By Alicia Stemper/Vitamin O
“I always knew I would be a cartoonist – always, always, always,” says Keith Knight. His art teachers, who thought cartooning “was a low brow thing,” discouraged him. Ironically, “…it was my English and literature teachers that were receptive.” Knight recalls a substitute teacher in high school, “the only black teacher I’d ever had,” gave the class a study period. The teacher sat at the front and drew cartoons. “Just seeing somebody who was in his twenties that looked like me and wanted to do what I wanted to do – it was a big moment.”
In Knight’s college American Literature class, the professor assigned James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, and Alex Haley. Someone asked, “Why are you giving us all black writers?” His answer was, “I’m giving you all American writers.” Says Knight, “Just seeing that this guy was working within the system to subvert the system…to sort of show that what we learn is not a complete depiction…that changed my work, my comics, from just being about keg parties in college to what it’s like to be an African American man in this society. The strip I do today is reflective of that.”
The Knight Life is a syndicated daily in papers such as The Washington Post. It is a combination of two other Knight strips, a single panel political one called (Th)ink, and the autobiographical K Chronicles which he has been doing for 25 years. Nine deadlines a week! In addition, Knight travels the county presenting his slideshow: They Shoot Black People, Don’t They? A Cartoonist’s 20 year look at Police Brutality in the U.S. Over time, it has developed into a show about black history and race in America.
Knight and his family moved here recently to “a house on cartoon money” from a tiny apartment in Los Angeles, drawn by the relative affordability. Through visiting places such as historic Stagville in Durham, “I learned more about the black experience in America.” Because black history is taught in a “month where you learn about four or five great success stories,” not all year as part of American history, he feels “you have to dig in the crates” to gain a full understanding. He now feels “…a pride in the perseverance of my people. If they were able to survive and thrive as well as they could in that situation, I should be able to thrive and survive… and hopefully pass that on to as many people as I can.”