By Anne D’Urso-Rose
Keith Knight, a Malden native, infuses his work with humor, creativity and social activism. His nationally syndicated cartoon series (K Chronicles, DAILY, and (th)ink) have won awards and inspired the live-action comedy series “Woke” on Hulu. Loosely based on some of his real life events, Knight co-created the show with Marshall Todd and drew the animation that opens the show.
Knight went to high school in Malden, lived for a while in California’s Bay area (where the “Woke” series is based), later moved to Los Angeles and now lives with his wife and two children in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Knight returned to the Boston area last May to give the commencement address at Salem State University, his alma mater. On May 22, he attended the unveiling of the mural he created for the Malden Arts mural series along the Northern Strand Bike Trail near the Breakfast Club (formerly Doo Wop) Diner. The mural is a Malden-centric take on his popular comic series “Life’s Little Victories.”
Neighborhood View caught up with Knight by Zoom to dig into his Malden roots, trace his memories and reflect on education, community, art, and racism.
What are all the schools that you attended in Malden?
I first attended Daniels School [for elementary] which is now I think apartment buildings, or condos. And then my sister and I joined the Major Works program, which was at the Maplewood School [also no longer exists]. It was a special program where they take the so-called “smartest kids in the city” and put them all together from 4th – 6th grade. We did puppet shows and plays and we did all these presentations. We did tests on our own. We told the teacher when we were ready to do a test & and they gave you headphones and a tape recorder and you’d sit in a yoga corner and do the test and so it was like an amazing, creative experience. But just last Thanksgiving, my mom told me that I wasn’t one of the “smart ones.” It was actually my sister who got picked for it and they didn’t want her to be by herself so they included her twin brother!
But I loved doing all this creative stuff and meeting all these creative people, friends that I’ve had for life. So when I got back into the regular school system, which was Lincoln Junior High, which is also no longer there, I was just drawing cartoons – a lot. That’s where I met another cartoonist, Joel, who turned out to be my cousin-by-marriage. Then I went to Malden High and, by then, I was doing cartoons for the Malden High School Blue & Gold. I really valued that time between 4th and 6th grade. Because I think it just showed you were fostering creativity but also teaching kids at the same time.
You graduated Malden High School in 1984. Growing up mostly in the 70s and early 80s, how would you describe the racial make-up of the city?
I think I can remember in 1980 the census showed 55,000 white people and 1,000 black people so there were 55 white people to 1 Black person. And I also remember being the only Black kids (me and my sister) in the school at Maplewood. So that was interesting. I remember that it was nice to be back at Lincoln and not be the only Black kids in the school.
How would you characterize the community?
It seemed like everyone knew each other. It’s interesting. I am only learning now about where we grew up. I grew up in the Lisbon Street apartments and apparently I found out that we were just the second wave of those apartments being integrated. Our next door neighbors, the Baileys (a mixed-race couple), were the first to integrate those apartments where I lived. But, I thought it was a wonderful community. There were all these folks with extended families. There were the Knights and the Grays and the Longs and the Strouds, Williams, Owens. But there were also all these white families and everyone knew each other.
Did the families go back generations?
I really don’t know. I know that my family went back. I just know that I had a great uncle that was a huge influence on my work. We moved to Bryant Street, just across the street from the Newland Street projects, during the Blizzard of ‘78 – we pulled a lot of boxes on sleds. Anyway, he lived around the corner from me and he was a huge influence on me, as far as art and culture. He took us to plays. I remember seeing The King & and I with Yul Brynner. I remember going to New York City as a little kid. He also took us skiing. It was one of the few black ski clubs in Boston. The Snow Rovers. And they had an annual clambake every year in Duxbury which was amazing. And all this type of stuff. He sort of fostered our love of art and travel. Because he would travel all over the place. And he was also an artist. And my dad was a really cool illustrator. Actually, I shouldn’t say that. It wasn’t like he was an illustrator. It’s just that he could draw. He just never pursued it. But he also fostered my love of sports. Because he always got free tickets all the time because of his job. So I went to see the Bruins when they had Bobby Orr, and Celtics and Red Sox games. So, yeah, it was wonderful.
Recently I took my family [wife and kids] back to the Lisbon Street apartments. And I told them – I just remember riding my Big Wheels around the parking lot, .. for, it has to be hours. I never stopped. I’m sure people living there were like, when will he stop?
And street hockey – we had games all the time. We’d also play baseball but with tennis rackets and tennis balls. And it wasn’t just Black families. There were the Williams, Owens, but there were Coviellos, the Ponns, the Roses, yeah – like it was a mix of people.
So it sounds like great memories of a tight knit community, both Black and white families together. Can you recall experiences that were negative – that were based around race and you being Black?
Plenty of negative experiences. I remember going camping with a friend of mine – and his family – it was a white family. I was accused of trying to steal a canoe. And single handedly by the way. And so, they kicked us out of the park. And I think my friend’s family didn’t know how to handle it. Because they were white, and they just never experienced it. And this guy, when we tried to book at other places, we got rejected everywhere. They would always say they were full, even though they weren’t full, obviously. Until this really cool hippy place, was like “yeah this guy’s calling around and telling everyone to look out for you and not let you stay at their place,” you know. So they let us stay at their place, which was really nice. But then we saw him at some store, the owner and we said, we know what you did, blah, blah, blah. And I’ll tell you, he was like seriously a boss mob character. Cigar chomping, big hat rim. He said something like, “Oh yeah, you want to mess with me?” And I just remember the owners of the place we were staying at saying you guys get out of here, because they’re sending the cops out. I was maybe 12 or 13, I think.
I remember there were debates with other classmates whether to invite my sister and I to make-out parties.
I remember being accused by a teacher, you know, “Are you guys starting a gang?” Because it was four or five of us Black kids hanging out. We would never have been asked that if any of our white friends were with us. Just stuff like that.
And then, frankly, looking back. We got more books assigned to us in school where the animals were the protagonists than people of color. We never had books where Black people were the heroes or the protagonists. They were either white people or animals. And that’s a huge bizarre thing … to not see yourself in the stuff that you’re learning. And especially the whole history that we learned. Literally, slavery – maybe like a paragraph was devoted to it.
Did these examples come back to you later as you evolved in your understanding of race as an adult or do you feel like you consciously experienced it at that time?
You remember it then and then you reflect on it more, you find it in context. I remember my Mom being in a Thom McAn shoe store and this guy kept following us all over the place. There’s all these people in the store and this guy is just following her around. And she just tore him a new one because it’s just like, really, you’re gonna follow me everywhere and there’s all these people in here and you’re just gonna specifically follow me with these little kids? Yeah, my mom confronted someone who was following her in Thom McAn and it was in the 70s!
And that type of stuff I reflect on. When I was in San Francisco – I did a comic about this – I went into this new Office Depot store that opened up. I love office supply stores, so I’m going all through it. And at the end of every aisle, there are all these people following me everywhere and afterwards, I went up to the manager, who was also following me too, and I tore him a new one. Enough so that he apologized to me at the end of it. But I wouldn’t have done that if my mom hadn’t done that all those years before.
I also remember me and my cousin Joel went to some store in the Assembly Square Mall – either Macy’s or Jordan Marsh. We went in one of the weird doors so we were in one of the sections that we wouldn’t normally be in. Like it wasn’t the men’s sections. And we remember a kid that we went to high school with just randomly being there and looking like he was shopping and he looked up and he just started laughing. And we were like “Hey” and he was like “hey.” So we were like, “What’s up? What’s so funny? And he said, “Oh, I’m security. Like I’m undercover security and they told me that there were a couple of ..” um, I can’t remember how we were described, but he was pretending to be an undercover shopper and keeping an eye on us. Of course, then he starts joking and he goes, “Here you want to steal something. Here take this. Take this.”
Basically, if I get a season 3 for “Woke,” I totally want to do this. I want to go back to Boston and I want that scene to happen. But I want him to go, “Here, here, take this. take this. This is reparations. Just take it. Steal it. I steal stuff all the time.”
I heard through the grapevine that you used to do a comic strip in high school featuring all your friends. There was a character in it that was white that was always drawn with a paper bag over his head?
Yeah, the strip was called Westdale High. It was based on all of my friends from high school. I don’t think I was consciously thinking of it at the time, but it was important for me to center stories around Black characters because I was not seeing it in the stuff I was getting at school.
Again, if [the show “Woke”] were to go back to Boston, one of the things I want to do is to show Black people in Boston. Because anytime you see anything in Boston, it’s Mark Wahlberg or Matt Damon. Like, you never see any Black people. And yet Boston itself is majority minority.
Were you a Celtics fan growing up?
I was not a Celtics fan. That fell down racial lines. Like all the white guys we know were Celtics. And then the Black people were into Philly, with Dr. J. Or the Lakers. Well no, I don’t even think anyone was into the Lakers. I think we all hated the Lakers, but we definitely weren’t pulling for the Celtics. I appreciate Larry Bird now for what he did but, like you know, it’s tough to .. I didn’t start rooting for the Celtics until they won in 2008, when it was an all Black team. Because I think that they always prioritized having one white dude. But now, I root for them, because it drives Lakers fans insane, which I love.
In recent years, the Malden community has reached out to you – I’m thinking specifically of Malden Reads, Malden Arts, the North Shore Black Women’s Association, to name a few – recognizing your accomplishments and inviting you to participate in various activities and initiatives happening in the city. What were your impressions of Malden coming back, after being away for so long?
Well, I love seeing the rise of communities of color. Like, just going to the Ten Pin Town Line and seeing all the Asian kids. That was pretty amazing to see. Malden has really stayed to its working class roots. Like it seems like a place to, you know, come and open a business. It really sort of embodies that spirit. But at the same time, I’m also seeing it become the place that you stay while you work in Boston. You see the prices just shooting up. At the same time, I do love what has happened to downtown. All the restaurants and all the cool stuff down there. I remember just sitting there in one of the restaurants with a DJ happening there and said, “I can’t believe this is downtown Malden.” So I applaud its diversity. I also applaud how it embraces the arts. That to me is just super important because, I say this all the time, art makes everything better.
Talk about your series, “Woke.” It’s essentially a comedy, and I think it’s very funny, but it deals head on with racism and racial issues. After watching Season 2, I’ve noticed how layered it is, especially in terms of the title and what that has come to mean. Can you comment on that?
It’s interesting watching the evolution of the word. It’s become a pejorative and it wasn’t that when we started the show. Woke has become the new politically correct. But for me, I wanted to create a show that was going to outlast whatever trend the word “woke” goes into. It’s like when people talk to me about the timing of the show. People say, “How did you know that George Floyd was going to happen & and then you drop the show.” And I say it over and over again. Racism and police brutality is timeless in America. And that is going to be as valid 20 years from now as it was a couple of years ago. I didn’t want to try to predict the future. I just knew that the commodification… that capitalism ruins everything. And so, to me, getting that second season, I want to do the commodification of “woke” – to see all the performative actions by people and by companies. It was just important to me to go after that. You know, the first season was being in the head of the character. The second season was sort of being outside of the character, what happens to the city [San Francisco]. And if we get a third season, it’s going from the city to the country [USA]. And if we ever got a fourth season, it would be the world. You know, it’s like in the head and then just expand it, and expand it. So I definitely have a plan for all that. But you know, we were lucky to get a Season 2. And we’ll be even luckier to get a Season 3. But, regardless, what’s most important to me is the show is just another manifestation of my work, and I think all my work has layers to it and all my work hopefully will make you laugh and think at the same time. So, as long as I’m doing that, I’m good.
Do you feel that this current racial reckoning, as it has been described, and all the things around it – the thought leaders, literature, movies, art, conversation, education, etc. – is making a difference and bringing about change?
Well, it’s going to continue to get worse and worse and worse. We have to hit rock bottom before we get better. I think especially in a society that is white-ruled, a majority of white people really have to come to terms that if one part of this society is suffering or is in a bad position, you are suffering from that too.
We need to be taught a history of this country that speaks truth, that does not just uplift one part of society and ignores everybody else. Because you can’t continue to talk about the land of the free and the home of the brave and all that while doing this stuff. We have to give equal rights to everybody. I think it’s hard for a lot of people to come to terms with that.
I say this all the time, the greatest import that America has is Black culture. Black music, hip hop, all of the art, and it’s basically making something out of nothing. Like if you go around the world, you see it. You see Black culture everywhere and it’s American culture. But if we valued the people that created this stuff as much as the art itself, I think we’d be in much better shape. The amount of wasted resources we have – like the school to prison pipeline, it just disenfranchises and vilifies so many people. It’s such a waste and there is a different way. But we have to embrace it. And right now, there are not enough people embracing it. If you eat at that local ethnic restaurant down the street, you should be embracing the idea of teaching the history of Black people in your school system.
Right now we’re going through that really tough point and hopefully we can turn it around. But I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of people who mistake the idea of giving equal rights to other people means their rights being taken away. Like somehow, equality means them getting less of something. Which I don’t understand. I figure if everyone is uplifted around you, you are uplifted too.
Reporter’s Note: Since the time of this interview, Hulu announced that there will not be a Season 3 of “Woke.” TV series abound on multiple streaming platforms and it’s become a highly competitive business of eyeballs and audience shares. But, if you haven’t checked it out, “Woke” is well worth watching. As for Keith “Keef” Knight, you can follow the continuation of his creative journey through his cartoon series and social media platforms.