Drove down to Dartmouth College today for a talk by one of my favorite comic artists, a guy who ought to be much more well-known than he is: Keith Knight, creator of three (count ‘em — three) syndicated comics. Hardest-working man in the funny papers.
Knight, for those tragically unaware, is a young black man whose work features a rich and dynamic mix of political commentary, true-life narrative, goofball humor, and a visual style that’s bursting with energy.
I first came across his original creation, The K Chronicles, in the comics pages of Seven Days. Unfortunately, a couple years ago the paper revamped its comics and dropped the strip. I don’t know if it was too black or too funny or what, but it was a great loss. Fortunately, you can find his work online and he’s published a half-dozen compilations, some of which are still in print.
The subject of his talk is a sadly recurring theme in his work: police violence against African-Americans. It was entitled “They Shoot Black People, Don’t They?” which is also the title of a published collection of his work on the subject. “I’ve been doing comics about police brutality for 20 years. I’m sick of it.”
A recent example after the jump.
The strips are a potent mix of outrage and funny; I doubt many people could pull it off. And he has plenty to say about race relations in America and the continuing impact of racism.
“Talking about race in America only goes on until white people get uncomfortable, which takes about six and a half seconds,” he said. “It’s time to have that uncomfortable conversation. The more you do it, the less uncomfortable you’ll be.”
When talk turns to race, black people are told that the bad stuff “happened a long time ago” and the fact of a black President means we’ve left racism behind us. In fact, as Knight pointed out, “Everything that happens today is tied to the past.” And “the past” is a lot more recent than most of us would like to believe.
It didn’t end with the Emancipation Proclamation. The systematic oppression of black people continued, in various guises, for decade after decade. Jim Crow, the KKK, sharecropping, segregation, and more, all added up to a functional equivalent of slavery.
The residue of our past continues to affect us today, with the efforts by many conservatives to delegitimize President Obama — he’s Muslim, he’s Kenyan, and, hilariously, he’s not black enough — and the obvious backlash embodied in the Donald Trump campaign.
And the regular-as-clockwork police assaults on black men and children who pose no threat. Now, in the age of smartphone video, more of these incidents are available for all to see, but the devaluation of black life harkens back to the slave trade, which saw the sick, injured, and newborn babies tossed overboard to the sharks, and many dying slow deaths while shackled belowdecks.
In America, black lives have never mattered as much as white lives, and that’s why Black Lives Matter is a justified movement, a corrective to centuries of stigma. And as Knight puts it, “If I have a ‘Save the Rainforests’ bumper sticker on my car, I’m not saying ‘Fuck the other forests.’”
Knight’s talk was a stark narrative of our unaddressed racial issues — and a lot of fun as well. The man can make just about anything funny, from a harsh political commentary to the day-to-day of family life.
Hey, Seven Days — you can bring him back anytime. I’d love you for it, and so would your readers. Well, your more perceptive readers, anyway.