Reissued masterpiece brilliantly illustrates why justice cannot be left to farming communities
Incognegro was first published in 2008, and what with the human weakness for all things decimal, it has been reissued to celebrate its tenth anniversary.
It shouldn’t really come down to quirks of the calendar for the publishing spotlight to find the book again though. Dealing eloquently as it does with another significant human weakness – homicidal racism – it deserves for the dust to never be allowed to gather.
Set in the 1920s, the story follows the black journalist Zane Pinchback of Harlem’s New Holland Herald. Zane writes the paper’s Incognegro column, in which he reports on southern lynchings. He is “incognegro” because no one knows who writes the page, but also because he is able to pass for white.
After a close shave in Tuscaloosa, he’s had it with the lynch beat, until his editor hands him one last case. A black suspect is being held in Tupelo, Mississippi for the murder of a white woman – held until payday that is, when the murderous agriculturals can storm the jail and hold them a lynching.
Zane is adamant he’s done, but changes his mind when he hears the condemned man’s identity: it’s his twin.
So back he goes, on the train south, where the good white folk in their overalls, suits and sleeveless sweaters, often with family in tow, have every intention of lifting the tedium of their weekend by participating in a community murder as if it were a village fete.
Except Zane is not just reporting on the festivities this time, he’s cracking the case and springing his brother from jail, the first not necessarily leading to the second in this particular postcode.
It’s a brilliantly told story, and an outrageous one – it’s way too early to start forgetting that violence this primitive was a rural norm in parts of the United States less than a few decades ago.
(For a lengthier account of a grotesque instance of southern racial “justice”, try Gilbert King’s superb Devil in the Grove).
In keeping with the age, there’s not a lot of justice here either, but there is some magnificent comeuppance, and an excellent epilogue: there’s an Incognegro sequel due in October.
Incognegro, by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece. Berger Books, £16.99