An artist by training, Professor Chevon Hicks continues to expand his work and artistry while exploring the complex relationship with his identity, over time in an ever-changing society. Watch the video to find out the full conversation about his views and stories, which may or may not include a debate over peanut butter.
Q: Professor Hicks, why don’t you go ahead and do a little self-introduction?
A: Sure. I’ve been teaching in the School of Cinema for about 11 years now. The course I teach is called CTIN 401: Interface Design for Games. I learned more about the students and games than I teach because it’s just so fascinating to work with all of the young minds at USC. This year I just started working with the AGP group as well, the Advanced Games Project. We’re working on improving the UI on all of those games. It’s been a really great journey.
Q: Personally, what does this concept of Black History Month mean?
A: It means something different than when I was growing up. I’ll be 50 this year: to give you some context. For the last 48, 49 years, it’s just been a month to learn: one, that hey we were slaves once, and two, we may have invented peanut butter. So it was never something that I was looking forward to necessarily. When I had my first kid, my son, I remember he had Black History Month in elementary school. And my takeaway was that it reminded everyone of their place in the caste system.
Obviously, the summer of George Floyd changed everything. But as I’ve been getting older, I’ve just become more and more Afrocentric. I think it’s because societies are pushing me in this direction. Growing up, I just considered myself Black American, really just American. But over the last maybe even 10 years or so, I’ve been feeling a lot more Afrocentric. It’s been great to learn about Black History Month, or just Black history in general rather, through Instagram. There are so many great accounts that give you tidbits of information that someone like me just didn’t have growing up. My aunt was very active in Chicago, so was my grandmother. My aunt was in Operation PUSH. She was always in my ear about Africa centricity, but as an American skateboarding kid, it wasn’t that important to me.
With society being so polarized now, it’s becoming an important thing for me: knowing that we’re more than just you know peanut butter. (Editor: peanut butter was first patented by a White Canadian man in 1884, according to the National Peanut Butter Board.)
Q: As a professor as an artist, how do you think that your identities intersect?
A: I think the thing that other people who are not Black probably don’t understand is the amount of racism in your life. It’s not always being called the N-word, but it’s the constant microaggressions. So you would think as you get older, you might build up greater tolerance; but what happens is, as you get older, it just starts to eat away at you more. And racism can drive you crazy. So, to answer your question, back to my time in art school, and the kind of art that I was making then, being the outcast and then over callouts to like hey this is racism.
Unfortunately, once you start making your own art, for me at least, it was at the forefront of what I was trying to express. Even when I was creating stuff that wasn’t explicitly my Black experience, there was some aspect of it that was either poking fun at the art world or just being rebellious in that regard. It’s pervaded a lot of the work that I do as an artist.
Now as a commercial artist it doesn’t really surface that much. It’s funny because the last few years I’ve had clients tell me to make it more diverse. I assumed what they’d always wanted for 30 years but society is changing. I think it just depends on ultimately if good is going to win out. My artwork is definitely influenced by being a Black man in America.
Q: In terms of change that you mentioned, what have you seen happening in the past in terms of Black History Month, Black excellence and Black creatives? And what kind of change do you hope to see in the future?
A: Well, clearly there needs to be a real reckoning of history, because the history that I learned was not what has surfaced today. So looking back on it, the history I learned was really propaganda. Again to reinforce the tenets of the caste system that I keep mentioning, there’s a great book by Isabel Wilkerson called Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. It’s dissecting the caste system in America based on race. My son is 18 so he’s got a little bit of an update of this new history. I’m hoping that in the future, we’re just aware of our history and where these biases might come from. Even if you’re not actively being racist. it’s still affecting your life in a negative way. I hope we get to some kind of utopia at some point.
Q: Do you think that’s happening in the video game industry and or the interactive media industry?
A: Well, I’m starting to see some progress in the video game industry, which has a lot of problems. People know about the recent scandal of sexism at Blizzard, the maker of some of my favorite games. So the video game industry has a lot of catching up to do. It’s really about making sure that Black people have representation on every level: from marketing to engineering, even more importantly, creating AI algorithms that don’t display bias.
There’s been a couple of things I’ve never heard of: AfroHairLibrary.org where this artist is generating an open-source library for African American hair, which has always been a problem across all video games. And I saw the Jerry Lawson documentary on Netflix. Jerry Lawson basically invented the cartridge for home computer games. And I just remember thinking, man, if I had known that when I was a kid playing Space Invaders, it could really change my life. But again that wasn’t something that we were taught. Finding out our great contributions to society later in life is still inspirational, but I wish I would have known that earlier.
Q: Who is a Black hero from either real life, or virtually that inspired you?
A: I did mention Jerry Lawson so that was a great inspiration to think in terms of the world of video games because we have a legacy in one of my favorite activities. Then as an artist, I was a child of the 90s, so a huge fan of Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jim Avignon and Kenny Scharf. The New York pop art scene really influenced me and what kind of painter I wanted to become.
Learn more about the Gerald A. Lawson Endowment Fund for Black and Indigenous Students here.