EN101: Gateway to Literary and Cultural Studies
The Portrayal Race Roles and Cultural Ideologies: The Jim Crow South vs. Johnson’s, Incognegro
Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution were historical milestones in which the ever controversial topic of racial equality was first challenged. In theory, these two movements laid the groundwork for a racially equal United States of America. A country in which every member, regardless of skin color, or race were to be treated equally under the eyes of the law and to one day be treated as equals within all realms of society. As historic and powerful as these movements were, they did little to quell racism and unfair treatment of African Americans in the United States. Following these two movements and the ending of the civil war, African Americans continued to be harshly mistreated by members of white America, as numerous members of the African American race were threatened, falsely accused of crimes, beaten, raped and killed as a result of Jim Crow laws and the Southern tradition of lynching, or hanging African Americans. Mat Johnson’s graphic Novel, Incognegro, chronicling the trials and tribulations of Zane, an African American journalist who pretends to be white to expose the brutal reality of segregation against African Americans in the South, is a graphic manifestation of both the historical accuracy and cultural reality of segregation and brutal mistreatment of African Americans within the Jim Crow South. Johnson’s vivd dramatizations of African Americans being brutally murdered by lynching, African Americans, “passing,” as whites, and African Americans being unfairly tried under the eyes of the law, sheds historically accurate light on an important, yet swept under the rug tradition of a time when racial segregation against African Americans served as a cultural identity that came to define cultural practices and social institutions for many white Americans living in the South.
One example from Johnson’s, Incognegro, of how racial segregation of African Americans morphed into a defining identity for cultural practices and social institutions within the White American South is in the historical institution of lynching of African Americans. Within the first panel of Johnson’s, Incognegro, Johnson’s main character Zane provides a chilling account of a lynching. In his account, Zane describes a scene of hundreds of onlookers drinking and carrying on as if it were a great social event, while a helpless African American man was strung up on a noose, beaten, emasculated, dressed as a clown and eventually hung. According to Zane, “Like house cats with dead mice, they tend to play with the body. Particularly if it was a Soldier. Crackers hate to see a Uniform on a Soldier. They usually strip those guys first.”(Johnson part 1) All the while, a photographer captured pictures of the event, to create postcards to be sold as keepsakes, so says Zane, “After that, it’s memento time. They take pieces of the body as keepsakes. Pictures are taken to remember the special day.”(Johnson.part 1) While Johnson’s portrayal of lynchings provides an account that favors the appeal to the emotions, historical accounts of lynchings of African Americans in the South, takes a scholarly approach that presents lynchings as a widely accepted social institution that was used to both intimidate African Americans and create a cultural identity for white Americans in the South as the dominant race. To quote social Historian Steven F. Messner in, “The Legacy of Lynching and Southern Homicide”, “Lynching not only serves as a powerful example of the use of lethal violence for social control; it also represents killing as a punishment without the sanctioning of formal law. Thus, we suggest that a legacy of lynching might facilitate the emergence of culturural supports for the use of lethal violence as a...
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