Keith Knight: Cartoonist Turned Activist
Award-winning cartoonist Keith Knight's focus on racial profiling, police brutality, and race relations have many pegging him as a social activist.
Knight draws and narrates three different platforms. His “K Chronicles” is a weekly multi-panel. “(th)ink” is a weekly single panel. “The Knight Life” is his daily comic strip, and the one he said is most personal and based on his life and family.
The artist will hold a community event at Illinois Wesleyan University on Monday, Oct. 8, at 7 p.m. in the Hansen Student Center.
Knight spoke to GLT via Skype from his home in North Carolina. He conceded the majority of his sketches has become overtly political, in that he is a black man that hasn’t been “taken out yet” for talking about issues around race. Despite the political nature of his storytelling, Knight said he’s just trying to tell his own stories.
“I urge this to all artists: Tell your own story,” said Knight. “Otherwise other people will tell it for you, and they’ll get it wrong. I was raised on seeing images of people who look like me, and realizing people putting out those images don’t have my best interests in mind.”
Knight cited his fandom of hip-hop as an example. He said he heard a barrage of comments insinuating hip-hop bands were gang members or other stereotypes that didn’t fit how he viewed his friends, family and other fans of the music.
“These were people that were politically aware, smart, fans of other music. and haven’t been to jail. I knew that reflected most of the people that are out there. So it was important for me to create this stuff,” said Knight.
And now that he has children of his own, he’s hoping they will be able to learn about what they’re up against earlier than he did by perusing the cartoon archive.
“So the short answer is yeah, most of my stuff is political in one way, shape, or form,” said Knight.
One example of “what they’re up against” is media images that portray black males in one of three roles: athlete, musician, or criminal. Knight said those images affect people of all colors. He used online mugshot photos of black men as a prime example.
“I’ve actually gone to my local news station and asked, ‘Why do you always post all these mugshots?’ These are people that are just arrested, they’re not (yet) guilty of anything. There are constant mug shots of black and brown people,” said Knight.
He suggests to the news station they should provide four or five images of black people doing something else for every one mug shot. When they balk, Knight said he’s willing to send information to the stations of people of color doing positive things.
“Stuff about business, folks who own restaurants, and artists,” said Knight. “Basically these places are understaffed, and they’re just doing the easy, lazy stuff. And I guess what I’m trying to do with my slide shows and presentations is to get people to understand that it’s easy to be racist, it’s easy to be sexist, it’s easy not to pick up trash on the ground. What I’m asking people to do is go above and beyond, because we have to change and do the right thing. And sometimes doing the right thing isn’t as easy.”
Turning people who have entrenched opinions of especially people of color has always been difficult. And in this time of deep political polarization, where the president of the United States has shown sympathy for white supremacists, are his strips and panels essentially preaching to only the choir? Knight said “no.” He’s trying to reach everybody and talked about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanagh during the week of the FBI investigation into allegations that he sexually abused a number of women.
“Kavanagh will probably get confirmed, and it will seem like it’s for naught. But so many people have been enlighted to the amount of privilege someone like him had. And the amount of victims that don’t speak out. There is no way this country has not been affected in a way that is hopefully going to change things, even if it’s a tiny bit."
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