Every semester, I am amazed at the connective tissue that runs through the texts I place on the syllabus and the themes that arise. No matter the class, I construct my courses around themes, all teachers do. However, when a class ends poignantly on a recurring theme, I find it a really serendipitous occasion. This semester, in my Ethnic American Literature course, we explored the ways that we, as individuals, construct our identities based on ourselves and on the ways that others view us, specifically when they place their preconceived notions upon us. We looked at this from the beginning of the semester through the end. We explored it in the ways that Manar navigates her identity in a new land in Mohja Kahf’s “Manar of Hama” to the ways that Long Vanh navigates his Afro-Asian identity in the face of the community and his own family in Genaro Kỳ Lý Smith’s The Land South of the Clouds.
We concluded the semester with Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece’s Incognegro, a graphic novel that breaks down constructs of race and highlights the ways that society, especially those who want to maintain power, constructs one’s identity. Today, I want to look at a couple of moments from Incognegro and discuss how these moments add to the class’s discussions we have had throughout the course of the semester.
The first scene takes place immediately after Zane Pinchback’s transformation into Incognegro. After the page where Zane looks at himself in the mirror, straightening his hair, and preparing to pass for white, we see Zane going to Grand Central Station to catch a train to Tupelo, MS. The page contains four panels, and over the course of the panels, Zane goes from the streets of Harlem to a subway train to Grand Central Station. As he moves through these spaces, he provides a narration over the course of the panels. He 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 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’re just normal. That they are the universal, and that everyone else is an odd deviation from form. That’s what makes them so easy to infiltrate.
In his narration, Zane’s comments lay bare the ways that whiteness works to hold onto power. The ways that whiteness works to construct systems that oppress others. Zane mentions the “rules,” deploying similar language that Ernest Gaines uses when discussing the “rules” that structure life and societal interactions in South Louisiana in his novels.
Along with this, Zane points out what Lillian Smith did in “Buying a New World With Confederate Bills” (1943) when she wrote, “It is just possible that the white man is no longer the center of the universe. It is just possible that even German nazis, British imperialists, and white southerners will have to accept a fact that has been old news to the rest of the world for a long, long time.” Zane, like Smith and countless others, points out that whites do not think of themselves as “white,” as distinct. Instead, we view ourselves as “the universal,” the “norm.” Yet, that is not the case. We have only made it the case in order to exploit and suppress others.
Before we can move forward as whites, we must recognize our position. We must recognize that we have created adjectives. We have created images. We have created hierarchies. All of these, and more, work to benefit us, no matter if we are wealthy or poor. We have benefitted because we have positioned ourselves as normality and others as some deviation from the norm. This construction hinders our work towards equity and equality because it posits that if someone does not adhere to these “norms” then that person is unworthy or inferior. This is why I always go back to Frank Yerby’s condemnation of adjectives when he told James Hill, “I reject adjectives. Adjectives, which are the enemy of nouns, don’t mean anything.”
All of this leads me to the panels that lie underneath Zane’s narration. He talks about how easy it is for him to infiltrate white spaces due to white narcissism and our view that we are the center of the world. Working through the social constructions of race, we see Zane, in the first panel, walking along a street in Harlem, He is one of many African Americans strolling down the concrete. We see detail here. Each person has a level of detail that mirrors Zane’s. In the second panel, we see Zane on a subway car. An Orthodox Jewish man stands behind a pole in the middle of the panel, half obscured from our view. Zane sits with Blacks and whites on the right hand side of the panel. Less detail appears on passengers’ faces than the previous panel.
The third panel shows Zane walking up the steps from the subway station to the street. It is here that he talks about whites having accents, ethnic food, and viewing ourselves as “the universal.” Here, the detail continues to fade from the image. We still see Zane’s mouth and eyes, and the mouths and eyes of others; however, they are not like the faces in the first panel. The ones in the first panel have multiple lines, showing expressions, wrinkles, shadows, and more. In the third panel, we only see lines and dots depicting parts of the faces, not the details we encounter in the first panel.
An outward view of Grand Central Station appears in the fourth panel, and we see countless people walking around on the street and into the station. Here, Zane states, “That’s what makes them so easy to infiltrate.” In this panel, individuals’ details are nonexistent. Instead, they appear as merely lines, devoid of expressions, faces, and more. The removal of these details serves two purposes. One, it proves Zane’s point of how easy it is for him to infiltrate white spaces. Along with this, it showcases Zane’s comment that whiteness views itself as the norm. No variety exists. No deviation exists.
The people become a mass of humanity, blurring together as the walk the streets. This aspect drives home the entirety of Zane’s narration and calls upon readers to acknowledge their whiteness and that we are not the universal; rather, we are part of the universal humanity, a part that has accents, ethnic food, music, and other things that other members of humanity have. These do not make us superior. They make us human, along with everyone else who inhabits this whirling sphere as it hurtles through space.
In the next post, I will look at another scene from Incognegro. 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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