Cartoonist Keith Knight delivers unvarnished history in 'Red, White, Black and Blue'

Joel Oliphint
Keith Knight

For 25 years, Keith Knight has been addressing issues of racism and police brutality in comic strips such asThe Knight Life,(th)ink andThe K Chronicles, and in presentations that use cartoons and storytelling. In 2016, Cartoon Crossroads Columbus brought Knight to town to present a slideshow titled, “They Shoot Black People, Don’t They?”

Knight is well-versed in these issues not only as a black man living in America, but also as a student of our country’s history — the un-whitewashed, warts-and-all version. So, in the days since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, none of the racial injustices currently being discussed in American households and lamented in the streets are new to Knight. But there is one thing different this time.

“It's no surprise that COVID is affecting black and brown communities disproportionately. It's not a surprise that police brutality affects black and brown communities disproportionately. What's different about it this time is that white people are paying attention. … The average white person is starting to get it,” Knight said recently by phone from his home in North Carolina (in his cramped crawlspace, to be exact). “Is it because they're stuck inside and they have no other choice? They're not so wrapped up in their jobs? I don't know. Is this God's plan? I'm not a religious person, but I could see how people would believe that.”

As much as these demonstrations are about the oppression of black people, Knight said the onus is not on the African American community right now. “This is white people's moment. In a white-run society, it's white people who can change it. White people have to step up and say, ‘This cannot fly.’ … People can't just sit there and turn to their black coworker or black neighbor and go, ‘OK, what can I do? Tell me how to fix it,’ because white society created all of this. So it's up to you to fix it,” said Knight, who will present a new slideshow titled “Red, White, Black and Blue: Highlighting America’s Racial Illiteracy” tonight (Thursday, June 11) at 6 p.m. in a virtual event hosted by Ohio State’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum (registration is free).

Knight and his wife homeschool their two kids, ages 11 and 7, and they convey these same unvarnished American history lessons to them. “They’re not getting the version of how America was founded and the Declaration of Independence that says everyone's equal, knowing that people that looked like us were three-fifths of a human being. They’re not getting the B.S.,” he said. “[Schools] don't teach the true history of this nation and how it was founded. If we did teach the history — and a lot of it's an ugly history — then none of what's happening now would be a surprise. … After reconstruction and after the Civil Rights movement, there's always a pushback from the majority white population. So from Obama, you get Trump. He is the white president, so he is doing his best to strip away any accomplishments that the black president did.”

Still, Knight has to discern what, exactly, to reveal to his kids, and at what age it’s appropriate to pull the veil back. “You don’t want to spoil their childhood,” he said. “My 11-year-old, I talk to him about it. He was born in Los Angeles, and there was a kid down the street that was playing with a toy gun. And I just told him, ‘You can't do that.’”

While the issue of police abuse is central to Knight’s work (“The nation’s police are not putting their best foot forward right now, exhibiting police brutality at protests against police brutality,” he noted), it’s more than that, too. In “Red, White, Black and Blue,” Knight also takes time to refute common arguments against some of the tenets of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“People say, ‘What about black-on-black crime?’” Knight said. “I guess 90 percent of black people who are killed are killed by other black people. And I think it's like 85 percent of white people who are killed are killed by white people, but no one talks about that. And just the idea that you're saying, ‘It's OK for cops to kill black people because black people kill black people.’ What does that mean? It’s such a bizarre argument."

“I have cartoons for all this stuff,” Knight continued. “I use my cartoons and I use humor and anecdotes and all that stuff. It's not all a big downer.”

A cartoon by Keith Knight