In the last post, I wrote about Zane Pinchback discussing the social constructions of race and identity in Mt Johnson and Warren Pleece’s Incognegro. Today, I want to continue that discussion by looking at the last section of the graphic novel, specifically Zane’s comments to Alonzo upon arriving back in Harlem and the reveal at the end the final pages where the white citizens of Fayetteville, MO, see Huey, the Klan member, as Incognegro and label him as such. Each of these scenes, as the previous ones I have written about, drive home the ways that we construct identity. specifically the manner in which identity comes to serve the needs of others, not necessarily ourselves.
When Zane and Alonzo make it to Harlem, they walk along the street and Zane tells his brother, “What can you do? You can do anything, Pinchy. This is the land of Black lawyers, Black doctors, Black businessmen. You can do whatever you want here. It ain’t like the South.” Pleece’s panel shows the brothers on the street, young Black children on the left side of the panel running and playing, Black men on the stoops talking, and Black couples walking hand in hand down the sidewalk. Zane’s comments tell Alonzo that no one will place their preconceived notions upon him. He can be anything he wants to be.
Along with this, the scene of Black men, women, and children living life presents a distinctly different image than the situation in Tupelo, MS, and the South. There, the only Black man we see on the street stands behind the white man and his daughter’s as the yell at Carl while Huey and others drag him into town. The man stands behind the white family, staring at the scene. He knows what is happening, and he knows that the same fate that Carl endures could happen to him as well. All throughout Incognegro, we do not see Black citizens, apart from Zane, Carl, and Josiah, on the streets in the South except for here. This moment highlights the restrictions placed upon Black citizens in Tupelo, and juxtaposed against the scenes in Harlem, it shows the constructed identities placed upon them.
When they walk to Central Park, Zane continues to tell Alzono that he can be anything and anyone he wants to be; he can construct his own identity, especially during the New Negro movement. Alonzo asks his brother, “So that’s it. I can just decide to be a whole new Negro? So what Negro you going to be, then?” Zane looks at Alonzo and replies, “That’s the best thing: identity is open-ended. Why have just one?” Here, and elsewhere, Zane points out the malleability of one’s identity, the ways one constructs his or her own identity and the ways that others construct individuals’ identities. Zane drives home that Alonzo, by moving to Harlem, has the ability to construct and form his own identity, putting aside the preconceived images that others place upon him.
While Zane points out the ways one constructs his or her identity, his final act in Incognegro highlights how others can create the identities of others. Returning to his newspaper’s offices, his editor runs up to him holding the latest print copy and asking him. “You sure this is the picture you want to use? This is your chance, you know, to get recognized.” As a reader, the initial thought here is that Zane has chosen a picture of Carl for the story since Carl, before his lynching, spoke about wanting to do something to change society, to do something heroic like Zane.
Zane looks at the copy, smiles, and tells his editor, “This is the picture I want to to use for Incognegro. Trust me. Is this going to get picked up for syndication?” The editor tells him it will, and Pleece’s panel shows the two standing there, looking at the picture, as Zane smiles and the editor scratches his head. Turning the page, we see Huey, the Klan leader, walking into Fayetteville, MO, to take care of a “problem” they’re having. He greets the town’s white citizens, and all of them look at him disgustedly. He takes a newspaper from a paper boy, and as he looks at the paper, the boy yells, “Hey! That costs a nickel! You owe me a nickel, nigger!” In this moment, it becomes clear that picture Zane chose for Incognergo’s reveal was none other than Huey, the very man who sought to catch and lynch him.
The final spread contains two panels. A small panel in the top left of the left hand page shows Huey’s hand holding the newspaper with his image and the headline, “Incognegro: Negro Race Spy’s Identity Revealed.” The second panel is a two-page spread. A group of white townsmen, most carrying weapons, approach Huey in the street. Huey, shrugging his shoulders as he holds the paper at his side, states, “Hi, y’all. Uh, there seems to be a case of mistaken identity.” Zane causes the citizens to view Huey as “Black,” and they do. They take what the paper tells them as truth, using it to construct their own perceptions of the ma, even though he is phenotypically white. This is the whole key of Incognegro, the ways that the world constructs identity, hindering one’s search for a true identity.
Ending the text in this way, Johnson and Pleece bring the text full circle, driving home the fact that, as Zane says earlier, “race doesn’t really exist.” Coupled with the Francis’ narrative where she passes a white man and serves as the deputy in Tupelo, the entire graphic novel showcases how white men, through their desire to maintain power, construct meaning and hierarchies. Zane sums all of this up when he and Josiah discover that Francis passes a man and Josiah asks Zane why any woman would want to do that. Zane simply asks Josiah, “Who would pretend to be a white man in this world? What could be the possible advantage of that?”
Zane does not answer the questions, but Incognegro does. Presenting himself as a white man allows Zane to infiltrate lynch mobs and illuminate the perpetrators of racial violence. Presenting herself as a white man allows Francis to easily maneuver in the world. In each of these manners, Zane and Francis navigate a world that seeks to keep them out. A world that fears any perceived threat to power. This is where I want to pick up next post, with the sheriff’s comments to Alonzo at the start of Part III where he tells Alonzo about the ways that these constructions of race and gender work to preserve power.
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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