Cartoonist Keith Knight explores issues of race and privilege

Andy Downing, Columbus Alive

Coming up in the Massachusetts education system, it was rare for Keith Knight to receive any course instruction from a teacher of color. Indeed, save for a high school substitute, who, oddly enough, was an aspiring artist - "Seeing someone who looked like me drawing … made me say, 'I can do that,'" Knight said - the cartoonist didn't take a class from a black teacher until he enrolled in an American literature course during his junior year in college at Salem State University.

"My teacher, who was black, assigned James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Maya Angelou - all black writers - for people to read," said Knight, who currently makes his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. "Someone brought up the idea, 'Why are you giving us all black writers?' And [the teacher] said, 'I'm giving you allAmerican writers.'

"When he said that, that's what made me want to change my work: Knowing he was working within the system, but he was an activist."

For more than 20 years, Knight, 50, has similarly operated as an activist within, embracing cartooning as a means of confronting big ideas of race, identity, cultural appropriation, police misconduct and more in strips like the Knight Life, the K Chroniclesand(th)ink. Beginning in 2014, he started traveling to universities with "They Shoot Black People, Don't They?," a retrospective slide show comprised of comics, storytelling and statistics, which the cartoonist will present as part of Cartoon Crossroads Columbus on Saturday, Oct. 15.

"The best cartoons can take complex issues and sort of simplify them," Knight said. "Not to present them and to say, 'This is a simple issue,' but to get people to understand an argument in a simple way."

Witness a recent K Chronicles strip titled "Sausage," which, over the course of six panels, traces the modern police treatment of black citizens, which has been more heavily scrutinized in recent times, back to the practice of slavery on pre-Civil War plantations.

Knight first started documenting his personal experiences in his comics because he didn't see anyone he identified with represented in the form. "When I look at editorial cartoons, I never see the average Joe as a person of color," he said.

As a result, Knight's work naturally took on more politically and socially charged tones, exploring issues of police misconduct beginning as far back as the early '90s, when white LAPD officers were videotaped beating a black Rodney King. In more recent years, Knight has explored the police shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown and delved into the ongoing national anthem protests started by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, which are centered on police treatment of black citizens.

"Now it's gotten to a point where I can trace the history of [unequal police treatment] and say this is a continued result of America's inability to address its biggest problem, which is race and how this country was built," Knight said. "I no longer have to convince white people it exists. For years, even my most open-minded white friends would be like, 'Nahhh.' But now it's being recorded. And for every one that gets recorded, there are hundreds of incidents that don't get recorded. You can't ignore or deny it anymore."

Though Knight has grown more comfortable leading candid discussions about race with groups of strangers, he's still finding ways to broach the subject with his two children, who are 3 and 8.

"I'm trying to figure out a way of saying, 'White people weren't really that nice for a very long time,' which is a tough thing," he said. "It's a hard thing to explain, but it's super important for everyone to understand the history of the country."

"They Shoot Black People, Don't They?"

Columbus Metropolitan Library (auditorium)

4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15

96 S. Grant Ave., Downtown