The N-Word of God: Mark Doox’s New Art Book is a Provocative Look at Race, Religion, and Black and White Power

Mark Doox’s new art book, The N-Word of God, is a wry examination of White power, Black accommodation, “human” racial identity, and a broken American spirituality all seen through the lens of a gospel-like myth and a subversive sacred Christian iconography.

Doox, trained as a monk in a Russian-affiliated Orthodox monastery, infuses his art with equal parts liturgy and his life experience as an African American man in the United States. His illustrations, beautiful in their intricacy, strike the viewer as religious at first glance and deeply subversive on examination.

That isn’t just because they often place Black faces and bodies where Christian tradition has placed white ones, but because those faces and bodies often harken back to minstrelsy. It’s a shocking juxtaposition, one that points toward the elevation and pervasiveness of racism in American culture, ranging from the structures that govern our society to the faith many people hold as individuals. Like religion, these ideas come from on high, but also exist within us.

cover to The N-Word of God by Mark Doox, featuring the author's name and title in black on a white background. Taking up two-thirds of the cover is a hunched Black man rendered in the style of blackface wearing robes, with manacled hands. He wears a top hat and red bow tie and his head is surrounded by a halo. His mouth is white with red lips. A slice of watermelon hovers above his outstretched hand.

Doox uses his training as an iconographer to, as he writes in a piece for Religion News, capture “the idea of seeing into invisible realms,” to help the viewer understand “what’s really going on.” This is evident everywhere in The N-Word of God, where he begins by questioning the core concept of light and dark, and how those concepts reflect attitudes toward race.

“In the dictionary, it says that the use of ‘white’ as good and morally superior is ‘archaic.’ Really?” Doox said, in an interview with Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth. “Yet the connotation is still with us. As with the term ‘black’ connoting ‘bad.’ So in The N-Word of God, I naturally feel compelled to give a little pushback to these deep-seated binary meanings and expose, confront, and undermine them in various ways and at different levels.”

As Doox’s alternative takes on the Christian Bible and its iconography continue in his book, he plays with the line between high art (the Byzantine-inspired illustrations) and low (not just the minstrelsy, but also the artfully taboo depiction of the Divine White Booty of God, among other concepts). Each detailed illustration contains layers of meaning that reward careful viewers. For example, Saint Sambo, an original concept of manacled, white-pleasing Blackness that Doox calls “Whiteousness” is rendered in rich black with a top hat, red bow tie, watermelon slice, and red-lipped, cream-colored mouth. It’s more than just a caricature.

A page of illustrations from The N-Word of God by Mark Doox. The left page, ringed in green and red, reads, "The N-Word of God! (Abd it is pronounced like this. "...NNNNN...") Without beginning, without end." On the right is another page ringed in red and green. In the background is a repeated pattern of gray Ns on a black background, with a line of white Ns running through a white-faced cherub. In front of that is an iconographic image of God, and on top of that is a blackface-style Illustration of a Black man with a white mouth and red lips wearin ga top hat. The image looks like a liturgical painting.

“To me, ‘art,’ be it textual or visual or both, is communication,” says Doox. “That might seem obvious. But that obviousness keeps me focused on what the goal is. And that is, I want to communicate something specific to the reader that the reader understands and responds to, emotionally and intellectually and sometimes subconsciously, by using forms of ‘heightened’ and ‘charismatic’ communication as my aesthetic goal. So you can see me stretching language and symbols to get at clearer ideas, expressions, and effectively create a relevant experience.”

This stretching of language and symbols is everywhere in The N-Word of God, which pushes at the boundaries of taste and art to force the reader to confront uncomfortable truths. What appears peaceful may be borne of violence, and what appears negative may in fact be something else. Doox plays with the idea of Signifyin(g), coined by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., to question the ways in which meaning is created and expressed beyond mere dictionary definition, especially in Black culture.

“I never think of myself as an activist,” says Doox. “I think of myself as a ‘metamodern’ iconographer—an artistic writer of ‘divine’ images and fascinated simultaneously with irony and sincerity.”

Irony and sincerity are crucial to understanding The N-Word of God. Without irony and the iconoclastic imagery, the message could be lost or watered down. But without Doox’s obvious sincerity and clarity of message, the initial shock might provoke nothing but uncomfortable laughter. Instead, the book is the perfect blend of seemingly contradictory concepts, exploring the truth and power that lies between binaries.

The N-Word of God by Mark Doox is due out February 6, 2024 from Fantagraphics.