Jiana Smith, Contributing Writer
Students, faculty and visitors listened in shock at Cabell Library on Tuesday as award-winning cartoonist Keith Knight recalled how he was mistaken for a robbery suspect by a police officer while hanging up posters in San Francisco.
“He said, ‘You fit the description of someone who’s been robbing apartments in the neighborhood,’” Knight said. “I said, ‘What’s the description?’ He said, ‘6-foot-tall. Black male.’ That’s it.”
Members of the audience laughed out of disbelief and discomfort.
Knight is the artist behind comic strips “(th)ink,” “The K Chronicles” and “The Knight Life.” His work consists of autobiographical comics with social commentary on issues such as racism, sexism and homophobia. He has been featured in publications such as The Washington Post and MAD magazine.
Knight’s presentation “Red, White, Black, and Blue: Documenting America’s Racial Illiteracy,” was featured for the library’s 18th annual Black History Month Lecture.
“Comic strips and cartoonists are like the modern-day court jesters, so they’re able to sometimes take complex issues and put them in much simpler terms using illustration and text and metaphors and all that stuff,” Knight said. “Hopefully, with a little bit of humor, it makes the medicine go down a little easier.”
Knight started the lecture by identifying media illiteracy, financial illiteracy and racial illiteracy as three major problems of the United States today. He also touched on white privilege, the problematic nature of unconscious racial bias and the importance of representation.
During a slide from his comic strip, “(th)ink,” Knight quoted common phrases heard when talking about race, such as “The race card,” “Get over it, it was a long time ago,” and “What about black-on-black crime?”
“These are some of the things that white people say when they want to get out of a conversation about race,” Knight said.
“That’s been the problem with the conversation about race,” he continued. “It’s been dictated by whenever white people feel uncomfortable, it stops. Which is about 5.2 seconds. You have to feel uncomfortable because the biggest problem with this country is its race problem.”
Knight concluded the lecture by imploring the audience to take action against ignorance and injustice.
“Comic strips and cartoonists are like the modern-day court jesters, so they’re able to sometimes take complex issues and put them in much simpler terms using illustration and text and metaphors and all that stuff.” — Keith Knight
“When anyone talks B.S. about something, call them on it,” Knight said. “We all should be able to speak up when we see police brutality or injustice.”
Hannah Binder, a painting and printmaking junior, said she was familiar with the artist’s work prior to coming to the event.
“I was familiar with his work because I’m from D.C., so I saw his comics in The Post growing up as a kid. He brought up a lot of great points, and I liked how he talked about how you need to feel uncomfortable,” Binder said. “That’s a part of life, you can’t just avoid things because they make you feel bad.”
Past lecturers at the event include public figures such as former Virginia Senator Henry L. Marsh, novelist Colson Whitehead and political commentator Melissa Harris-Perry. Knight was also the featured guest for the same event in 2016.
“It’s been a wonderful series and a distinguished series of speakers,” said John Ulmschneider, VCU’s dean of libraries and university librarian, as he opened the event. “It’s been really gratifying to watch the attendance grow over the years that we’ve been doing this.”
“Woke,” a show directed by Mo Marable based on Knight’s comic strips, is being made by Hulu and will be released in the summer.