This week’s Illustrated PEN features a graphic narrative by Mat Johnson.
Mat Johnson writes: I grew up a black boy who looked white. This was in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, during the height of the Black Power era, so I stood out a bit. My mom even got me a dashiki so I could fit in with the other kids, but the contrast between the colorful African garb and my nearly blond, straight brown hair just made things worse. Along with my cousin (half black/half Jewish) I started fantasizing about living in another time, another situation, where my ethnic appearance would be an asset instead of a burden. We would “go Incognegro,” we told ourselves as we ran around, pretending to be race spies in the war against white supremacy.
I forgot my “Incognegro” dreams until college, when I read about Walter White, the former head of the NAACP. White was an African-American even paler than I was. In the early 20th century White went undercover, posing as a white man in the deep south to investigate lynchings. It was as if my little childhood fantasy had come to life. From then on, the idea continued to gestate. I started feeling that what once seemed silly was turning into something I had to write about.
The birth of my twins in 2005, one of whom is brown-skinned with black Afro hair, the other with the palest of pink skins and more European curly hair, brought the rest of the story home to me. Two people with the exact same ethnic lineage destined to be viewed differently only because of genetic randomness. From there the story found itself.
And now it finds you.