By Hannah Lee | Photography by Cornell Watson
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Keith Knight lived in San Francisco for 16 years as a cartoonist working for publications from the SF Weekly to the Salt Lake City Weekly. He eventually moved to Los Angeles for eight years to try to develop “something” for television. But it wasn’t until he settled in Chapel Hill in 2015 (he moved to Carrboro a year later) with his wife, Kerstin Konietzka-Knight, and sons, Jasper, 12, and Julian, 7, that Hollywood came calling. Hulu signed a deal for his show “Woke” in late 2016; it depicts his life as an award-winning cartoonist who focuses on social activism, racial illiteracy and police brutality, which he personally experienced early on after the San Francisco police mistook him as a robbery suspect. All episodes debut on Sept. 9.
How did you first get into cartooning?
It’s something that I always did even as a kid, and I think everybody does that, but I was constantly encouraged. I remember in kindergarten drawing dinosaurs, and the teacher holding it up and showing everybody and getting all excited about it. I was always encouraged to create.
By the time I got to seventh grade and the [special arts] program [I was in from fourth to sixth grade] was over, I was creating comic books. I was creating zines. That’s when I first started doing autobiographical stuff. I started to incorporate it into my schoolwork, and that worked well with everything except math. It’s like, two plus two is four, and you can’t really deviate from that no matter how much you draw on the paper. So I started doing [a comic strip] for my junior high newsletter, [and then] my high school newspaper. Then I got into college, and that’s where my first strip,The K Chronicles, which I still do now started. And it really changed in college when I had my first Black teacher, which was a huge thing. I had him for American literature, and he gave us Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Maya Angelou and James Baldwin to read. And when someone asked, “Why are you giving us all Black writers in American literature?” he said, “I’m giving you all American writers.” That totally blew my mind. It was the first time in school reading about the Black experience outside of a paragraph or two about slavery. And so it really triggered something in me that said, “OK, I should be using my strip to record my life as growing up Black in America.”
Did you ever push the envelope too far? Have cartoons been rejected for being too edgy or controversial?
I’ve had editors call me and say, “We’re not going to run it this week. It’s too controversial – too this, too that.” The places that did that the most were San Francisco and [neighboring] Marin County, and the place that did it the least was Salt Lake City. And I would always say, “How come Salt Lake City runs me, and I don’t have an issue there, but for some reason I have an issue in San Francisco and Marin County?” It was this bizarre thing of people being afraid to offend anybody. … But it’s an interesting reckoning right now with the whole Black Lives Matter [movement], with George Floyd happening. I think a lot of folks are starting to think [that] maybe we should have more diversity in what we present.
What do you make of this social justice swell in America now, especially when you’ve been covering Black lives for decades?
I think it is more than just a trend, but I would say this, that there are a lot of companies and people who are posting Black Lives Matter on their Twitter feed or whatever, and a few months from now they’re going to go back to business as usual. But I think there are companies and organizations out there that actually want to make the effort to change, and people are calling them out: Besides just posting this up here, what else are you going to do? It’s one of those things where I will continue to do the work that I do when things settle down. … And it’s amazing how we shot this show in February and how the world shifted right into what the show is all about. I mean, the show was supposed to drop in November, and we talked to [Hulu] and said, “This can’t run in November. This has to run sooner.” So we convinced them to release it earlier. We’re very excited they were open to doing that. Everybody involved – from the actors to the writers and directors and everybody else – is sitting there going, “Oh, my God, that thing we worked on last February … it’s pivoting in a perfect position.” But we’ll seeif it gets a lot of people talking. This is the awkward discussion that we need to have.
When were you first approached about the possibility of getting a show?
When I left San Francisco, I saw the writing on the wall, which was, I was in a rent-controlled apartment, and I was stuck there. I had a three bedroom, it was $1,400 – unheard of – and I had been there for 16 years. I suddenly saw myself being there for another 20 years. So we left, and once I got down to LA, it was like, “OK, I have to do the LA schmooze thing and get a show.” And me being the defiant San Franciscan, I went down there without having a car and didn’t have one for the first three years. I inherited a car from a family member [who] passed, and I drove it out from Boston, and that’s when it all worked out. I was like, “Oh, you actually have to drive across town to all these events and schmooze people all the time.” I eventually met this really cool producer – a young, very go-get-them-type producer – and he responded to my work and essentially introduced me to a bigger production company. So I sat at lunch with him and his dad who was, I think, an African American literature professor, and he goes, “I showed my dad your stuff.” He looked at me, and his dad looked at him and said, “You gotta do a show with this guy. It will be the most important show that you ever do.” So he introduced it to a larger production company, Olive Bridge, that had a deal with Sony. This is the reason why whenever anyone wins something, they have a list of people [to thank] – like 30 people that made this all happen. The number of planets that have to align for all this to happen is crazy … [but] Hulu went for it.
When did Hulu accept the offer?
Five years ago? I just remember it wasn’t until I moved out here that things solidified. So I tell people all the time, “Oh yeah, Carrboro is the place to be if you want to make it in Hollywood – that’s the spot.” (laughs)
Why did you choose to move here and leave California?
At some point, I felt like I’d met everybody I needed to meet to be able to work outside of LA. We started looking at different places across the country, and it was interesting because we wrote down all the liberal places that we could think of – Portland, Seattle, Austin … Madison, Wisconsin. I tried to push Pittsburgh, and then I also talked about Chapel Hill. Because about 20 years ago, one of the very first comic strip slideshows I did outside of the Bay Area was at UNC. It was my first time coming to the South that was not Florida [or] New Orleans … and I had all these preconceptions. But when I got here, it was a great experience. I had a great presentation, and I was like, “Man, this is the South? This is pretty cool. If I ever get married and have kids, this is the place that I could live.” So when my wife suggested it, because there’s an Emerson Waldorf School here, I was like, “All right, I’m going to go out there.” So I came out first [before my family], and someone was driving me around Chapel Hill, and we went across the tracks over to Carrboro. And right then, right when I went across those tracks, I said, “Oh, this is where we’re gonna live. Wow.”
Keith recounted his own encounter with police in a slideshow and conversation with Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California, in July:
… When I was living in San Francisco for 10 years, I was hanging up posters for my band in my neighborhood about two blocks away – I was hanging [one] up on a telephone pole. And this cop car skids across two lanes of traffic, and the guy jumps out, and he’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘I’m hanging up posters for my band.’ And I said, ‘I have a stapler. I’m going to put it down on the ground.’ So this guy gets on the radio and says, ‘We have the suspect.’ And I said, ‘What suspect?’ And he goes, ‘Well you fit the description of someone who’s been robbing houses in the neighborhood.’ I said, ‘What’s the description?’ And he said, ‘6-foot tall, Black male.’ And I said, ‘Anything else?’ And he said, ‘No, 6-foot-tall Black male.’ Which means he could pick up anybody he wanted. And here’s the thing, I had dreads that were growing out of control. They were a mess. And you know what I looked like? I looked like a Black Sideshow Bob [from ‘The Simpsons’]. And I would describe myself as that. … So anyway, he called it in, and I looked all the way down Arguello Street, [and] I see a cop car coming. I look all the way up Fulton Street, and I see a cop car coming down the hill. I look all the way down toward the beach, the other side of Fulton Street, and a cop car’s coming. And I was like, ‘Wow, this is that moment. I am in it now.’ This is the thing I always write about, and usually I’m on the outside looking in. Now I’m on the inside looking out. So, I was just trying to take it all in, being the cartoonist that I am. And it was amazing the look on people’s faces how frightened they were of me when I looked out at them. It was so bizarre.