In 1958, a Virginia couple, Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving, married in the District of Columbia. About four months after their marriage, the Virginia county they lived in issued a criminal indictment charging the Lovings with violating Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage. Mildred was black and Richard was white. “The night we were arrested, I guess it was about 2 a.m. and I saw these lights,” Mildred recalled. “And I woke up and it was a policeman standing beside the bed. And he told us to get up and that we was under arrest.”
Their case, Loving v. Virginia, eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court. And it would take nearly a decade before all state laws prohibiting interracial marriage were struck down.
A new series from Topic.com tells the story of Americans born to one black parent and one white parent after the 1967 Supreme Court decision. The series is titled “The Loving Generation.”
From Melissa Harris-Perry to Mat Johnson, and Panama Jackson, “The Loving Generation” features a diversity of voices examining the borderland between “blackness” and “whiteness.”
“You have who you think you are. You have the larger community, how that larger community sees who you are. And then you have legal test case of who you are,” Johnson said. “When all three of those things are working the same direction, everything is fine — everything is chill. Like, if you’re a mixed person who looks black and everybody thinks you’re black and you think you’re black there’s no conflict there. The problem is when one of those things is off.”
Johnson is an award-winning novelist and comic book writer. His graphic novel series “Incognegro” centers around a mixed race detective who goes undercover as a white man to solve racially motivated crimes. His latest work is titled “Incognegro: Renaissance.” Mat is also a professor at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program.
We aired an excerpt of this interview on Intercepted. What follows is the audio and transcript of the entire conversation.
Jeremy Scahill: Mat Johnson, welcome to Intercepted.
Mat Johnson: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
JS: Let’s start by talking about this series that my colleague Anna Holmes sort of shepherded to life that centers around the 1967 Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia. For people that are not familiar with that case, can you just give a kind of basic explanation of it and its significance in your life?
MJ: Sure. Loving v. Virginia was the first case to make interracial marriage legal. Interracial marriage was legal in different states, but it was still a states’ rights issue and the Supreme Court made that a national issue, and made it legal nationally for couples, particularly black and white couples to be married legally.
When you look back at history, I think there can be a tendency to think, “Well, this event happened and that kind of opened the floodgates.” I honestly think, not to take anything away from the importance of that individual case, but it was also a situation where the case was a question of reality catching up, you know, to legality. Right?
There were already interracial marriages going on, it was already kind of getting to the point of a common understanding by a significant portion of the American population that these should be legal.
Even when the actual couple was married, they had really I think no idea of what the legal impact of their marriage would be, because there were people who were already in interracial marriages in Virginia, but they went out of state to have the marriages and oftentimes they lived in bigger places where it wasn’t as much of an issue. So it basically got the American legal system caught up to the reality of the Civil Rights-era, you know, larger change in the country.
So I think like, my parents were married three years later — or actually, I think they’re married a year later, but in Pennsylvania where it was already legal. But I do think it affected the climate and the understanding of what that was. Because part of the fear of the civil rights movement and the fear of really of kind of white supremacy, going back into slavery, was always a sexual fear, too — that our white women would end up having sex with black men. And that was this incredibly powerful fear that even affected things like architecture during slave-eras, where, you know, you had the rooms of the white women on plantations being kind of protected within the homes. So, you know, you look at “The Birth of a Nation” — most famous scenes we still see in “Birth of a Nation” today are about miscegenation, about the mixture of black and white people
At the same time there’s, Virginia in particular because of Thomas Jefferson, the idea that there wasn’t interracial actual sex is actually ridiculous. And interracial rape primarily during the slave era, the African-American community we have today is significantly impacted by that.
So the event of the case was huge as a landmark, but the land was already there. You know?
JS: You have talked about and written about the way that you grew up in Philadelphia. Who raised you would you say? I know that’s a very open-ended question, but who raised you and what was it like for you growing up?
MJ: Well, my parents divorced when I was about 4. I lived with my mother most of the time, but my father was actively in my life. My mother is African-American, comes from a Midwest small town in Illinois. My father was an old school Irish Catholic Philadelphian; most of his family came over to the States, directly to Philadelphia, in the Art Museum, in like the 1830s, and they basically stayed there until the GI bill. And so, like, I have long roots in there.
My dad lived down the street, basically about two miles away from where my mother did my entire childhood. So, I had the standard like ’70s divorced parents situation, you know, where you go every other weekend and Wednesdays. Like, that was the life.
So my dad was actively in my life. Every mixed person has a different idea about what mixed identity means and that ranges from people who believe African ancestry doesn’t really matter, and if they look white, they can define themselves as white, to people who, and probably many more people who believe, it doesn’t matter about your mixed ancestor, you’re black and that’s kind of the end of the story. So, there’s a really wide spectrum.
In my case, I look at it as not really, it’s not really a like genetic thing. Like almost all African-Americans are part African, part European, and sometimes some Native in there. So, like the African-American community is already mixed both genetically and culturally. Right? We speak English; we wear European-influenced clothes for the most part. So that’s already there.
So, when I think about it, what I’m thinking about is very specifically a mixed ethnic experience. So, for me that meant my mother was working class and then became a social worker, which is basically working class, financially, and I had my experience with her and I lived in a predominately black neighborhood. And then my father, who also basically lives in a predominantly black neighborhood but like the white block in the predominantly black neighborhood, who like, went to the co-op, Weaver’s Way co-op in Mount Airy, shout out, and you know so I did my hours packing peanuts, had a very much like middle class, NPR experience. My dad was very big in camping, there was this organization American Youth Hostels, — now it’s International Youth Hostels — he was active in. So I had like, an experience that was more: My mother smoked menthols and drank Pepsi and had a lot of like the ill effects in her life of being a working-class black person and a lot of stresses of being a working-class black person, and my dad had a lot of the sort of, what you would call the stereotypical, NPR-tote-bag existence. He still drives a Subaru Outback, you know what I mean?
So like, being on Fresh Air, I think is probably the best thing I’ve ever done in his eyes, you know?
JS: All of us — I mean, just as a side note there, I mean she, Terry Gross really does the work when she interviews you. It’s clear she like reads the books, and —
MJ: Like the crazy thing is like, I was a fan of Terry Gross. When I first got out of college, I worked a lot of like temp jobs and stuff for the electric company, things like that, and the only thing that would get me through was listening to Terry Gross. And this was before it was a national show. So, I don’t know if you notice, like Philly people talk about Philly all the time because we’re generally insecure, but —
JS: I heard something Super Bowl this year.
JS: And saw some stuff on TV about something about Philly.
MJ: Yes. Yes. Right, right. So, when like she went national, it was like a point of pride for me. Like I had actually done something. Same way when like, the Eagles won. I really felt a level of accomplishment.
JS: Can I ask you something like that though?
JS: You know my colleague Shaun King boycotted the NFL this year and you know was certainly not the only person, but one of the one of the big voices that was really advocating for Colin Kaepernick and talking about race in the NFL, and we had, then we have the president calling black NFL players “sons of bitches.” What was that like for you watching all of this unfold?
MJ: We’re gonna get real here.
JS: I do want to get real. I think it’s interesting.
MJ: To me it was the classic American experience. Right? Chris Rock has, to paraphrase that thing, “America is the uncle who molested you but sent you to college.” Right? One of my best friends who I grew up with and a lot of the guys I grew up with in Philly refused to watch the NFL this year, and these are like hardcore Eagles fans, who like, you go in their house and like half the stuff there is green, and, you know? That’s really what Philly is like.
And so there was a real moral quandary when the Super Bowl came, because it was like: I’ve been waiting for this my entire life, and now it’s here, and I’ve also made a moral position not to participate in this.
And I really have immense respect because most of them that I know of stuck to their guns on it.
I’m not a football fan. Well I like, I like football. I don’t like CTEs.
MJ: My biggest issue, because it’s the hardest one to challenge, is the head injuries thing. And I think if that doesn’t change, football’s gotta get canceled, just like guns have to get canceled. Right?
I do think the other issues, larger issues around misogyny are there, too, but to me that’s something that’s more possible to manage. The culture is more possible to manage than physical damage, right? So, I mean, when the Eagles win, in my mind, I felt like, “I’m not going to let these crackers rob me of seeing a championship for my city.” And then the other part of it — and I hadn’t watched the whole season. I did think a lot about my uncles, and on the white side, who, they really — the Eagles are their only cultural event. They probably listen to ’70s rock music and the Eagles and sometimes both. And like, that’s kind of it. And I’ve always thought they were gonna die without seeing the Eagles win. So, I did have this emotional thing with people I loved in it.
But I also told myself this: When this goes down, this is my last football game. Like this is it. I’ve been wanting to quit football — I have a utopian dream where someday, basically football helmets are gonna look like juggernaut from the X-Men, and there’s going to be like, no head movement, and they’re gonna be fine, and there’s gonna be a culture in there. Because there’s not just — there’s so much going on with the football culture, I mean the idea that politics is new here is ridiculous. Every single game I’ve ever been to, there has been an almost sexual fetishization of the military, I mean, it’s just like, it starts with bipartisan really, even though it seems to be more right-leaning, but really bipartisan fetishizing of military life and military families to the point that it’s pretty dangerous.
And I come from, my family, my grandfather was in the 82nd Airborne, all-American, fought in Naples in World War II, and several of my family members have been in the 82nd Airborne, and so you know I actually come from a military family. But my family are just jerks like everybody else. Like it’s not like they have superpowers or, you know what I mean? And so there’s a lot that I have a problem with.
But I do imagine that there could be a football that is both physically and also culturally nontoxic. Until that time, I can’t watch it. So to me this game morally was sort of a release, where I haven’t been willing to kind of give it up because I just like, I wanted to see this, this city win.
MJ: You know? And now that the city’s won, like, and I’m not saying that as like an excuse, I think it’s a moral failure on my part and I wish I was a strong as my friends who didn’t have anything to do with it. I have a lot of friends who quit football. I noticed that a lot of them were from the Boston-era, and the thing is, if your team’s been winning a bunch, it’s easier to quit! So, I suggest everybody’s’ teams win, so they can quit. But for me, I’m gonna be done.
I do have a hope because I live in Texas now and I have seen good come out of actual football. And good from a perspective of somebody on the left. I have seen people from a variety of different cultures come together in this larger sense of community building out of football. University of Houston is the most diverse school in the country — or, every other year it kind of fluctuates, but it’s one of the most diverse. So, I’ve seen football games where people are wearing, you know, traditional headdresses, and the color of the university, but coming up with an identity that’s not just a national identity or religious identity, but an identity around community. And I think sports can do that. Obviously, that can be used through the negative, too, but sports can do that. And I think parts are interesting.
The feast that happens before it! I’ve seen strangers go to other people’s cars and hang out and eat and talk, cross party lines, which you see almost nowhere nowadays, and have something to talk about that’s not Trump or not all the things that divide us.
I mean, of course sports is also used to kind of divide people along city lines and tribal lines too, but I’ve seen people connect in ways that I don’t see lately. So, you know, I do see value in it.
MJ: But I don’t know — it’s like a lot of things.
Like, even the gun debate, living in a rural area, deer are everywhere, if they’re not kept in check they get into the streets, they cause real problems. I’m OK with basically 19th century hunting rifles to deal with them.
JS: You’re not afraid of grizzly bears attacking the school? Betsy Devos has really raised awareness on that issue.
MJ: I lived in Alaska, grizzly bears are not coming anywhere near a school.
And so, I’m not completely opposed to that. But like, the issue becomes very black and white, and I think once it becomes black and white, it also starts to become unmovable, because we have, we start dealing in absolutes.
JS: I mean I actually think, even people who are diehard opponents of guns, in general, I don’t think the issue there is like, “We don’t want people to have a hunting rifle.” The point now is that you have these weapons of war where you can gun down 40, 50 people.
JS: You can go in and take out, you know, a couple dozen 6-year-olds, and it’s like we’re insane in this country.
MJ: Oh, it’s nuts.
JS: And the NRA would say like, “Oh Mat, that’s exactly what we’re about, too. We think that people have the right to have these for hunting. But the AR-15, you know the Second Amendment doesn’t say we can’t have an AR-15.” I mean at the level of logic at play here is so insane.
MJ: Well, I think the level of logic is basically nonexistent, because what is happening —
JS: Right, that’s a better way to put it.
MJ: Right. What’s happening is that the NRA and Fox News and the GOP have become bad actors because they can’t say what they actually want to say. What Wayne LaPierre wants to say is: We are petrified of these black and brown people that are coming to into cities, we’re petrified of not being centered in this culture, and we feel vulnerable because of that and we want to have guns so that we feel like we still have complete and utter power. Right? They can’t say that out loud, so they have these disingenuous arguments.
That’s one of the things that’s so difficult. I’m happy with no guns. I’m totally happy with no guns. I mean, you’re going to have to hire people to take out the deer and things like that, or, you know, rabbits or things, I mean, it will affect our ecosystem, believe it or not, in rural areas, because you do have people going out and hunting. But they’re not having that debate. So, it makes it almost impossible.
Fox News can’t directly say what their actual agenda is, right? They can’t say, “We promote continued xenophobia and a white supremacist state because it benefits us and it also benefits our corporate connections.” And they can’t say, “We don’t want health care because we don’t want to take money out of the pockets of the wealthy and the rich, because that doesn’t benefit our primary audience.” So, they are constantly coming up with these lies.
What scares me on all this false, these kind of false narratives, not only can we not have debate, I feel like I am starting to get old enough where I can see them getting worse. You even think about 10 years ago, we were talking about “truthiness,” right? There’s no longer truthiness. Now there’s a large segment of the population that believes in their hearts that not just truth but actual facts are dependent on their own emotional needs. That’s really scary. They know they’re doing it, but they, but this is a philosophical point. It’s a level of sophistry.
Like the debate, Trump holding a card of notes telling him how to respond in the open town hall meeting. So, there’s video of him doing it, and it’s been cleared by like AP and a bunch of other people, this picture. But I saw people this morning saying, “Well, that’s just not real. It’s just not real. It’s false. It’s not real.” Now their evidence for that is that it makes them feel bad. Right? And so that’s kind of, really petrifying. Seeing that kind of bad action, that false narrative happen to the degree that people who are pushing the false narrative are doing it from a logical position that’s inherently false, this idea that if it makes me feel bad, it’s not real.
JS: Well isn’t that ultimately what was at the center of all of the discussion about Obama’s birth certificate and “birtherism,” that you had this combination of white supremacist perspective on having a black president but then also this notion that he was, “we feel that he’s secretly a Muslim or a socialist, wants to implement Sharia law, and therefore he can’t have been quote-unquote ‘one of us’ that was born here.” And they stake out this position knowing who’s going to be excited about it, but then it just becomes established fact. People start to say, “Well, I just feel that that Obama is a socialist or that black people shouldn’t be telling me what to do.” And then it doesn’t even matter what’s true, what’s not, did they actually produce a birth certificate, was it real? It doesn’t matter anymore cause I just feel that Obama must be a Muslim and a socialist and not a real American.
MJ: Right. But I feel lately like I’m, in some ways, a relic on this from like 2003, in a sense that I still think so much of it comes back to Fox. Like so much —
JS: Oh, I think you’re 100 percent right in that.
MJ: But we used to talk, you know what I mean? Like, there was all these, first documentaries about it. But now we just kind of, it’s just there. Like, I don’t think they would be enabled to do this — there’s a lot of negatives of going back to the point where we had three TV channels, but, it was harder to create a mass false narrative.
The anchor of Fox having this mass false narrative. They have Shep Smith in the middle to make ’em look good, right? But then like, every night is, “Your craziest fear is actually real,” — not really based on facts but based on this other guy who also has this crazy, irrational idea. You know and that’s scary.
I mean, the bigger fundamental thing that just terrifies me is I worry that this is all original sin. And I sound biblical when I say that, but like the original sin we have here about our denial about the realities of slavery, our denial about the realities of, of an attempted genocide of Native people, our denials about what happens in Cuba, what happens in Chile what happens, basically how the CIA in our country has really been acting for 100 years, right? I mean, it gets organized in the last 50. We have a pattern of a larger denial where we have as a country, unlike a lot of other countries, every country has their lies. But, in America, it’s more extreme, that we have created a pattern of belief that what we believe is more important than the actual facts in hand.
And so, it does feel, like not to quote the line that Malcolm X got in trouble for, but it does feel like the chickens coming home to roost thing, in a sense, that we used to do these denial actions about our activities in South America and Central America — now we’re doing them right here.
Right? And like, you also see, like when I’m looking — the problem with getting old is like, I want to go to bed earlier, but the good thing is I’ve seen like, so much, that I can add up things. If Katrina happened today, and we’re talking 12 years later, if Katrina happened today, at the time, there was no reaction to it and it was actually this incredibly powerful moment not just because of Katrina, but because we saw the way we were talking about Katrina, and you could see that they were talking about Iraq the exact same way, and Afghanistan the exact same way. Right?
So, that was the bigger thing there. Not, not even the natural disaster, but the way that we got to see behind the curtain, right? If that happened today, we would have tons of people online talking about how, you know, that Katrina was basically a hoax and it was just one or two blocks that were flooded. Because they’ve already learned how to respond to that. And I promise you — the next — unfortunately, and I saw this as somebody with, I’ve got a 16-year-old and twin 12-year-olds, the next major school shooting, they’re going to have an immune response to powerful teenagers stepping forth. Right?
And I’m probably, I would guess, they’re probably already grooming teenagers right now, and they’ll have other teenagers on there, like, defending another position, and we just get further and further down this line, but the original sin that we’re dealing with is the American ability to value its ow, imagined, you know, self-image, versus the self-image that actually, you know, is based on facts.
JS: In listening to you, Mat, I started to think about this debate I had between Glenn Greenwald and Jim Risen, and they were talking about the particulars of Russia, and a lot of people are concerned, and I think with good reason, if you have a big, powerful country intervening in the affairs of another country, something that the United States would never do, yeah, we should investigate that. But in talking about Fox, and sort of stepping back and remind of us Katrina, and then looking at where we are now, we have domestic propaganda networks that have a much farther reach than any of those social media campaigns that the Russians supposedly paid for that are going to have very serious consequences for people in this country, because of the idea that this is a hoax or spreading rumors about, you know, the president not being a citizen, and encouraging from the highest levels of power in this country a white supremacist ideology to come out and be fully out in the open with it. It’s not that it’s ever disappeared.
JS: But Trump has empowered those who felt like, whose idea that what’s wrong with America is that we’re no longer allowed to be that person in public, it’s somehow become uncouth. And I find that infinitely more frightening than Facebook and Twitter ads that Russia may have purchased in the 2016 election. I mean, I’m frightened what it means that we’ve had this Alex Jonesization of very big, powerful media entities, namely Fox News. I mean it is, and you’re right, you’re totally right. Why do you think it is? Do you think it’s because we know Fox News is propaganda, and we’ve become so numb to it? Or, is it because we’re overwhelmed with all the battles we’re fighting? Why don’t we talk about it as the threat that it is?
MJ: Well, I think part of it starts with the inability for the larger mainstream news media to repeatedly say 60 percent of the population believes this, but 40 percent of the population, who are Fox viewers, believe that. Right? You can’t say that again, and again, because it sounds like you’re going after Fox. It sounds rude.
And as silly as that sounds, I hear constantly: “Trump voters don’t care about this, Trump voters don’t care about that.” He’s got a set 40 percent of the vote, it goes down to 37, it goes up to 43. It’s basically a 40 percent of the vote. Those viewers, my favorite thing is when bad things happen, I go to the Fox News front page, they’re not hearing about any of this.
JS: You go there because you know that you’re not going to see any of it?
MJ: It is an ongoing joke, it’s — I mean, if it wasn’t destroying the country, it’d be even funnier, but it is this ongoing joke, that like, 13 indictments come down to the Russian troll farm. You go to Fox’s page, and it’s just not there.
JS: It’s Uranium One. It’s all about Hillary Clinton.
MJ: Right. And they’ll do this thing where they’ll put it like, down in the corner, you know, there. But it’s just not there. So like, idea that that population, that many studies have show, they’re only basically, their primary ecosystem, news ecosystem comes from Fox News, and then it goes secondarily on talk radio. And then, I think, as the talk radio crowd starts aging out, it’s amazing how like, voiceless Rush Limbaugh has been in comparison to the past, but it’s partly because his listeners are also dying of heart attacks, right? So, then you get InfoWars kind of stepping in, YouTube generation replacing the talk media generation. But they’re in this ecosystem and they’re not seeing anything outside of it.
And like looking at my own family, you know, who I love, I think most of them are, they’re going to work, they’re coming home, they’re watching the game, they’re not trying to pay attention to the news, and they don’t realize it but the reason they can do that is because they have the privilege of being the most protected caste in the country.
If you’re a white guy all of us are vulnerable to things that happen this country, but you’re far less vulnerable than my family is. Like, this election has resulted in, in the last six months both my daughters have been called niggers at school. Right? One by a kid wearing a Trump hat. So, my life is directly affected by that.
My wife who was wearing a head wrap, she’s African-American and like a lot of African-American women, takes a lot of pride in her hair and getting the right products and everything else, and she was wearing a head wrap to go buy some products and was followed out to her car by somebody asking her about, you know, “Why are you wearing that?” And other white people stood around and watched, nobody stepped in or anything. Like, my life has been affected by this. A lot of people’s lives have been affected by this.
But my uncle’s lives haven’t, they’re just looking at the bottom line, they’re not looking toward the future, they might see a $1.50 tax cut and think like, this is great. You know There’s a larger ethno-nationalism aspect going there. But they don’t even see their own race. Like, in their minds, they are race-less. Other people have race. They’re just normal people.
So this whole idea of white nationalism, they don’t think of it as white nationalism, and they think of it as being proud of America. Because they don’t see race in that sense that they’re blind to their own race.
I think, pointing this out and having to say, “One of the major news networks is not actually a news network. It is a terrarium of right-wing white supremacy.” That’s really what it is.
JS: Yeah. I mean, I had this disagreement with Glenn Greenwald and I continue to have it with him about him going on Fox News. You know, he goes on Tucker Carlson’s show, he goes on Laura Ingraham’s show, I’m sure he would go on Hannity if he was invited. And I’ve been invited on both Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity’s shows, and I haven’t gone on those shows. If I was to go on, it would be because I wanted an opportunity to denounce what they do on air, but I also, part of me is like I don’t want to do that as political theater.
But to me it’s not just, “Well I, stick to my principles that I say, you know, I’m not going to talk to them differently than I would talk to anyone else. I’m going to say the same thing.” But their reason for wanting me on, and I could tell from the e-mails that they sent me, is they want me to go on their show to attack the Democrats.
JS: They want me to go on their show to talk about the hypocrisy of liberals. So why are they doing that? Are they doing it because they like my work? No. They want to take somebody and use them to achieve a political purpose that is incredibly nefarious.
JS: And so that’s what it boils down to for me. It’s like, I’m not going to participate in in the official network of the Ku Klux Klan’s propaganda broadcast. And that’s where, you know, I have a disagreement with Glenn on that. But I’m wondering: if you were invited to go on Sean Hannity’s show, would you do it?
MJ: No. No! I mean —
JS: Wait, really, you wouldn’t?
MJ: Oh, hell no!Well, listen, in the debate talking about that. And I don’t know Greenwald but I’ve, you know, read his work over the years. I do understand that he wants to hold a nonpartisan position as a newsman. Right? And I do understand the idea of the impulse to try and reach people who you’re not who not ordinarily reaching through a news network.
But the unfortunate truth is Fox is not actually a news network. Fox is a bubble machine. Fox’s motivation is not to inform people; it’s to create a bubble where they can actually deny reality, and be, and hide from reality in some ways. Right? So I know if I get a call from one of these people, and I think I’ve gotten a call at some point, but if I get a call from one of these people, there’s two things that they would want me for: One is if I was going to bash a leftist politician or a leftist position and, you know, and I’ve had my critics over the years of whatever, the other position would be to come on to be basically a wrestling bad guy. Right? Where they get to yell you down and talk about how you’re crazy and deliberately kind of erase all nuance to try and destroy you.
Now, that said, I would go on a podcast or a regular broadcast with Sean Hannity! You know what I mean?
JS: If it’s not him controlling the message.
MJ: Yeah, no, it’s like X-Men. Like, you don’t go into somebody else’s’ mind, you know? Like, you gotta meet on neutral territory.
JS: You bring up X-Men, and I wanted to ask you about “Incognegro” and particularly “Incognegro: Renaissance.” For people who are not familiar with your work, the main character, Zane Pinchback, is a light-skinned black man, who is, and correct me if I’m wrong here, who is posing as a white man to investigate the murder of a black man who is visibly black. People will not mistake him for anything but what he is.
JS: So, talk about the kind of origin of that, and give people like, a kind of sense of the tale that you weave.
MJ: Sure. I’m African-American. I’m mixed. I consider myself both, really. But I look very white to some people.
I think like, in New York, I just look Puerto Rican, but everywhere else, like.
JS: Didn’t you, for awhile, as a kid, didn’t you sort of say that you were Puerto Rican?
MJ: Yes! Well, it’s funny, my mom — my grandfather was a horrible person, and my mom decided for a bit that like, her real father was Puerto Rican, and I just ran with it because there were a lot of cute Puerto Rican girls in school, and I thought like, this was going to give me the in!
JS: (Laughs.) See that’s, that’s flexibility I don’t have, Mat.
MJ: No, man, you just meet some nice Czechoslovakian ladies, you can pretend.
JS: (Laughs.) People do think I’m Russian, it’s weird!
MJ: There you go, so, yeah!
But when I was a kid, my cousin and I used to play this game where basically we imagined, my cousin is also mixed, and to many, like, white-appearing, and we imagined that this thing that kind of made us feel like kind of like freaks was actually a superpower and like at the time I remember like imagining freeing slaves by pretending to be white, infiltrating, you know, white supremacists.
JS: Wait, this was as a kid, you were, you had these ideas?
MJ: Yeah, even as a little kid. Like, when I was about 10, and I kind of forgot about it. I was at a writer’s retreat thing, and sometimes at the writer’s retreat everybody comes up with nicknames, and they come up with nicknames for somebody, and then they use your nickname all week. And it’s kind of like this cute, like, fun thing to do to get away.
And uh, Natasha Trethewey, who’s an amazing poet and who was one of the poet laureates a couple of times, who is also mixed, decided mine was “Incognegro,” because of the way that I look, and that, when she said it, it kind of brought all these things back, and I thought, “Wow, that could either be the worst book I ever wrote or the best.”
And then I like, and so I started thinking about that and I came up with this character that was loosely based on a real, very loosely, I mean just as inspiration, based on Walter White, who was the former head of the NAACP, who actually, this is not “Breaking Bad” Walter White, this is somebody who actually looked very Caucasian and at one time investigated lynchings in the South, in the 1920s, pretending to be a white man and would come North and then post names of the people who were involved in it. And then they would go into the Negro press. It was a way to kind of get some level of justice; otherwise there would have been no mention of what happened, really.
So I used that as the basis on the first book, and so, it was really cool, like, because if I wrote that in a novel, it’s kind of like what you, the type of topic you would expect from African-American literary fiction. But in comic books, it was totally new and different. And so like, like doing it in a comic, one, let me kind of just have his fun kind of noir action tale, which is not the kind of, you know, I write literary fiction which is totally kind of different. And also had this opportunity to reach audiences I’d never actually reached before, but would used to attempt to. I didn’t know the book was going to do well.
JS: It was the first graphic novel that I read ever in my life.
MJ: Oh wow. Oh cool man! That’s awesome.
JS: It was the first one I ever read. I was really late to that, I didn’t grow up reading comic books.
JS: So I was really late to it. And that was the first, it was the first that I read.
MJ: That’s extremely cool. Yeah, and it’s funny, at the time I was a novelist with two novels that nobody read. And like, the first one, didn’t do great, the second one was like, barely in stores, and I thought my career was kind of like, over. So at the time there wasn’t as much crossover to literary fiction and comic books, so it was kind of like I felt like I was, I got a Columbia MFA, and all of this, and I felt like I was this Bolshoi trained ballet dancer, who was like dancing at the airport on the weekends. You know what I mean? It felt like I was kind of out of place.
It’s changed a lot since. But that got the narrative off the ground and the book had a lot of responses: my first New York Times review, it was things like that.
And then we had this amazing opportunity to bring it back. I actually have the rights to it now, along with my artist Warren Pleece, so we brought it back to redo it. We touched up the art to really enhance it, we had more of a budget this time, and then we also launched an entirely new series that in part is based on this incredible novel by Wallace Thurman, one of my favorite novels of the Harlem Renaissance, Wallace Thurman was a black writer of the Harlem Renaissance who died very, very young, of TB. But he wrote this book of this failed Harlem writer, and I guess I was a failed Harlem writer for a while, so I really stuck with it, and he’s so mad at society for not buying his novel that he goes to a party and he kills himself at the party, and he leaves his manuscript there, so he’ll be the tragic artist, and then they’ll finally publish his book. But he kills himself in the bathtub, and the water overruns and gets into the manuscript and ruins all the ink and the pages, and then, that’s it.
MJ: And it’s like, it’s told as a joke, but I wanted this guy to have more dignity than that, so almost 100 years later, I’m redoing it but I’m doing it as a murder mystery.
JS: Can you share with people as much of the plot as you feel comfortable without giving it away?
MJ: Sure. In the first graphic novel that’s out now, there is a reported African-American who’s being held in a jail and is about to be lynched. And news comes to the North that it looks like this guy’s going to be pulled out of the sheriff’s office any second and get murdered, and it turns out that this guy has a brother who’s working at basically the equivalent of the, the Amsterdam News. And the brother looks, unlike the one in jail who’s brown skinned, the brother looks white, he has pink skin, straight hair, he’s African American.
So he goes to the South pretending to be somebody who’s a national representative of the Ku Klux Klan to try and basically infiltrate and figure out what the actual mystery is, who — this white woman was murdered — who the actual murderer is, and free his brother before it came out.
One of the reasons I came up with that is I have twins that are 12 now, but at the time they were just born, and one of my twins has skin like mine, more European skin, with straighter hair and his sister, my daughter, has brown skin and African tight hair and I was really kind of struck with like, their lives are going to be different now, but they would have been way more dramatically different 100 years ago. The opportunities they would have had, the way the world would have encountered them.
So, yeah, that was the basis for that one, and then the new one, there’s a black man murdered it seems at a Harlem socialite party, the cops aren’t really interested and immediately decides it’s suicide. So, it’s an origin story, it actually takes place before the first one, and we have this reporter actually having to basically pretend to be white, to try and use that kind of white-adjacent power to find out what really happened in this murder.
JS: You and I are almost the same age. When you were growing up, do you remember the Eddie Murphy-era on Saturday Night Live, and remember when he does Mr. White?
MJ: Oh, yeah, yeah. I love that one. Well, the funny thing, when he does Mr. White, he basically just looks like me. You know what I mean? Like he has, it’s interesting looking back, ’cause.
JS: No, but it’s, it’s true.
MJ: Well, outside of the, he just looks like an old Dominican guy — he does like, he still has his African features, right? But he has the European skin. But I loved that skit when I was a kid.
And like, I guess I still like, there was a paranoia that maybe that was the reality, you know, he’s a black man who pretends to be white and all the sudden he goes in the bank to get a loan and they’re like, “Here, just take the money! You don’t need credit. Just go!” Life actually feels like that sometimes.
I thought of that when I went up for my first house loan, I went up for a Wells Fargo loan in a predominately black neighborhood and this was about two years before it turned out that Wells Fargo had higher interest rates for African-Americans or people looking to buy in African-American neighborhoods. So, it did like tap into the like something that’s there. You remember, when that came out, there was no discussion of white privilege in this country.
JS: Yes. Oh yeah.
MJ: In a way, it was obviously comic. But you look back, and there’s kind of oppressions to it, too.
JS: He gets on a city bus, and as soon as the last black passenger gets off the bus, all of a sudden the seats are flipped upside down, they become cocktail tables, a waitress comes out. A stripper is like dancing on his lap.
MJ: Yeah! Well, that’s first class on a plane. (Laughs.)
JS: Right. Exactly.
MJ: It says a lot of parables.
JS: You grew up in Philadelphia and so you were a kid in the ’70s and ’80s, and you had the rise of the MOVE organization, you had the bombing of the MOVE organization, you had the arrest of Mumia Abu-Jamal, you had a racist white mayor for a good chunk of your childhood.
MJ: Frank Rizzo.
JS: Frank Rizzo. What was the experience like for you growing up at that time in Philadelphia, when you had the Frank Rizzo, tenure, and you also had militant black activists who were perceived as such a threat that the city of Philadelphia literally dropped a bomb on their house, killing women and children?
MJ: Philly, much more than New York, has and still has to some degree, had a racial reality that was very black and white. Because New York had immigration, there’s always going to be implied nuance and you, it can’t simply be black and white, because you have a black population that is an international population, you have a massive brown population, you have a lot of different things that add cultural nuance.
But in Philly it was very easy to fall into that sort of simplistic idea of black and white, because those were the majority populations. The Puerto Rican population there was relatively small, there was a Vietnamese population that was also relatively small, but mostly it was an African-American and European-American town. And it was always very stark.
I mean Frank Rizzo was by today’s definition would be a Trump-esque candidate but not, you know, possibly senile and nearly as corrupt as Trump.
JS: He was like a mixture between Trump and Bull Connor or something.
MJ: Yeah. Right. More, more the Bull Connor, but he was also a showman in a way that kept him around, and he was one of those people that even as he had a horrible press locally and nationally, he had a very hardcore group that thought Frank Rizzo represents our Philly, so.
I mean, you know, I remember those images of him like lining up black men on the street, randomly pulling them together and frisking them, stripping them, you know, those days. So, I think I did go up grow up with this kind of worldview that was impacted by one side or the other: you were on Team White or you were on Team Black.
And it was very clear in high school whose team you were on, but there was not kind of any nuance. I remember getting on a bus with one of the people from MOVE, and I don’t remember who it was, I was only about 12. They were they were black radicals, but I think even more than that, they were eccentrics. It would be a better comparison in some ways to look at them like some sort of commune off in Arizona where you had people who were not just rejecting issues on race, but were also rejecting a lot of issues, basically a capitalist system.
JS: Well, and rejecting the idea that the nuclear family should be the center of our lives and that they were building community, they wanted to live completely outside of what the free market and the capitalist culture in this country dictates how you should be living.
MJ: Right, and in some ways they would have fit better in California than they did fit in Philadelphia. You know?
JS: Well, if they were white, there never would have been a bomb dropped on their house that way.
MJ: Yeah. But, you know, there’s David Koresh.
JS: Yeah! I’m not saying it doesn’t happen to white people. I’m saying that that particular —
MJ: Oh, that was nuts.
MJ: I mean I watched that live on TV.
JS: The bombing of the MOVE house.
MJ: And another thing people don’t talk about now — well, one, we had a black mayor. I think some of us thought, “Well maybe that will help.” Didn’t help at all. But when they came out with a bomb, they announced on the news, before they dropped the bomb, that they were dropping a concussion bomb that wouldn’t blow up the neighborhood, it would just have, you know, major vibrations that would knock everyone out.
And then they dropped a bomb! Kids are coming into schools, houses have burned down, or, it was still burning when we went to school the next day. It was very clear and stark the power dynamic of race. It was always there, it was always very present.
In some ways like I had, I did an event with Walter Mosley, the mystery writer, a couple of years ago.
MJ: Yeah, and he was like, “I always like coming Philly because it’s like, it’s always 1975 in Philly.” You know? And it is! Like, it’s like, because of that kind of stark difference. But, but I got to say: I stayed in a hotel last night by Borough Hall in Brooklyn. It’s so stark that on the Fulton Ave, market side of there, it’s almost entirely black and Latino working class. You cross over to the other side, to the townhouses in Brooklyn Heights, and it’s almost entirely wealthy white families, and it was the middle of the day, so you see the only black and Latino people, or most of the black and Latino people you see are people pushing prams with white children there. So, it’s not like that disparity isn’t there in other ways, but in Philly it always felt like that was the whole city.
JS: When Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince started sort of coming on the scene, and then Will Smith got the show “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” did you like it? Did you watch it? What did you think of it?
MJ: I remember them throwing parties, like DJ parties, basically. And they were good. Yeah, I had respect for that. I basically, my favorite part of the “Fresh Prince” show was the opening.
JS: Yeah, yeah, well because he’s talking about West Philadelphia.
MJ: That shit’s Philly, and we’re fine after that. To me the biggest, the closest, he’s a little older than me, but even a little older, like two years older, makes a big difference when you’re in high school, the biggest impact to me was The Roots. I used to be like, skate in Philly, and it was part of the like —
JS: You’re talking about the musical group, The Roots.
MJ: The musical group, The Roots. There was a skate shop called spike skates on Fifth and South and I used to go down pretty much every day after school, and then we’d skate around the city.
Then I saw these guys, and everybody a year younger than me, and they would set up on the corner, and they would set up a full drum set, and a full upright base, and they would come out and they would start rapping and it wasn’t just Black Thought then, and it was like, it was like 12 different guys would take turns, and they would rap for about two hours, and busk, and people would give them money, and everything. And they started coming in like, it seemed like every Thursday and Friday they would be out there.
And I remember thinking, “These guys are so amazingly good, if they can’t make it out of Philly, none of us can.” Right? And I assume they wouldn’t make it out of Philly, because like, I couldn’t imagine somebody from that area.
First writing group I was ever in, Jill Scott was in that scene and she was just a poet then, and so I saw like that whole, from an ancillary position, but I saw that whole generation come of age, and then Will Smith kind of blew up so quick that he was, he was like, you know, a one-hit album, and he was off to Hollywood, basically, understandably now, because he was, you see all of the incredible career he’s had. He, I think, was the first wave of a bunch of people of my generation, which I guess is Generation X, came out of Philly that was, in some ways, like, neo-soul, heavily jazz influenced, and kind of a post black arts, baby boomer generation, and that’s kind of where my writing out to.
JS: You’ve written several, now, graphic novels, and you are interested in writing for TV, what ideas do you have kicking around right now?
MJ: Let me, I’ll pitch you in the room. No, it’s really!
JS: I don’t need to be pitched! I think what you’re doing is so unusual and incredibly important and it’s the gold, it’s a golden era of TV right now, so I think, it seems to me like a logical thing for you to do. So I’m just curious what your ideas are?
MJ: Yeah, well, I have this really weird career, because, I have a novelist career and the novelist career, you know, is what it is and most people who read novels, that’s the career they know, they don’t read comic books. And when I write the comic books, most of the people who read my comic books will never read my novels. So it’s like they’re parallel, you know when kids parallel play? Like, that’s how my career is.
So, in some ways it’s kind of good, because I don’t have a brand! (Laughs.) So it allows me to kind of write anything. Like, Denis Leary had this joke about his father would smoke but he’d smoke anything, any brand, he would just pull a twig off the tree and smoke it, and that’s how my writing career has been.
So yeah, I mean it’s the golden age of television, and I had, my book “Loving Day” was optioned a couple of years ago, and I worked with another writer, Sam Bain, who was, one of the head writers or creators of the show “Peep Show,” it’s in Britain, a really hilarious show.
So I worked with him for about a year and a half, and it was like going to grad school again? You know, in the sense that I learned so much about the different, this different genre of writing. So now, yeah, I’m starting to write more, kind of, direct TV stuff.
And it’s, I think, my career, actually in function has been, I work on a novel for three years, and I hand in a novel and while I’m waiting for the novel to get edited and everything else, you know, my agent looks at it, my editor, Chris Jackson who’s the head of One World will look at it, when they’re working I’ll go write a script.
So, for years I’ve been writing comic book scripts.
The big change now is I’m not just writing comic book scripts on that break, I’m writing movie scripts, too. So, I have another novel that’s about to finish. I’m working on a memoir. But once I hand those over, it’s really nice to be able to spend three weeks on a totally different project.
And I guess people have always done this, but writers tend to do short stories. I don’t write short stories. So that’s really kind of opened me up to do these other things.
But look, I’m 47: It’s so cool to do something new. You know? And I think that’s what that offers.
JS: It’s a very unforgiving medium, though, that you’re writing, script-writing, because it’s, we can’t just pick up a script and read it. If you don’t know how to read a script, it’s actually quite difficult to follow, because it’s, you’re not writing it for consumption of readers, you’re writing it to, so that people can build what’s in your imagination.
MJ: Right and comics books are very similar. The difference between a comic book script and a TV or film script is that in a comic book script, I have to describe every action in a frozen picture, and it’s usually 4 to 6 panels per page, and, instead of saying, “A guy walks in, closes the door, and sits down,” it’s: panel 1, a guy opens the door; panel 2, a guy is walking in the room; panel 3, a guy sits down.
So in that way, yeah, the detraction from with that and writing prose is when I’m writing prose, I’m bringing it to life completely. It begins and ends with me. The attraction with writing a script, whether it’s for a comic book or for, or for film or TV, is collaboration.
As I said, like, I’m not the most social person, but I love talking to people I actually love talking to. You know what I mean? Like, that’s the difference. And so getting to collaborate, I think especially after 20 years of being in a closet alone, basically, is so rewarding. And I think like now, too, in my mind, I’ve written a good novel. I don’t know which one it is, but one of them has got to be good. And I’ve had a career, and it hasn’t been an explosive career, but it was a nicely building career, and so I’m starting to think more and more about what types of artistic expression are more fulfilling.
And I got to say like, when I write a comic book for instance, like, most of my artists have been in England. So, I’ll write a script, it’ll get sent to England, my British artist will send stuff to me — because of the time difference, I wake up and it’s Christmas. You know what I mean?
MJ: Like, I go in my inbox and there’s these beautiful illustrations of what I talked about and then we talk about those illustrations or not, depending on how it’s going, and then I get to see the pencil version and the ink version and then sometimes the color version. It’s the collaborative work itself that separates it from the novel.
And the same thing with writing scripts. I mean, I was surprised, I’ve heard the horror of getting notes, you know, you get notes from somebody. I was surprised to see that like a lot of the notes were really helpful and all of the sudden it was like, I was, my work was becoming better, not just because of my doggedness, but because other people were getting insights into it that helped the project.
JS: I wonder if that’s also part of just kind of growing up and becoming wiser as you go along, you know that I remember when I first got into journalism I was very defensive when editors would cut things, etc. I mean, I wrote two 700 page books, and they probably should’ve been shorter than they were, and I think if I wrote them today, I would have, I think I would have listened more to the people that were offering me constructive feedback.
But you just brought up something that I wonder about often. Like, I feel like as I’ve gotten older, I am much more, I view it as a, as a plus to have people giving you thoughtful notes on what you’re working on.
MJ: Yeah, but one of the things to keep in mind that when you deal with younger people is like, you’re Jeremy Scahill. Damn! Like, you know, but seriously, when you’re younger, you’re trying to make your name.
JS: Yeah, that’s a good point.
MJ: Now you have your name and so it’s a little more relaxing position to somebody coming and saying “Why don’t you try this? Why don’t you try that?”
And I think that’s one of the benefits from age is: I’ve got my cookie. I always wanted my cookie. Once you get your cookie, it’s easier.
I mean again, like to throw it back to the Eagles, I can give up football because the Eagles won, right? So, I think when I was younger, I wanted to have my name out there, and I wanted to make my name, and now, I see the limitations of that, and I just want to have a better process and grow. Which sounds so cheesy, but that’s really it.
JS: I want to read you one of your tweets. “I’ve never left a movie and felt like I had witnessed a societal game changer before.” You don’t say which movie but I assume you’re talking about “Black Panther?”
MJ: Yeah. That was my earnest tweet of the week. I was really, like, surprised. I’m the type of person that, and I’m not proud of this, but when everybody loves something, I immediately go, “I’m probably going to hate it.” I’ve still never seen “Hamilton.” So, I assume going into this, it was going to be one of those things where everybody is talking about how great it is, and I’m going to go, like, “Uh.”
And I started by reading comic books. Like, the first thing I ever read was Hulk, a reprint of “Hulk” number one. And it wasn’t overhyped, and that’s all I have to say, because it was heavily, heavily, heavily, heavily hyped. I think what changed for me watching it, I’m trying to write about it now, when I was a kid, black beauty was not considered a given, and African beauty was not considered a given. And Lupita is one of the most beautiful women on the face of planet, Chadwick Boseman, all those guys. I mean it was like the most insanely beautiful human beings out there.
JS: Ryan Coogler is an amazing director.
MJ: Yeah. He’s also pretty, too.
JS: He is pretty. Yeah. That’s true.
MJ: But then like, in addition to that, though. I mean it wasn’t like, obviously the people, it was the art direction of the outfits, all of them, sometimes futurized versions of them or modernized versions, but all of them had very specific roots in existing African attire and existing African art and showed the beauty of that, and together it was so stunning.
And then the narrative itself was, it was a Marvel movie, and they’re not always great. I see all of them, I love them when they’re not that great, it’s still fun for me to see the world I imagined when I was 10 become life, right? But the narrative itself was both a Marvel movie and it was a discussion of American imperialism, and a continued discussion of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and you know, one of the central issues with the fantasy of Wakanda — Wakanda is basically, in my mind, is a created African-American homeland. Right?
JS: “There is no real Wakanda,” Mat! You know?
MJ: But listen! How about that? The primary response from the Pepes, from the right-wing trolls, was not that this is a bad movie, was not that these are ugly people, it was: “This place isn’t real.” Which is just, like, I’ve noticed again and again, as I get older, like, you can tell the quality of someone’s counterargument by what they open with. And like you’re going to open with, “This place isn’t real.” Like, neither is Asgard. What’s your point?
JS: Well, I mean, what is so funny is that dipshit Ben Shapiro, I watched some clip of him where he’s going on and on about how, “Wakanda’s not real.” Meanwhile, he was constantly tweeting about shit happening in Westeros on Game of Thrones.
MJ: (Laughs.) Right, right! One, one of the things that is fascinating, I saw another tweet where somebody is saying, “Can you imagine if, there was a movie set in like, in imagine like, Scandinavian country? (Laughs.) Like, “Thor”? Like, what are you talking about?
But what’s fascinating about that is one of the strategies of whiteness and also probably a detraction of the strategy of whiteness is that —
JS: Most films and TV shows are set in fictional white places, anyway.
MJ: Right. But they can’t see race. Right?
JS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Right.
MJ: They can only see race when it’s not them. So in their mind, that’s never happened in existence. So, it’s, that’s what’s really stunning about it, is they can’t see it! Which, when you think about it, strategically is a blind spot.
And that’s part of what the comic book “Incognegro” is about is that if you actually can’t see race, other than looking at black and white, and you’re missing nuance, then you can be infiltrated, you know, that that’s actually a weakness.
What the left has going for it, at least in the white, American left, has going for it, is that they’re beginning to acknowledge, basically, their own ethnicity, and their own issues, and their own race. And once you acknowledge your own race, then all of a sudden when you look at a picture of 1947 “Avengers,” you see, “Oh, it’s all these white people in costumes.” Right? Like you start to see race in a way that makes you more conscious about diversity and all of these other things.
On the right, inside of it, they can’t really see who they are. They just see themselves as normal, which blinds them to so much of what they’re doing.
And I’ll say this: I live in Texas; I’m from the East Coast. When I grew up on the East Coast, I heard a lot of criticism, from both white and black people and other people, about white liberalism and the limitations of white liberalism and largely the hypocrisies of white liberalism. But after living in Texas, I will tell you, as least as far as me and my family is concerned I appreciate someone who’s trying to do something, someone who might even be hypocritical if they’re trying to do something, versus open hostility.
Like, I get open hostility sometimes in Texas and other places in the South. I go places with my family, and my wife was visibly black, my children, my daughters are as well, I get open hostility there. They look at as somebody, sometimes, not everywhere, but it’s, even if it only happens 10 percent of the time, that happens a lot. Right? I get this feeling of kind of, “Why are you here in our space?”
And I see that in real life, and I see that, the same thing with like, Wakanda on film. Our space is, as the Marvel universe, and big blockbuster movie theaters, and Wakanda is in that space now. “Why are you in our space?”
JS: Well I want to thank you so much for being with us Mat Johnson, and I also want to encourage people to read your work. Your work covers so much more than just the politics of race or the heritage of your own family or your own personal story. I mean you’re a fucking great writer.
MJ: Dude. I’m so honored, coming from you.
JS: I put you, I put you — you mention Walter Mosley, I put you in the same category as Walter Mosley. I think both of you are tremendous, tremendous writers that deserve a very wide audience.
MJ: I’m utterly flattered and don’t know how to handle it. So thank you! (Laughs.)
JS: All right. Mat Johnson, thanks so much, I appreciate it.
MJ: Thank you.