“The talk about race in America hinges on how comfortable white people are with it. Because once white people are too uncomfortable, they’ll either say you’re pulling the race card, or just say, ‘Enough.'”
We kick off 2016 with gentleman cartoonist Keith Knight! Keith & I met up at a cafe in Chapel Hill to talk about comics, race, fixing the Star Wars prequels, his career as a Michael Jackson impersonator, the literature course that made him a political artist, his campus lecture tour on race relations, the importance of crowdfunding, the reasons he continues with a daily comic strip (and two more strips), why you never see black people on Antiques Roadshow, the songs that will turn any party out (excluding tracks by MJ and Prince), the case for Off The Wall over Thriller, whether it’s an honor or a disgrace to be the first non-white guest on this podcast in two years, and more! Give it a listen! (the conversation starts at the 7:30 mark)
“The comics industry needs to catch up to its audience, because the creative side is not as diverse is not as diverse as their readers.”
BONUS: I launch a Patreon for the Virtual Memories Show! You get to hear me talk about all the neat stuff I’m planning for the show if we get enough support from listeners like you!
About our Guest
Keith Knight is many things to many people–rapper, social activist, father and educator among them. He’s also one of the funniest and most highly regarded cartoonists in America, and the creator of three popular comic strips: the Knight Life, (th)ink, and the K Chronicles. For nearly two decades, this multi-award-winning artist has brought the funny back to the funny pages with a uniquely personal style that’s a cross between Calvin & Hobbes, MAD, and underground comix. Keith Knight is part of a generation of African-American artists who were raised on hip-hop, and infuse their work with urgency, edge, humor, satire, politics and race. His art has appeared in various publications worldwide, including the Washington Post, Daily KOS, San Francisco Chronicle, Salon.com, Ebony, ESPN the Magazine, L.A. Weekly, MAD Magazine, and the Funny Times. His comic musings on race have garnered accolades and stirred controversies, prompting CNN to tap him to grade America on its progress concerning issues of race. Follow him on Twitter and support his work on Patreon.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation was recorded at Caffe Driade in Chapel Hill on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. “Yellow scarf” photos of Mr. Knight by me, no credit for the photo of him with a marker..
Here’s a short post to keep you apprised of things, dear reader/listener!
- The Virtual Memories Show (VMS) podcast just had its most successful month yet, busting the previous monthly record for downloads by 13%. I don’t chase numbers, but I admit that it makes me happy to know that people are downloading (and maybe listening) to the show.
- I wrote my first short story in 20+ years last week, after a trip to the Art Institute in Chicago. It’s called Loesser and the Six-Faced Conqueror of Death on a Buffalo. If you want to read it, make a donation of at least $1 in the tip jar! I added a Paypal “donate” button to the site; it’s also at the end of the Podcast Archive page.
- I put that in place because it’d be nice to get a little money specifically for VMS-related stuff. My day job subsidizes the show (and gives me opportunities to travel and interview guests), and I don’t have any illusions about making a living based on the podcast, but it’d be nice to know if people put any monetary value on the work I do to bring out the show.
- About Jason Collins: I’m very glad that he felt ready to come out. I was a Nets fan when he played for them, and in those days I was conflicted about cheering for Jason Kidd, despite the fact that Kidd’s arrival turned the team around and propelled them to two NBA Finals appearances. That’s because Kidd got traded to NJ because he beat his wife. But they won, so I rationalized.
- This is one of those lists. I read 31 of them.
Last Thursday was Yom Kippur, so Dad & I made our return to the Chabad Jewish Enrichment Center in Chestnut Ridge, NY for Yizkor, the prayer for one’s departed parents (and other family members). I wrote all about the JEC last year, so go check out the details and get back here.
Last year on Yom Kippur, I was on antibiotics that were causing me to have paranoid delusions, so I skipped the ritual fasting (no food, no fluid, no nothing for 25 hours). In relatively better health this year, I decided to give it a go. I hadn’t reckoned on how much I increased my dependence on coffee in recent months; Dad came by to pick me up around 10 a.m., and I was already thrumming and out of it. And I had another 9+ hours to go.
Fortunately, Dad made the drive “entertaining” by
- talking about cooking shows and food most of the time (his diabetes precludes him from fasting),
- talking about how good “that one white player” on the U.S. Olympic basketball team was, until I realized he was referring to Jason Kidd,
- employing a GPS unit that was so faulty I named it “SPG,” which led to
- getting so lost that I had to bust out my iPhone to figure out where we were and how to get to the JEC.
When we arrived, we stayed in the back of the rec-room/shul. There were 25-30 men present. The rabbi saw us and walked back to greet us in kittel and Crocs (no leather footwear on Yom Kippur), while the chazzan was conducting a prayer. He remembered us from last year and even recalled Dad’s father’s Hebrew name. I’m sure he has to have a good memory for the once-a-year Jews like us.
After shaking my hand and wishing me a good new year, he said, “I’m glad you’re here! We need you to open the ark and bring the Torahs out!”
The lack of caffeine and my blood-sugar wackiness were taking a toll on me. Addled and thick-tongued, I said, “Uh, um, I don’t have to do a blessing, right?”
“No! We just need your muscles!”
“. . . In that case, you might be better off asking me to read Aramaic,” I said, following him up the narrow aisle to the pulpit/reading table.
He directed me to open the fireproof safe on the wall, remove the first Torah and hand it to the chazzan. I took each velvet-covered scroll out carefully, avoiding any contact with the ark/safe as though I was playing Operation. The chazzan, in white socks and flip-flops, carried his Torah into the congregation. I followed him through the shul. Each congregant touched the Torah cover with the corner of his tallis or his prayerbook, then touched that corner to his lips.
We finished our circuit, crossing the partition so the women and children could also receive the Torahs’ blessing, and the chazzan put his on the reading table, while I was instructed to sit down in the front row and hold the second one. The top handles of this Torah were covered by decorative ornaments (rimonim) that had little silver bells dangling from them. I kept trying to find a sitting position that was comfortable, respectful, and didn’t cause constant jingling noises, in ascending order of importance.
While I kept the noise down, congregants were called up to perform aliyah, the blessing over the Torah. Dad was the second or third one called up, and performed admirably. I even began to feel a little of The Resonance, watching my dad recite the blessing. Holding the other Torah against me, I thought about atonement, and what we were supposed to be doing that day. I feel like I’ve already atoned for most of the wrongs I’ve committed against people in my life, but that’s not what this day is about. This is about atoning toward God, and I don’t know how to do that.
Following (I think) six aliyah over the first Torah, and then another over the second Torah, it was time for the Torah reading, followed by a sermon from the rabbi. Now, the JEC’s high holiday schedule indicated that Yizkor was supposed to be at 11:45 a.m., but it was around half-past-noon when the rabbi was wrapping up his sermon. I don’t think this so much an instance of Jewish Mean Time as it was a matter of making sure that less observant congregants didn’t pray and dash.
The sermon consisted of the rabbi telling a story of the Baal Shem Tov telling a story, and in a reverie I wondered if the layers would keep growing, with each storyteller launching into another story of a storyteller, all carrying the theme of Jews’ obligations to each other and God. The rabbi, feeling less postmodern than I was, elected to keep it relatively simple, although his story did rely heavily on the prospect of reincarnation and explicitly mentioned Purgatory as an afterlife destination. His message: live up to the Torah, because you may be in this world in order to “get it right this time.”
After he finished, those of us who haven’t lost our parents went outside, while the others stayed in for Yizkor. The rabbi was lucky enough to be among our number, so we shot the breeze in the backyard. He asked me, “So what do you do when you’re not praying and studying Torah?”
I filled him in on my day job. He asked for details about the nature of business magazine publishing, how we’re adapting to the internet, and why he only sees me once a year. “Because I’m not a very good Jew,” I told him. I thought about some of the others I’d seen that morning in shul, who were even less educated in Judaism than I am, but were still there to pray.
“But you’re here today!”
“I guess I’m a half-decent son.”
“That’s a start!”
We walked over to the main group of people, and the rabbi’s wife told the story about how she once passed out in the middle of Yom Kippur in an overcrowded shul. It turned out she was pregnant with their first child. Someone pointed out that it’s good to keep smelling salts on hand during the day. The rabbi said that they usually do, but he couldn’t find any this year. I mentioned how disappointed I was that there was no snuff circulating the services this year. He laughed and told me to come back next year, and maybe they’ll have some.
Once the prayer was complete, we returned to the shul. The rabbi collected the names of all the dead from the congregants, so he could lead a prayer for them. When that was done, we noticed that others were getting up and heading outside, so we took our cue to leave. The rabbi caught us and took my arm, saying, “No! We need you to put the Torahs back in the ark! It’ll only be another five minutes!”
As he led me back up the aisle, one of the congregants said, “That’s ‘five minutes’ in Jewish time!”
I told Dad that he could wait in the car, figuring that he might be light-headed from sugar-crash and would need to snack on the banana that he brought along, but he stayed. And so we prayed further, and I lifted the first Torah from the reading table. About to place it in the ark, I said to the rabbi, “It’s a 40-day fast if I drop this, right?”
“Right! So don’t drop it. You don’t want that much atonement!”