Keith Knight delivered this year's VCU Libraries' Black History Month Lecture. (Julia Rendleman, University Marketing)

Comic artist combines autobiographical comics and social commentary to examine racial inequality.

“What I like to do is tell stories through comics and give you a twist on it, and to hopefully make you laugh, but hopefully make you think at the same time,” Keith Knight said.

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Award-winning cartoonist Keith Knight used humor to address serious issues in his cartoon slideshow, “Red, White, Black and Blue: Documenting America’s Racial Illiteracy,” at the Virginia Commonwealth University annual Black History Month Lecture on Tuesday.

Knight’s talk was both autobiographical and a chance to comment on society through his art. Knight, who grew up in Boston, remarked that he had only one black teacher in school – and that was a substitute who, as a comic artist, at least modeled a career that appealed to Knight. It wasn’t until Knight was in college that he actually read the works of African American authors.

“It made me re-evaluate everything that I was doing. So it made me say, ‘If I’m going to do these comics, I’m going to do it from a black male’s perspective,’” Knight said.

Knight uses doodle-style drawings of one or multiframe comics to tell his stories.

Graphic of a comic strip.
Knight's presentation used artwork to illustrate key points from his lecture. (University Marketing)

Like a stand-up comic, Knight introduced grave topics with an extended setup that developed a joke in deadpan manner. His punchlines often elicited laughs or groans from the crowd recognizing irony in his observations of racism.

“What I like to do is tell stories through comics and give you a twist on it, and to hopefully make you laugh, but hopefully make you think at the same time,” Knight said. “I love having an idea and doing a single panel because it's like a shot to the gut really fast.” 

Knight highlighted phrases people say when they want to get out of a conversation about race.

“That's been the problem with the conversation about race. It’s been dictated by the fact that whenever white people feel uncomfortable, it stops, which is about 5.2 seconds.”Knight said the biggest problem in this country is its race problem.

“When people always say, ‘Why do you always have to make it about race?’ We didn't make it about race. White people made it about race a long time ago, and we are the residual effects,” Knight said. “This is why I do what I do. I try to make it funny, but we have to have the awkward conversation.” 

Knight parsed out problematic phrases like, “I don’t see color.”

“What you should be saying is, ‘I am happy to see color. I am very happy to see diversity. I am very happy to hear different points of view because it allows me to look through someone else's perspective and eyes and culture,’” Knight said. “We should be happy for that. So when you say, ‘I don't see color,’ you are not seeing me. You need to understand that.” 

Knight said his art has the impact to change minds. His comics The Knight Life,” “(th)ink” and “The K Chronicles” have appeared in The Nib, The Washington Post and The San Francisco Chronicle.

Knight urged all to speak up against racism and to understand the experience of not being prioritized. “Where you don't hear about your history, your accomplishments, where every book that you read does not feature you as a protagonist,” he said.

A live-action/animated comedy inspired by Knight’s life and art -- “Woke” -- is being developed by Hulu.

“He has used this work in his artistic life to capture and express many of the issues of the day that reflect on our lives and on the reality of everyone who's living,” said John Ulmschneider, dean of libraries and VCU university librarian.

Knight first presented at Cabell Library in 2016 and returned due to popular demand, Ulmschneider said, but also to shine a light on the current political climate.

“He’s especially important because he is of the moment,” said Cindy Jackson, library specialist for comic arts. “His comics are very timely and socially conscious and his message is important. And I really think it connects with audiences young and old.”

The event was sponsored by the Friends of VCU Libraries and the Francis M. Foster African-American History Endowment Fund.

“What stood out to me is how he is so confident and how he spoke about this topic,” said Maurice Mason, a School of the Arts senior studying graphic design, while waiting in line to talk to Knight about how he balances work and family. “Sometimes you’re fearful to talk about this in critiques because of the backlash that comes from it and [feeling unsure about] the kind of support you would get.”