Mat Johnson On 'Loving Day' And Life As A 'Black Boy' Who Looks White
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In a personal essay called "Approving My Blackness," my guest Mat Johnson wrote, I grew up a black boy who looked like a white one. His African-American mother and Irish-American father divorced when he was 4. He says, I was raised mostly by my black mom in a black neighborhood in Philadelphia during the Black Power movement. So there was quite a contrast between how he saw himself and how others saw him.
Race and identity are also themes of his novel "Pym" and his comic book "Incognegro." The main character in Johnson's new satirical novel "Loving Day" is a comic book artist who, like Mat Johnson, is biracial but to many people looks white. When the novel opens, he's newly divorced and has just returned to Germantown, the Philadelphia neighborhood where he grew up because his father, who just died, bequeathed him a huge, old wreck of a mansion that he bought in an auction but was never able to renovate.
A mansion in the ghetto is how Johnson describes it. The character doesn't know what to do with the mansion or his life. The book's title, "Loving Day," refers to the day of the Supreme Court's 1967 decision Loving v. Virginia, which struck down all laws banning interracial marriage.
Mat Johnson, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd love to start with a reading. So this reading happens when the main character is at a small comic book convention, and he finds himself placed on the panel of African-American comic book authors. And he knows because he looks white that people will assume, like, what is he doing there? And in fact, somebody asks, like, what are you doing on this panel? And if you could pick it up from there.
MAT JOHNSON: (Reading) Why am I at the black table? I'm a local writer just back in town, you know, peddling my wares, I tell them, then babble on a bit more, eventually getting to my name and the last book I worked on.
The words don't really matter. What I'm really doing is letting my black voice come out to compensate for my ambiguous appearance. Let the bass take over my tongue. Let the south of my mom's ancestry inform the rhythm of my words in a way few white men can pull off. It's conscious but not unnatural. I sometimes revert to this native tongue even when I have nothing to prove although when I've been drinking.
I refer to my last graphic novel with the pronoun John. I finish what I'm saying with know what I'm saying? He nods at me a little, slightly appeased because he does know what I'm saying. What I'm saying is I'm black, too. What I'm saying is that he can relax around me because I'm on his side - that he doesn't have to worry I'm going to make some random racist statement that will stab him when he's unguarded or be offended when he makes some racist comment of his own.
People aren't social. They're tribal. Race doesn't exist, but tribes are f-in' real. What am I saying? I'm on team blackie. And I can see in a slight relaxing that he's willing to accept my self-definition, at least tentatively, pending further investigation.
GROSS: Now, that's Mat Johnson, reading from his new book "Loving Day." So why don't you describe how you look and how your character looks.
JOHNSON: I look - I like to say I look white. And partly the reason I like say it is as soon as I say it, 20 people point out actually, no, you don't.
JOHNSON: So I look like a pale Puerto Rican. I look like a really ragged ex-Latvian rugby player. I've been told I look Egyptian. I've been told a lot of things. But really what I look is ambiguous. You know, I have skin the same color as most - or many - white people. I have an African nose. I have high cheekbones. For some reason, people always assign high cheekbones to some ethnicity, but apparently by their regards, everybody on earth has high cheekbones. So I don't know if that matters.
But I look white to a lot of people. And I'm not. I'm African-American. I'm mixed. I like to call myself Mulatto because that definition fits. So, you know, I've dealt with the conflict my whole life between how I look and my actual ethnic and racial identity.
GROSS: You're a big man, too. You're - what? - 6-foot-4 and about 225 pounds?
JOHNSON: Oh, I'm massive.
JOHNSON: Oh, yeah, yeah. Yeah, you add all this - you can add on to the fact that I'm huge, yeah. I'm 6-foot-4. It's says 225 in the book, but, you know, this is a novel, so I got to cut off some pounds there.
JOHNSON: But yeah, so that's part of the whole presentation.
GROSS: So in the passage that you just read, the character is using his, like, southern, deeper, blacker voice to compensate for the fact that he knows some people think that he looks white and therefore is white. How many languages do you think of yourself as speaking?
JOHNSON: Yeah, within English, you know, I speak a lot of them. I mean, I - again, I keep coming back this idea of tribes. And, you know, I speak like my mother, you know, who is Midwestern African-American. I speak like my neighborhood in Philly, in Germantown, mostly - African-American section of Philly. But I also speak, you know, the way my father speaks when I'm at his house, and that's as an Irish-American in Philly. And, you know, and then I also have my nerd and other tribes as well. So I code-switch, which almost everyone does. You know, you code-switch with - between the way talk with your friends and the way you talk with your grandmother. But my code-switching has been because I traveled in worlds that were fairly different.
GROSS: One of the characters in your book, who's a friend of the father's, a character named Surly (ph) speaks three languages - street, Caucasian and brotherman. So what's the difference between street and brotherman?
JOHNSON: Well, street in the lumpenproletariat. You know, street is, you know, what would be defined as ghetto. But brotherman is an elevated level of speech. In his case, it's Afro-centric. It's somewhat intellectual. There's a class difference there, too. And there's an education difference between them. You know, and one of the things that, I think, the mixed identity speaks to is that African-American culture is not monolithic. And I think that's something I had to realize early as somebody who's trying to negotiate those worlds and, to be honest, like, constantly overcompensating, you know, and trying to fit in.
GROSS: So we'll get back to being biracial - both you as a person and the character in your book. But the character in your book returns to Philadelphia at the very beginning of the book to the neighborhood of Germantown, where he grew up, to take over a dilapidated old mansion that his father bought as this, like, giant-sized fixer-upper that he never fixed up. The father has died, so this is his legacy to his son. There's no roof over this mansion.
JOHNSON: Right. Yeah.
GROSS: It's just, like, you know, walls and interiors. So he sleeps in a - you know, the main character ends up sleeping in a tent in this dilapidated mansion. So what were you thinking of in terms of a building or a mansion in the neighborhood where you grew up that made you think of this for the book?
JOHNSON: Yeah. There's an actual building, Loudoun Mansion, which is in Philadelphia on Germantown Avenue right past Wayne Junction - the same place it is in the book. And I used to grow up walking around in that area and seeing that. But really, it's just the Germantown section of Philly, which has this kind of amazing history. At one point, it was its own town separate from the city. And at the time, it had these huge, grand mansions because it was a, you know, country resort area. And then slowly it became incorporated into the city.
And by the time I got there, it was a majority black working-class area that was filled with these huge mansions that were left over by a white upper class that had long since abandoned the entire place. So a lot of them were cut up into multiple apartments. Every once in a while, there'd be some kooky guy living in this, you know, 5,000 square feet 200-year-old house that - with a lot of cats.
JOHNSON: And things like that. The crazy thing was when I started writing this book, I was actually writing about Germantown, and I was trying to figure out why am I stuck on Germantown because I haven't lived there in a long time? You know, I still have family there, but I'm not there. And I realized that it wasn't just my connection to where I grew up. It was also that Germantown was a physical representation of my ethnic identity and this contrast between European culture and African culture and this contrast between wealth and poverty and this overwhelming weight of history.
You know, I'm in Houston now. Like, you know, a house looks at you wrong in Houston, it's a parking lot the next day. You know, in Philly, it doesn't matter how wretched a house is, chances are it's going to be there forever because we just don't think like that. We just fix up these houses, and they stay there forever. But you're constantly steeped in history in Philly. And I started to appreciate that more and more as I got older and realized how much that actually affected, you know, the way I looked at myself.
GROSS: So your character returns to Philadelphia, to the Germantown neighborhood where he grew up after having lived in Wales. And he returns 'cause his father's died, and he's taking over his father's dilapidated mansion. And so when he gets to Germantown, it's just like this whole different culture that he's been away from for so long. And there's a description in there of getting out of the taxi when he first arrived back in the neighborhood and, you know, getting onto the street. Would you that for us?
JOHNSON: Sure. (Reading) Welcome home. There are blocks around here where you can be attacked for looking another man in the eyes and other blocks where you could be assaulted for not giving the respect of eye contact. I can never figure it out - which blocks were which - until I realized these were just the excuses of sociopaths. The sociopaths - that's the real problem. The whole street demeanor is about pretending to be a sociopath as well so that the real ones can't find you.
GROSS: I love that paragraph because I think so many of us have gone through this - of not knowing when you're supposed to make eye contact. When is that a sign of respect, and when is it a sign of it disrespect? It gets confusing and scary, actually.
JOHNSON: Well, it's like a bear attack. Oh, totally. It's like when I lived in Alaska briefly. It was like a bear attack. You know, you get the advice people - how you do deal with bears? Well, you just lay down, and you just play dead.
JOHNSON: And the next person be like, you raise your arms in the air. You know, the next one's like, the only chance is to run. You know, the problem is not that there's some secret for how to deal with it. The problem is that bears eat people, you know? And I think, like, within that world, you know, I was always worried about that, especially, like, looking different. In any situation when you stand out as looking different, you immediately visually tell people that you might not know where you are. You might not have the ability to fight back, and you might be generally disoriented.
So, you know, I was always kind of compensating for that. Now, everyone was. Like all my nerd friends - you saw them on the street. They looked like, you know, the roughest guys you ever saw in your life. Then you go to their house, and their rooms would be covered with Princess Leia posters, right? But like, on the street, we had - everybody was, like, pretending to be that way. And the real situation is the larger society and, you know, how we are going to negotiate in a way where we're not going to get, you know, mugged.
Your character, your main character, finds out once he returns to Germantown, Philadelphia that he has a teenage daughter. It turns out that when he was a sophomore in high school, he had a one or a two night stand with a teenager who he didn't realize was only 14 at the time, and it turns out that she was pregnant and kept the baby, and this now-teenage girl approaches him. And I'm wondering if this plot point connects at all with your life? Did you ever worry (laughter) that maybe you had a child out there who you didn't know about?
JOHNSON: Yeah. When I started the book and I started figuring out what it was about, I already started thinking about this moment when I was 16 and I had a pregnancy scare with a girl, one of the first - you know, probably the first - girl I was with, and it changed my entire life. You know, I was a gregarious, probably good-looking kid, and all I did was run around Center City Philly on my skateboard. And then I would lie to my parents and say, you know, I'm going to my dad's house to my mom, and I'm going to my mom's house to my dad, and then I'd stay out as long as I could. Invariably I'd get caught but, you know, for a while it would work. And then - you know, I was kind of living this wild life, and it all smacked into me when I realized this might've happened. Then later - you know, it was pretty clear it probably wasn't true, and it was being used for other reasons. But it didn't matter because as far as I was concerned, I had learned that I was not emotionally prepared to be sexually active. And I started changing the way I lived and changing the way I looked at women and changing the way I looked at myself. And I - for the next couple years, I pulled into this bubble and I started becoming an introvert, and that's when I started reading. And I always read comic books, but then I figured out for the dollar you spend on a comic, you could buy a whole novel, so I would start getting into novels. And then I read things - you know, first science-fiction and then things like Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" and Morrison's "Beloved" and "Souls Of Black Folk," and this whole world opened up to me. And so I've thought about it since, and I wanted to negotiate what would've happened if my life had been very different.
GROSS: So let's get back to your novel. The main character finds out that he fathered a child after a kind of one-night stand, and the woman who he had this relationship with was white. She was Jewish, and the daughter has been brought up white. The mother's now dead. And for reasons too complicated to get into here, the daughter ends up living with the main character, and he thinks that she should go to an Afrocentric public school because she needs to learn about the African-American side of her heritage, and she didn't even have a clue that there was an African-American side to her heritage. And her attitude is, well, I know who I am. Do I need a new identity? So what do you think would've been right, and what do you think we've been wrong about sending her to an Afrocentric school?
JOHNSON: Well, I think it was cheaper tuition. And as all parents, I think you start there. That would've been good. But the other parts I think, like, you know, it's funny. When I wrote that section, I actually imagined that she was going to be in that school longer. And when I got her there and did my sort of campus visit on the page, I realized that there wasn't a lot that we were going to be able to do here. The character who, you know, she was was not going to work well here, and I was probably relieving my own experiences with that.
GROSS: Did you go to an Afrocentric school?
JOHNSON: No, but I grew up, you know, in a period - when I was young, in the '70s, was the tail-end of the Black Power movement and the black arts movement. And Philly was a, you know - had a significant role in that. And when I was going to college, it was the height of the Afrocentric movement. And I think a lot of times when we focus on identity and the pauses of identity - and both those movements focus on that - there's still times where some people don't fit in completely. One time, I had an old girlfriend, and she had dreaded up her hair, and she was talking to me about how amazing it was to, you know, claim her identity and stop straightening her hair and getting these dreads, which was all great. But in the next sentence, she's like and I think you need to get dreads, and I was like do you see my hair? (Laughter). My hair is straight. I cannot dread it up. And she's like, oh, no, you can you can get, you know, this beeswax, and you can use egg whites, and, you know, and you can do all these things. And there was no sense of irony on her part that what she was talking about was sort of the exact same thing - well, not the exact same but similar - as her talking about straightening her hair. And to me, that just didn't work. I mean, I got really old basically before I realized that it wasn't working for me. Black identity in the way I was thinking about it wasn't working for me.
GROSS: What was not working about it?
JOHNSON: Well, it's like every time I had to say I was black, it felt like I was, like, you know, beheading my father and denouncing his entire family. You know, and my father, you know, I love him, and I love my family. You know, my grandparents used to be a huge part of my life, and, you know, part of my connection to Philly, it's not just me. It's an Irish-American Philly that went back, you know, to the 1830s. Like, my humor - my sense of humor, I have an African-American influenced sense of humor - probably comes from watching Eddie Murphy tapes and Redd Foxx and tapes like that, listening to Bill Cosby tapes. But I also have an Irish-American sense of humor that's dry and self-deprecating and probably fairly bleak (laughter) that I get from my father.
JOHNSON: And so when I was just saying I'm black, it fit. But it didn't really say all of who I was, and it did feel like I was denying my family half of who I was - part of my existence. So...
GROSS: You create for the daughter in your novel, you've created this, like, biracial school where everybody in it is biracial and that's their identity. They're not asked to choose the black team or the white team. They identify as biracial. Did you have any institution like that in your life ever?
JOHNSON: Oh, no. I didn't hear the word biracial until I was about 22. You know, the first time I heard the word biracial was the 1992 census. I think it was the '92 census where people were talking about we need to be able to knock off more than one box, and so if you're black of mixed heritage, you should be able to knock off more than one box, and I hated that idea. I thought the people that wanted to do that were sellouts, that they were just running away from blackness. And I had met people like this, you know, over the years who, you know, they would do anything not to be black. You know, they would swear they were Cherokee. You know, they just happened to be the only curly-head, you know, Afro-headed Cherokee on Earth.
JOHNSON: But they were Cherokee. So I rejected that. So there really - that didn't exist. I mean, you know, I realize now part of my thing was I grew up 10 years too late, you know, or 10 years too early because the world changed, and really before my period for a very long time in this country, you know, if you were mixed, you were black and that was the end of the story. Now that was black with an asterisk, you know, and you could be constantly criticized for not being black enough, but still that was the box, and you had to go sit in it. So when, you know, when that first biracial identity talk started happening around me, I rejected it, and it took me a while to see it was real. But even still, like, I love the idea of biracial. I actually don't use the word biracial. I tend to use mixed. Biracial to me accentuates the word race, and, you know, I don't really care for it. I use the word mulatto, which gets on everybody's nerves, but it works for me.
GROSS: That's a whole - that's a slave-era expression.
JOHNSON: Right, yeah, yeah. So there's a lot of slave-era expressions about race we're walking around using every day. Nobody seems to mind so, you know, forgive me if I'm going to take one that works for me.
So as you pointed out, a lot of the things that we think of as being racial differences are really class differences in America and I'm wondering if your parents were from the same class.
JOHNSON: No. Well, my mother was, I think, from a slightly higher class level - my black mother was from a slightly higher class level - in the sense that her dad was a preacher. Her grandfather was a preacher. They had secondary education studies in theology. You know, I have a cousin who's a professor at Yale. I have a cousin who's a CEO, on the black side. On the white side, my family was working class probably until the GI Bill. I mean, that's what made the difference. They lived from the 1830s up until the 1940s, parts of my family lived within the same three blocks in the art museum section of Philly that whole time, and they didn't become upwardly mobile until after World War II. So, you know, yeah, it's a lot more complicated when you start looking closer.
GROSS: So how old were you when your parents separated?
JOHNSON: I think my parents probably separated when I was about 4, and they divorced later, but I stayed with my mother. It was the '70s. We didn't have, you know, the same sort of co-parenting situations a lot of people have now. So it was every other weekends for a while, and then when I could get to my dad's on my own, every other weekends and Wednesdays. So mostly I was with my mom, and mostly I was in Germantown and also Mount Airy in majority-black environments.
GROSS: What was it like for you to go back and forth between not only two different parents but two different kinds of neighborhoods? Was your father living in a predominantly white neighborhood and your mother in a predominately African-American one?
JOHNSON: There was points, but mostly by dad was in Germantown. My dad was in Germantown for many years. I mean, Germantown has a very solid white, middle-class, liberal population, and my dad was part of that world, you know, with their own scene. You know, I spent many-a-time at the co-op at Weavers Way bagging nuts.
GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, yes.
JOHNSON: You know, so, like, that was a whole kind of world and there were a lot of interracial couples in that world. So it wasn't like solidly one or the other, but they were different, and I think at that point later, my dad's world tended to be more middle-class and educated. My mother was a social worker, and because I was her duty, she didn't have much of a social life. So it was basically just me and her for a long time, and now I take care of her and basically, you know, pay it back now. But I think it was almost easier because they were not together to just be like, I'm going into this mode now. I'm here in this mode, and then I'm going to, you know, take the bus and then I'm going to be in this mode. And, you know, I think there was a real disparity probably with the way I presented myself in these places, but I was kind of speaking the cultural language of where I was.
GROSS: What were some of the differences?
JOHNSON: I think it was - largely it was just the way of talking. I mean, I see the things the same all the time. But, you know, with my father I tended to use his accent and his way of looking at the world. My mother cursed a lot, so (laughter) and my mom said it was OK to curse. So, you know, that had nothing to do with ethnicity, just my mom used to stub her toe a lot and that would happen. And then at, you know, my dad's it was much more calmer. I mean, you know, a lot of divorced kids have this. I mean, mine was just accentuated by ethnicity. You know, I've talked to so many adult children of divorce who looked back and go I don't know how my parents were ever married 'cause they're so different, you know, and I had that kind of in spades. But, you know, it wasn't until - because I was in Philly, I wasn't in, like, real hard-core majority-white environments until, like, college. And I remember going to visit a girlfriend at Lafayette College in upstate Pennsylvania, and there - I came into a room and there was, like, 200 people and they were all white. And I just started, like, having a panic attack. I don't know what I thought they were going to do, but I had never seen that many white people in a room together. It was - it was amazing. I'm sure they were all looking at me and wondering why is that white guy sweating so much? But, you know (laughter) it was all perception. I mean, so much of this was just stuff in my head, you know? I think I was probably the biggest culprit in driving myself crazy over this than anybody else.
GROSS: You wrote a novel that was written in graphic novel form - you had an artist collaborating with you on it - called "Incognegro." And it's set in the 1930s and it's about a light-skinned African-American who goes undercover as a white man in the South to investigate lynchings. Did you ever feel in your own life like you were almost operating undercover when you were in, like, white neighborhoods or, you know, white - predominantly white places?
JOHNSON: Oh, yeah. I mean, "Incognegro" came out of me and my cousin Ben running through Mt. Airy imagining that we were, you know, a part of the Underground Railroad where (laughter) we, you know, were secret agents pretending to be white so that we can help people escape from slavery. And we were about 10, I think, when we were doing that. But, yeah, I mean, there's points now - I mean, I don't actively try to pass, but I know my privilege. You know, all this stuff, like, me, like, dealing with the issues I had of looking the way I did, I mean, they're nothing compared to issues that many African-Americans have to deal with in this country. You know, I got pulled over by the cops on the way to this interview (laughter) today.
GROSS: Did you really?
JOHNSON: Oh, yeah, yeah. Well, it was completely my fault (laughter). I mean, I didn't update my tags on my car. It was no biggie. It was no - no drunken, you know, car chase, but it was still, you know - it's always scary, you know? And when that cop came to the window, I did my best Caucasian, you know? My grammar was perfect. I did everything I could in that moment to be nonthreatening. And I know part of that is not, you know, having him perceive me as black 'cause I know that can end up getting me killed. It can, so I have to...
GROSS: Was the cop white?
JOHNSON: I didn't know at first and I was nervous. And he came by and I - and he was Latino. And I gave a half-sigh of relief. You never know (laughter). You know, I can't see into anybody's head, but I, you know, I live with that fear despite the way I look. I mean, when I - you know, when I was home I get pulled over, but I don't think it was for driving while black. I think it was for driving while appearing Puerto Rican. I don't know what the acronym for that is. But - so, yeah, I - there are times where I've had to do that, and I know I've had privilege because the way I look.
GROSS: Can I ask if your wife is white or black?
JOHNSON: Yes, you can, and she is black.
JOHNSON: Yes, she is definitely black. And my kids are African-American and, you know - but the way they look, sometimes they have begun, not - it wasn't my impetus, but they have begun telling people they're mixed because when they told people, you know, some of them are - one of them is darker and two of them are lighter. And all of them meet confusion with people around them, so they've started using mixed because it works for them. And, for me, the way you tell people who you are in the world, it should match you, you know, so I'm OK with them doing that. I don't want them to try and fit into a name that doesn't match them because invariably they're going to have to end up overcompensating for that.
GROSS: And Loving Day is a reference to an actual day of celebration. You want to describe what Loving Day is?
JOHNSON: Yeah. Loving Day is a recent holiday. It celebrates Loving v. the state of Virginia, which federally legalized interracial marriage throughout the country. It was started by a guy named Ken Tanabe. He basically just came up with the first idea for it and promoted it, and now people are doing their own Loving Day celebrations across the country. And you'll find people there from, you know, interracial relationships. You are there kind of, you know, meeting up with other people who dealt with same issues. And then you find a lot of people of mixed ancestry there. And, you know, I didn't know about any of this till I started getting into this world, but that was later.
GROSS: So when you say this world, like, there's like, a world - like, there's a biracial world?
JOHNSON: Oh, yeah. It's a separate planet. (Laughter). It's an ice giant, yeah. You know, a couple years ago I was at this event, right? And I got this vibe from somebody who I really felt like - it was a black event - and I felt like they wanted me to basically compensate for how I looked, like, they wanted to know if I was down, you know? Like, OK, yeah, sure you might have some genetic connection to blackness, but are you really black? And I got that vibe, and I've gotten that vibe, you know, my whole life at different points. So I recognized the vibe. And I was just like, you know, I'm too old for this. And I just didn't do it. And they kept giving me chances to be like, oh, OK - like, questions like, oh, you know, and so where'd your wife go to school? Like, questions - they were trying to feel me out and I wouldn't do it. And so afterwards, I went to this lounge area and there was a bunch of other, you know, black people there. And I talked about it, and all these other people started clicking in and saying, you know, I've had that too, oh, God, I hate that, I hate that. And then at one point - there was about 12 of us - the weird thing was, I looked around, I realized every one of us was mixed - every single one of us. And we were all identifying something that happens to a lot of black people, but happens even more so to mixed people. And that got me on this idea of community 'cause almost everything that's been written about mixed experience usually is about the individual, like in, you know, the archetype of the tragic mulatto, like, the early novels about mixed identity, they're all about one person. So I really started getting interested both in Loving Day but also in this larger world about what the community of mixed people were. And so I started going to these events to see what, you know, what community mixed experience was like.
JOHNSON: It turns out they're just people like everybody else. Everybody just gets on my nerves after like, 10 minutes, you know?
JOHNSON: You know? (Laughter). Really, like, one of my big struggles - like, a lot of writers have this thing between being an introvert and an extrovert, you know, and I have that. And I have this, like, this feeling of the individual. I'm interested in the individual, but I also get lonely and want my tribes. But invariably, you know, we all seem to get on each other's nerves and then we, you know, disappear and become the individual again.
So, you know, I enjoyed, like, seeing all these other people and interacting with people with this similar issue. But at the same time, I'm really suspicious of groups. Like, I'm really suspicious of anybody who comes in and says, this is your identity now, or this is your belief system, and now that you have this, everything's going to be great. And 'cause, you know, initially it does feel great when you make these adjustments and you have this idea of, you know, euphoric, you know, connection to these new possibilities about yourself. But after a while, the actual regular suffering of human existence still kicks in, you know? So yeah, it was - I really enjoy these communities. But at the same time, you know, I'm also suspicious too of when we get too attached to communities based around, you know, ethnicity or race or, you know, a hard-core belief system.
GROSS: So you mentioned that, you know, your mother has, like, a sister who converted to Judaism and somebody else who converted for marriage, I would imagine, after they got married?
JOHNSON: Actually, my aunt married her husband who was Jewish and raised their kids, but she converted after their divorce. She was just, you know - believed and at that point was a, you know, a part of the Jewish community in Philly and wanted to fulfill that. And, you know, my cousins, you know, are still part of their Jewish communities and my stepmother is also Jewish. So, you know, I had a lot of those influences around that's really helped kind of both, like, you know, my basic sense of humor and probably the way I debate too - 'cause I was constantly arguing with my cousins (laughter).
GROSS: So did having a stepmother who - or, is your father still alive?
JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: And your stepmother too?
JOHNSON: Still living off of Valley Green Park with my stepmother...
GROSS: Oh, OK.
JOHNSON: ...All this time, yeah.
GROSS: So your stepmother is Jewish. Has having a Jewish stepmother introduced, like, a whole different culture into your identity and into your just kind of, like, knowledge?
JOHNSON: Oh, yeah. I mean, you know the weird thing is, right, when you say who you are, there's first - there's - you have to have an actual ancestral claim, right, a genetic claim. But then you also have to have a community that thinks you're that thing, and a real connection to the community. And then you actually have to believe you're that thing. The weird thing is, like, with the Jewish part, I have no ancestral claim - or thought I didn't. It turns out my DNA test says I have a very minor one. But that was just a huge part, and I grew up not seeing the boundaries between things. And one of the places that I saw blurred boundaries that other people didn't was in humor. And, you know, the African-American tradition, the Irish-American tradition and the Jewish-American tradition are all incredibly steeped in humor, you know, because all of them came up with humor as a coping mechanism for oppression. So to me, that was the universal language. And it was also like, you know, the way I can actually express myself in all those worlds and be heard.
GROSS: You know, an interesting difference between African-American humor and Jewish humor, in it's kind of, I don't know, basic or maybe most austere type form is, African-American humor, some of it comes out of playing the dozens in which you insult the other person or insult the other person's mother, and so much of Jewish humor is like, you're insulting yourself. It's like, totally self-deprecating (laughter).
JOHNSON: Right. Right, yeah. And I think - but the key there is a defensive posture, right?
GROSS: Like, either way, they're both defensive.
JOHNSON: In both cases, either way you're trying not to get beat up, right?
JOHNSON: Like, that's at the heart of it, you know? So yeah, you have them both there. It's funny 'cause if you actually listen to it, a lot of it ends up being self-deprecating. I mean, the act of sitting there and talking with somebody who's going to be insulting your mother, you know, is - the actual act is, in some way, self-deprecating. So you know - so all those kind of things were there. I mean, you look at the comedy circuit in America, that's the two major traditions, you know? The Jewish-American comedic tradition and the African-American comedic tradition, you know? So they're all influencing each other. I mean, Seinfeld talks about how Cosby influenced him, you know, and all these people are going back and forth. They're playing the same circuits. So I think, you know, you want to talk about a mulatto experience, look at the way we laugh in America, and it's right there.
GROSS: You know, we have spent so much time during this interview talking about your experiences being of mixed ancestry - you know, your mother black, your father white, you looking - your skin color looking, you know, very light, and some people mistakenly assuming that you're just white. And I'm just thinking, hearing you talk, how exhausting that must be to always feel like people are waiting for you to explain yourself, to explain like, who you are, that, like, just being isn't good enough - you have to choose a team, you have to explain who you are, you have to explain why you look the way you do. You have to explain that so people accept you. You have to explain that so you don't get beaten-up by (laughter) the wrong people.
GROSS: You have to explain that so that you can be on certain panel discussions or not be on certain panel discussions.
GROSS: It sounds just utterly exhausting.
JOHNSON: Yeah, I mean, it sucks. I mean, there's worse identity issues to have, but it just sucks. I mean, you know, one of the things - when I did this comic, "Incognegro," right, you know, it was about this guy who pretends to be white to investigate lynchings, loosely based on Walter White. But once I did it, I would show up at the bookstore, and I noticed they weren't looking at me funny anymore, you know? My first two novels were, you know, marketed just as African-American novels, and then I'd show up and they'd be like, OK, are you the driver? You know? And all of a sudden, people saw me. You know? Like, they saw me. I didn't have to explain anything. So I was just like, whoa, you know, this might be something to further investigate. And I did think, like, in part with "Loving Day," you know, I am tired of talking about this. It really feels like I'm walking around all day with an ink stain in my breast pocket. You know? That ink stain might be four years old, but every time I walk down the hall, somebody's like, hey, you know, you got an ink stain in your pocket. It's - you know, it's unbelievably exhausting. So part of this for me - like, I gave my first reading last night, and I told them, like, this is the book - this book is being born today. This is the day it came out. But for me, it's the funeral for this book, and it's the funeral for having to talk about these issues. Like, I needed to say them. I needed to get them all out on paper, but I don't need to keep them with me forever. I like - I want to put them in the pages of the book, close the book, and keep it, you know, at your local library where I don't have to carry this stuff anymore.
GROSS: Mat Johnson, it's been wonderful talking to you. Thank you so much.
JOHNSON: I really appreciate it.
GROSS: Mat Johnson is the author of the new satirical novel, "Loving Day." If you want to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed - like the one about how a historical blunder helped create the water crisis in the West - check out our podcast. Dave Davies recorded that interview while I was out on vacation last week, and I want to thank him for hosting while I was out. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album by trumpeter Terell Stafford paying tribute to trumpeter Lee Morgan. This is FRESH AIR.
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