For Keith Knight, being left-handed or right-handed is not only a mechanical preference, but also a metaphor for different ethnicities.
Knight, creator of the autobiographical comic strips “The K Chronicles” and “The Knight Life,” spoke in the Marshall Student Center Ballroom on Thursday about the motives behind his art and the hardships of being a “left-handed” cartoonist.
“Those of you here may notice that I am a member of a particular minority group that has been long oppressed and mistreated,” Knight said to lecture attendees. “How many people in here are left-handed? I feel your pain.”
In a cartoon entitled, “More whining from the left,” Knight used the dichotomy of right-handed and left-handed people to parallel differences between blacks and whites.
“It lends itself to a lot of things,” Knight said. “One can write, ‘the right man,’ instead of ‘the white man,’ and it becomes a way to explore the way we talk about race.”
Knight said many of his own personal experiences and quirks, like a blow-up doll named Wilbur that he carries with him, find their way into his cartoons and take on deeper meanings.
“It wasn’t until I got to San Francisco that I realized how hard it was to get a taxi. I used to try to explain it to my white friends, and they would act like I was lying, like that couldn’t possibly be true,” Knight said. “Then one day I was waiting for a cab with a white friend, and she walked up and the cab stopped for her right away.”
He said the experience led him to pen the Wilbur cartoon, which shows him carrying the white doll with him when he goes out so that people will treat him better.
“A black man waiting for a taxi with a white guy equals okey-dokey,” Knight said. “A group of black men standing together on a sidewalk is a gang. A group of black men standing together with Wilbur is a basketball team with a coach.”
Larry Bush, a cartoon historian and second-year graduate student seeking his master’s in American studies, introduced Knight at the beginning of the lecture. He said cartoons can be a more powerful communications tool than most people may realize.
“The effect that cartoons have on people are pretty substantial,” he said. “People will pick up (a cartoon) and internalize it, without really realizing they internalize anything.”
Knight experienced this firsthand when one of his cartoons was published in a 2009 issue of The Rocket, the Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania student newspaper.
The cartoon depicts a black man hanging by his neck from a tree with a group of white men standing by. The black man says, ‘You’re doing this because I’m black aren’t you?’ One of white men replies, ‘See, there you go playing the race card.'”
Knight related the cartoon to President Barack Obama’s rise to office.
“People, protesters were showing up to his speaking events with signs, and carrying guns, saying things that they would never say to someone who wasn’t black,” Knight said. “Obama, himself, couldn’t say anything about it, because if he did, people would say he was playing the race card, as if that would completely invalidate what he was saying.”
Yet, some black students at Slippery Rock protested the cartoon by walking around campus with nooses around their necks as a means of showing their distaste for the images depicted in it. Knight said he felt bad for the students because he suspects their story may have been twisted by the media.
“I went there for one of these lectures, and while I was there, I asked them what it was all about,” he said. “And they were like, ‘Man, it wasn’t like the media portrayed it.'”
Knight said students there said they are in constant fear for their lives due to all of the prejudice in the area, and while a small contingent of black students did protest against the cartoon, the overall majority was appreciative of its message.