The story is about Zane Pinchback, a reporter from an African-American newspaper in 1930s New York who's investigating a series of hangings in the South. His skin is light enough that most Southerners presume he's white and he's thus able to pose as a Klansman in order to secure information about those responsible. His articles, under the pen name "Incognegro", are extremely powerful and are one of the few reasons there's any formal investigations at all.
However, he's not able to callous himself against seeing innocent men strung up time after time, and he's ready to call it quits when he's told that his brother has just been arrested for killing a white woman in Mississippi. Pinchback heads down to clear his brother and get him freed before an angry mob hangs him.
You can find any number of reviews of the hardcover version, and the general consensus is that it's a very well-crafted, powerful book. I'm not about to disagree. It's quite well-done and there are a number of particularly clever twists. But there's one passage I'd like to point out...
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.I bought my copy of Incognegro in New York a couple weeks ago. Interestingly, the group of folks I ended up hanging out with most of my time up there consisted of my girlfriend (who's black), her good friend (also black) and her group of close friends (one Caucasian woman, one Latina, and four homosexual men). We all laughed and joked and generally had a great time, but given the mix of the group, the subjects of bigotry and prejudice not surprisingly did come up.
Race is a strategy. The rest is people acting. Playing roles.
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 just normal. That they are the universal, and that everyone else is an odd deviation from form.
What probably struck me the most was how, despite being in a generally very liberal, progressive town, they almost all noted fairly recent and local instances where they were the subject of others' venom for no reason other than being themselves. None of them seemed to harbor any particular bitterness over the specific events; that was just something they unfortunately had to deal with, and any bitterness they might hold was more general -- "It's the 21st century; shouldn't we be past this shit?"
We should be past it. But we're not. And that surprised me because I'm a white, heterosexual male and I never saw any of that. I grew up watching Sesame Street and there all sorts of different types of folks there, but race was never an issue. My father worked in downtown Cleveland, where almost everyone he interacted with black but it was never a point of discussion. My mother worked in a hospital in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, but that was never an issue. So here I am, hearing the occasional news story about the KKK or Holocaust-deniers and assume those are exceptionally rare, freakish people.
But they're not.
I'm not about to pretend that I can even begin to imagine the discrimination that so many people endure. I've only glimpsed the slightest sliver of a fraction at most. And that's primarily because I'm dating a woman who happens to have dark skin.
But because that's not a viable option for many people, I think it's important to bring the discussion up. I didn't think it was still an issue because I didn't see it. I didn't see it because I didn't know what to look for. I hadn't really had that conversation to learn about someone else's experiences. And that, I think, is why you should go read Incognegro. Yes, it's about the 1930s and lynchings aren't very common any more, but Johnson uses the story to relay how and why people see things a certain way. He shows how absurd it is to treat people differently because of a label.
Put this on your shelf next to American Born Chinese. Where ABC spoke to reconciling your own heritage and culture with your own identity and sense of self, Incognegro addresses heritage and culture (or, more accurately, the labels of heritage and culture) as it relates to others. Powerful stuff.