Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece’s Incognegro focuses on constructions of race and the ways that whites use these constructions in order to maintain power or to even hopefully achieve power. The graphic novel does not detail the intersections between white supremacy and the church, but there are at least two brief moments that cause readers to think about these intersections. Today, I want to focus on these moments, all of which encompass only three small panels within the book. However, these moments drive home the ways that Christian nationalism and the construction of religion serves to maintain control and power.
These moments play into larger discussions I have been having recently, specifically in response to white evangelicals’ and Christian Nationalists’ attacks on Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality. Recently, the presidents of the Southern Baptist seminaries recommitted themselves to the Baptist Faith and Message, and by extension, as Jemar Tisby notes, “whiteness.” Tisby argues that Christian Nationalism is “the greatest threat to Christianity in the United States.”
Christian Nationalism is an interwoven network wrapping Christianity tightly in the robes of patriotism, embracing the nation just as much, if not more so, than the Christian faith. Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead define Christian Nationalism as “an ideology that idealizes a fusion of Christianity with American civic belonging and participation.” Tisby expands and points out that Christian Nationalism fits right in line with white supremacy and the maintaining of whiteness. He writes,
It is Christian Nationalists who support draconian laws aimed at excluding immigrants from the US. It is Christian Nationalists who say Confederate monuments are about southern pride and not white supremacy. It is Christian Nationalists (even more than white evangelicals) who believe that the Republican party is the only Christian option for voting. It is Christian Nationalists who think Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality are the greatest threats to the gospel while doing nothing of substance about the racists and white supremacists in their midst.
All of this shows up in the three panels from Incognegro that I want to look at today. The first panel occurs early in the text when Zane and Carl walk into town. While the two discuss why they are there, Pleece’s illustration is what caught my attention. Pleece shows the men walking down what appears to be Main Street. We see utility polls with lines on the right side of the panel, and cars lining the street on each side. On the left hand side, we see a church, the steeple rising right alongside Carl’s figure.
In this moment, we see the prevalence of the church within the community. No words tell us the significance, but the framing tells us that the church serves an important role within the town. It stands on Main Street. It’s steeple towers above the other buildings, being seen from any spot when someone walks around the town square. A few days ago, when I was in Clayton, GA, I went to look for some graves at the cemetery behind Clayton Baptist Church. The church sits on an elevated hill, and as I left, not finding the graves I was searching, I looked down and immediately spotted another steeple. At that moment, the frequent thought came to mind that the these structures served to point townspeople to the church, towering above the other buildings. This is what occurs in the panel as Carl and Zane walk down the street.
The next two panels appear near the end of the text. While the white townspeople of Tupelo lynch Carl in the town square, the sheriff looks through the bars of the jail cell and tells Alonzo, “There it is. America. Right out our window. Church-attending, moral-living, average men and women in all their glory.” The sheriff’s words drive home the enmeshing of Christianity and American nationalism, the ways that the two have become some entwined that uncoiling the mess will take deep, hard work.
As well, the framing of the panel positions the reader from Alonzo’s perspective, in in doing this, it puts the sheriff behind the bars. This perspective highlights the psychological affects that these entanglements have on the sheriff’s white psyche also. Lillian Smith, in “The White Christian and His Conscience,” talks about the psychological compartmentalization that enables the intimate intermingling between Christianity and nationalism. She also points out the ways that this meshing together harms everyone. She writes, “Not only is it true that we Jim Crow Jesus Christ each time we Jim Crow and human being . . . but we Jim Crow our own children, segregating them from those human experiences that make a personality creative, rich and good — that make it grow.”
Smith knew the effects of racism and nationalism on the psychological development of children and on the impact it has on the oppressor. Even in Incognegro we see this, especially when the white mothers gives her white son rotten fruit to throw at Carl as the white citizens drag him through town to lynch him in the square. In the first panel, the boy screams, preparing to throw a good piece of fruit, and the mother grabs him arm, saying, “No, honey, don’t throw that.” The next panel shows the woman smiling as she hands the boy a rotten piece of fruit and says, “We can still eat that one. Throw this one, it’s rot.” The final panel shows the fruit hitting Carl’s head and spattering on the ground. The mother, in this moment and in what we do not see, teaches her son hate, stifling his ability to grow, mature, and connect with others.
The mother and son probably go to the church. They are two of the “Church-attending, moral-living, average men and women” that the sheriff mentions. Yet, they stand in the street, violently spewing hate and throwing things at Carl. They do this, the sheriff tells Alonzo, because “they need something to hate. Something to blame for why things ain’t perfect in the world. Something to explain their fear.” This is the same thing that Christian Nationalism does. It provides people with constructions to fear that helps them feel better about their own exploitation by those above them. It does not allow them to see the ways that those in power stoke the fears, working to maintain control, wealth, and power.
To counter Christian Nationalism, we must, as Smith puts it, be like the men and women who fought back against “the hypocrisies of and empty, cowardly words of the segregated Christian churches and their parasitic preachers.” We must “be more loyal to Jesus that to White Supremacy.” We must, as the women who met at Junaluska put it in their slogan, be “determined never for a moment to refuse hearing a truth because it is new or to be afraid to dig under a belief because it is old and dearly loved.” We must illuminate the entwining of Christianity and American patriotism, and we must be willing to learn and not be afraid of discovering what we know and what we do maintains white supremacy. It’s not easy, but it must be done because if we don’t, the “Church-attending, moral-living, average men and women” will remain in the town square perpetuating white supremacy under the guise of religion, enacting violence against others through their words and actions.