, the violence of lynching, and more. Throughout the scene, Zane looks at himself in the mirror as he transforms into “Incognegro.”
In this manner, he looks at his own reflection, his own identity, his own self. He sees the history that made him. He sees, as he puts it it in the second panel, “the product of the southern tradition nobody likes to talk about. Slavery. Rape. Hypocrisy. American Negroes are a mulatto people; I’m just an extreme example. A walking reminder.” As he narrates this, Zane looks in the mirror. There, he sees the past, the ghosts of the past, superimposed over his face. He sees a white man, possibly an enslaver, raping a Black woman, holding her wrists and pushing her down on the bed.
This image is an image of haunting, of the past coming into the present. It’s an image akin to the haunting that takes place in Ernest J. Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman when Tee Bob strikes Mary Agnes. Jules Raynard tells Jane that the entire community led Tee Bob to commit suicide because the “rules” would not allow him as a white man to have a relationship with Mary Agnes, a Creole woman, because of her Black blood. Speculating about the moment that Tee Bob struck Mary Agnes, Jules tells Jane that when Tee Bob looked at Mary Agnes’ face “[t]he past and the present got all mixed up. That stiff proudness left. Making up for the past left. She was the past now. She was grandma now, and he was that Creole gentleman. She was Verda now, and he was Robert.”
Tee Bob became his grandfather, and Mary Agnes became Verda, the woman he raped. This bringing together of the past into the present, the historical sin and violence into the contemporary, caused Tee Bob to lock himself in the library, surrounded by the past, and commit suicide. This scene is important as well because the books on the shelves, the books on slavery and the “rules,” would not let him forget his place. Even the implement of his death, the letter opener that his relative used at the state capital while he was a legislature, would not let him forget. The symbolic nature of the ghosts, the library, and the letter opener all oppress Tee Bob, and he kills himself in response.
Gaines uses the imagery of specters and ghosts in Of Love and Dust as well to highlight the haunting of the past. As well, Lillian Smith, in Killers of the Dream, uses the imagery of ghosts to show how the past continues to influence the present. She writes about the specters that haunt the psyche of the South, specifically white Southerners in the relationships between “white man and colored woman, white father and colored children, white child and his beloved colored nurse.” “These ghosts relationships,” as Smith continues, “still haunt the southern mind to such an extent that many of today’s most urgent problems cannot be dealt with rationally, even though the outcome of the world’s crisis may depend largely on how they are solved. They are ghosts that must be laid. Perhaps the only way to do it is to uncover them and see for ourselves the dusty nothingness beneath their masks.
Smith details the backyard paths that white men constructed to the quarters, the paths that led to the Black women they raped, the paths that led away from the women they married. The children born from these paths became neglected, ignored, invisible, as Smith, Gaines, and others point out. They existed as physical evidence of the sin and violence that white men enacted. The white man treated the offspring of these encounters as less than human, because to acknowledge the children would mean having to acknowledge the humanity of of the woman he raped. In so doing, this would completely upend his hold on power, causing him to acknowledge his narcissism and self absorption.
It is important that Zane looks in the mirror during this scene because he sees himself reflected. He sees his past, whether or not he was alive for it or not, reflected. He sees the sins of the nations reflected back at him and onto his skin. He knows this past. He knows this truth, and it is this knowledge that drives him. The white characters, specifically, do not examine themselves. They do not reflect on the hate they have inherited and the hate they perpetuate. This lack of reflection is important because it shows they only care about defining and labeling people the way that they want to define them.
After turning into “Incognegro,” Zane reflects, “That’s the one thing that most of us know that most white white folks don’t, that race doesn’t really exist. . . . Race is a strategy. . . . [Whites] think they’re just normal. That they are universal, and that everyone else is an odd deviation from form.” This labelling allows whites to define others in ways that benefit themselves while harming other individuals. It allows for the construction of hierarchies and social systems that privilege whiteness, that invisible adjective that most choose to ignore because they view it as the norm.
Next post, I want to finish looking at the scene where Zane transforms himself, and I want to focus how this scene, along with other moments in the text, work within the convention of superhero comics. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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