When the Library exhibition “Oliphant: Unpacking the Archive” went on display in September 2019 — bringing together for the first time the cartoons, sculpture, and paintings of renowned editorial satirist Patrick Oliphant in the Small Special Collections Library — a symposium on the future of American political cartooning was planned for spring. After the COVID-19 pandemic intervened for months in which the Library conducted most of its business remotely, The Future of American Political Cartoons: A Symposium in Honor of Pat Oliphant became reality. The event brought Oliphant together on Zoom, October 22-24, with editorial cartoonists from around the country to discuss the future of American political cartooning and the role of the editorial cartoonist in the current climate of social upheaval.
Keith Knight — author of popular comic strips “the Knight Life,” “(th)ink,” and the “K Chronicles,” and creator of the Hulu semi-autobiographical comedy series “Woke” — set the tone with his keynote slide presentation “Red, White, Black, and Blue: Highlighting America’s Racial Illiteracy.” Knight argues that the internet has opened new opportunities for cartoonists to speak truth to power as “modern-day court jesters.”
Knight gave examples of how his art has been influenced by his own experience, recalling being hassled by police because he fit a description (6 foot tall Black male) of a housebreaking suspect that could have fit almost any Black man, even though he was wearing “crazy dreads” at the time. When his white roommate charged at the cops “yelling bloody Hell,” they calmly told him, “Take it easy, man.” “Right there,” he said, “I saw the definition of white privilege,” realizing that a Black man in the same situation would have been “tased, beaten, or worse.” In the question-and-answer session that followed, Knight said he has to tell people who comment on how perfect the timing is for his art that he’s been writing about police brutality for twenty years and that it’s always relevant in a country that taught Nazis how to be Nazis by the way it has treated Black and immigrant populations. He remembered being in Germany in August 2017 and how his German wife’s parents nodded their understanding as white supremacist demonstrations unfolded in Charlottesville.
A Knight comic strip also skewered the Clinton era policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” that forced gays in the military to conceal their sexual identity or face immediate discharge. The strip ran in a Sunday Washington Post in June of 2009. In October, President Obama got Congress to repeal the military’s ban on gays. Knight pointed to a picture of Obama speaking on the phone as he stood by his desk on which lay the Sunday comics section. The photo, along with letters Knight received from military people saying “you changed my mind about don’t ask, don’t tell” convinced him that “comics can change the world.”
Following Knight’s lead, other panels consisting variously of cartoonists Warren Craghead, Rob Rogers, one-time UVA Library student worker Jen Sorensen, Adam Zyglis, Nate Beeler, Matt Bors, Signe Wilkinson, Tom Gibson, Kevin “Kal” Kallaugher, and Ann Telnaes took up topics such as “Challenges to Freedom of Expression in Political Cartooning Today”, “Drawing for a Polarized Public”, and “Extinction or Evolution?: Imagining the Future of Political Cartoons.”