Week #15 Part 1: Mat Johnson

Using Personal and Collective Cultural Memory in Graphic

Storytelling

The cover of Incognegro by Mat Johnson / photo of Mat Johnson

The cover of Incognegro by Mat Johnson / photo of Mat Johnson

“How do we use the visual imagery of the past to inform contemporary work in ways that build on our understanding of our history and our present?”

Mat Johnson’s graphic novel, Incognegro is the story of a fair-skinned African-American man living in Harlem during it’s Renaissance in the 1930’s. Thanks to his more European looking complexion, Zane Pinchback, is able to go undercover as a caucasian man to the lynchings still taking place in the Jim Crow south.  Writing about the lynchings for his New York based newspaper, Pinchback is famous as “Incognegro”, the name playing off the idea that he is able to infiltrate the white community thanks to his genetics.  

Throughout the first part of Incognegro, Johnson references visual imagery from the time period these lynchings were actually taking place.  Most recognizable are his references to lynchings photos.  In most instances, lynching photos were used as souvenirs of the event and to boost feelings of white supremacy.  

The first panel of Johnson’s graphic novel almost directly refers to this photograph.  In both images, a white man stands between the camera and the victim pointing towards the body.  Even the date the photo was taken is important.  On the first page Pinchback observes that “Between 1889 and 1918, 2,522 negroes were murdered by lynch mobs in America.  That we know of.  Now, since the beginning of the ’30’s, most of the white papers don’t even consider it news.”  Incognegro a way for Mat Johnson to tell a forgotten but vitally important story about America’s history that is often forgotten.  Maybe if we can’t bring ourselves to look at the actual evidence of the crime, Mat Johnson can show it to us in a different but still unsettling format.  

Examples:

Part 1, Page 1 of Incognegro
Part 1, Page 1 of Incognegro

 

The Lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith.  August 7, 1930.  Marion, Indiana
The Lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. August 7, 1930. Marion, Indiana

 

 

Part 1, Page 2 of Incognegro
Part 1, Page 2 of Incognegro
Unidentified victim, head being propped up by rod
Unidentified victim, head being propped up by rod

Legal scholar, Patricia J. Williams wrote: “The history preserved in those pictures, as well as the reality of the photos themselves, is one of the most complicated public secrets of this nation’s past.  Everyone claims to know about lynching, yet there is virtually nothing about it in history or social-science books.”  Mat Johnson seems determined not to allow us to forget this part of our past culture in fear that history will repeat itself.

While Johnson speaks about our history’s past, he also speaks about it’s present.  In a series of frames later in the graphic novel the reader watches as Pinchback assumes his caucasian costume. Donning a suit and straightening his hair back, he becomes Incognegro; an act he calls “assimilation as revolution”.  On the following page Pinchback speaks of America’s feelings of race, still an important discussion today; “Race is just a bunch of rules meant to keep us on the bottom.  That’s 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 normal.  That they are the universal, and that everyone else is an odd deviation from form.”  Johnson is pointing out the difference of an idea of the collective “American culture” and the multiple personal cultures that actually make up the United States of America.  

In an interview from Racialicious,  a blog about “the intersection of race and pop culture”, Mat Johnson speaks specifically to personal and collective cultural memory in his work:

Mat: It just seemed like a natural story to tell.  And I always wanted this hero to be out there.  Someone just like me, who turned what many see as an oddity into something priceless < Personal Memory

Racialicious: There’s been a long tradition of passing stories in American Literature (and pulp fiction).  How do you see Incognegro fitting into that tradition, if at all?

MJ: Right.  And Passing narratives were in their height with Nella Larsen in the Harlem Renaissance.  And of course they go before that to the 19th Century slave narratives.  Yes, this fits within that literary mythology.               < Collective Cultural Memory

MJ:  There’ve been other points in history – I’m African-American, but I look fairly white or European, so I’ve always been very fascinated by these points in history, when people like myself interacted, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.  I was fascinated with the idea of taking something that is part of my life and part of past lives, and seeing if I could make that into not just a curiosity, but into something that actually could mean the difference in lives.  

More examples of a graphic novels that builds on our understanding of our past and present:

"Loosely using the story of George Bush as an inept superhero, we chronicle the first four years of the Bush II administration, as well as his past and family history." By Joshua Dysart
“Loosely using the story of George Bush as an inept superhero, we chronicle the first four years of the Bush II administration, as well as his past and family history.” By Joshua Dysart
Haunted Tank by Frank Marraffino
Haunted Tank by Frank Marraffino. In the 2008 version of this classic series, the ghost of a Confederate general returns to guard over his living namesake who is stationed in Baghdad during the Iraq War.
The Unknown Soldier by Joshua Dysart.  The Unknown Soldier is a Ugandan-born doctor who returns home to tend to refugees, and ends up taking up arms against the warring militant factions.
The Unknown Soldier by Joshua Dysart. The Unknown Soldier is a Ugandan-born doctor who returns home to tend to refugees, and ends up taking up arms against the warring militant factions.

For more information on the research and development of the Unknown Soldier including images and videos from Uganda go to: http://www.theunknownsoldiercomic.com

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