Friday, 10 July 2020

The Pain of the KKK Joke

“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.” — Toni Morrison

Some time into my studies at university, as I was walking up the avenue that cut between the green fields of east campus and the wide blue of Lake Michigan, headphones in my ears and daydreaming about something or other, I came across a white classmate who was a rather good friend of mine striding along in a KKK costume.

He was in full regalia: the sheet covering the entirety of his body, the rope tied around his waist ready for lynching, the eye-slitted hood carried under his arm. He saw me and stopped to talk, so I had to stop as well. But, unlike him, I was unable to carry off a nonchalant conversation, and I asked him what he was doing with all that. He blushed, as he began to register how he appeared to me, and said it was for a joke. Then, at my shocked expression, he said it was for a class project. When I asked which one, since we were the same major and in nearly all the same classes that year at Northwestern, he muttered that it was something to do with his fraternity, and that he had to go.

We never spoke of this again. Instead, I remained silent, and we remained friends. He was part of the central group of the privileged, popular, and powerful in my predominantly white university—the kids whose parents’ money or connections already made them players in the careers to which the rest of us aspired. He and I worked on independent film projects together for years, attended the same parties where offers were extended; both my summer internship and the housing situation for that internship were landed because of this group of friends. As second- and third-generation legacies, scions of generational wealth and cultural capital, they had power and access. I, as the first-generation child of refugees, had only the brains and work ethic my parents had gifted me, but which were enough to secure me a tenuous place.

Speaking, I knew even back then, would have meant being shut out of that world. And learning to understand that world, my father had told me, wide-eyed with surprise that I did not yet get it, was the real reason for taking on the student loans and the work-study jobs necessary to afford the elite university I attended. The straight A’s were only half the point, my father had said. The other half was everything else—the cultural capital, the access—which my father, who had worked harder than I could ever understand to survive a genocide and get us to America, knew that I would need in order to succeed in this country.

But mostly, I was just afraid.

So, like many Black people in my situation, I stayed silent even as the racism grew. It was training, I was understanding, for the real world after university, which would be more of the same.


I have had the KKK joke made to my face by non-Black people not just at school, but also in personal situations and in professional ones—from after-school jobs as a teenager to the boardrooms I sat in decades later. Now, in the midst of the current global Black Lives Matter protests, when someone wields the KKK joke, I think about how my aunt’s Minnesota neighborhood and several students in my town here in Nebraska have recently been attacked by the KKK and other white supremacists. Since he was six months old, my son and I have had run-ins with white supremacists, unhooded and in daylight, who tell us to go back where we came from while they threaten what violence they are going to do to us if we don’t.

There is no one KKK joke. There is, however, a wide catalogue of unabashed racism to choose from in creating one. There is always a certain kind of person who feels like it is important to make jokes about the KKK, whether or not Black people are present. This is often the same kind of person who thinks Blackface and pretend AAVE—or jokes about raping women or killing transgender individuals—are important as well. It is part of a consciousness—often white, often male—that does not see us as human beings but as objects to be violated because of our Blackness. And, if it cannot be physical or legal violence, then it will be the violence of language and ideas, disguised as humor. This is what I call the KKK joke.

The pain of the KKK joke is so big you can’t even process it all at once—like how can’t you see the solar system, or even the planet, because of the overwhelming immensity. The pain of the KKK joke is that because you cannot name it directly, everyone else pretends not to see it, not to notice that it is there. The pain of the KKK joke is that no one defends you; you must be the one, yet again, to speak up and say: Racism is bad, please don’t do it; it hurts me. It hurts others.

The pain of the KKK joke chokes all the air out of your lungs like a handheld noose slung around a Black unbreathing throat and up over a tree on a hot, wet, American summer night.


Sometimes, driving on the highway here in Nebraska, I will see a burning—a wooden shape on fire—and I will think I must not have seen what I have seen. It could have been an accidental bush or twisted tree; maybe a scarecrow could account for that long crossed shape visible through the flames. It cannot be that other thing—my faith made weapon and set aflame.

The first time I was called nigger was in second grade. We had just moved to California. A white girl pushed me off the swings. She said she was named after the state where her people were from, where her daddy and uncles n’em in the KKK strung niggers like me up from trees so shove off, she said.

We learned where was safe.

Victorville. Palmdale. Central California—the central wide space that cuts between the liberal white north and the diverse warm south. These areas were off-limits. The KKK was there. We stayed away.

We know what it means when Robert Fuller and Malcolm Harsch are found strung from trees, one in front of city hall with racist graffiti scrawled close by; we know what it means when another Black teenager is found lynched in an elementary school in Texas just prior to Juneteenth or when, just afterward, the only Black driver in NASCAR, Bubba Wallace, finds a noose in his garage stall.  We know what it means when, in the days after that, a Black teenage girl named Althea Bernstein is set on fire by a mob of white men she described as “typical Wisconsin frat boys.”

We know what it means when there is a civil rights struggle and Black bodies start showing up hanging from trees, when warning signs start showing up hanging from other places, and Black women’s bodies are violated with impunity by prowling white men. This is Black history that has never stopped being Black present.

And you can hear, if you listen, the pain of the KKK joke in the quiet sshhhhhh the trees make at night.


In 1918, one year before my grandmother was born, a young Black woman, eight months pregnant, was captured and beaten, then hung upside down from a tree by the standard mob of white supremacists of the time who set her on fire, then, growing bored, shot at her. They had already killed her husband. It is unclear at what point the white mob cut out her eight-month-old fetus from her stomach and beat the unborn Black child, bloody and senseless, into the ground, but reports say that when they did, the lynched and burned Black woman was still alive.

The woman’s name was Mary Turner. It is said the white mob targeted her because she had spoken publicly about her husband’s murder by white supremacists. How did they know this? The fact that Mary had been heard to speak was reported in the local papers—as were the actions of any other Blacks who tried to speak, own property, vote, or do anything that was deemed “uppity”—in order to assist the local KKK in bringing that “uppity Negro” to a violent end. 

This was the normal for Black folks in the South in that time.

Today, the tiny memorial to Mary and her unborn child embedded in the side of the road in Lowndes County, Georgia, is shot through with bullet holes from deer rifles fired by white men eager to kill something. This, too, is the normal for Black folks in America in our time.


The KKK, the abbreviation for the Ku Klux Klan, is the most famous and long-standing American white supremacist group. Founded by disgruntled ex-Confederate soldiers in 1865, within a year the KKK had begun a reign of terror against Black communities. Although briefly suppressed in 1872, the KKK resurfaced and continued to use lynching and intimidation—the burning cross and destruction by fire of Black businesses and homes—to terrorize Black families in America.

It is estimated that 6,500 Black women, men, and children were lynched in the United States during the years from 1865 to 1950, according to the latest report by the Equal Justice Initiative. During the twelve years directly after the American Civil War, Black Americans were lynched at the rate of one every other day. In the sixties, the KKK diversified into shooting and bombing. Among their most infamous acts of violence during the sixties are the murder of NAACP leaders Medgar Evers, Harry Moore, and his wife, Harriette Moore, all in their own homes, and the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four little Black girls.

We know the history of lynching as a terror tactic. How innocuous it was—regular Sunday-afternoon fun for white society, complete with picnics on the village green. We have seen, many times, the chilling pictures: the laughing, happy white watchers pointing at the Black hanging dead bodies as a job well done; the watching white children, learning this lesson well. The spectacle of the death of the Black body as a public warning—a tactic still very much in use today.

Because this history is our present, I can never get used to it. But I do not want to ever get used to it—I do not ever want to become so numb and beaten down by racism in America that the pain and rage of this strange fruit can become strange fodder to joke about instead.


There are always three violences. The first is the violence itself.

The second is the violence of not righting the original violence. This is, for example, the violence that lets Breonna Taylor’s killers still roam free; this is the violence that let the killers of Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery roam free until public outcry led to their arrests; this is the violence that left Michael Brown’s murdered black body baking in the hundred-degree Midwestern summer heat for hours—something no American would let be done to a stray dog.

The third is erasure of the violence.


Sometimes, in the first uncertain moments between sleeping and waking, when I cannot tell if the liquid oozing from the trees is black sap or Black blood, I can hear the silenced stories of the lynched rising outward in the language of kinship—of blood and bone and memory—that cannot be denied.


This is the pain of the KKK joke: when you share your trauma from racist experiences in order to get people to care that Black lives matter, one of the people listening will make the KKK joke and will expect you to stay silent and take it—like you have taken everything else and stayed silent and then taken some more, for so long.

The pain of the KKK joke is that when you respond, you are attacked for speaking out against its racism rather than the racism that was said; you are made into a stereotype of an angry Black woman. But even though you are scared you have no choice but to speak; after living for a year in a domestic violence shelter with your newborn, the promise you made to yourself, upon leaving, was to never to let another man harm you again; to never let anyone or anything, even the white supremacy of the KKK joke and those who wield it, harm you again.

The pain of the KKK joke is the denial of the racism and white privilege that created it. The pain of the KKK joke is that it keeps weaponizing this violence.


But sshhhhhh, the trees still whispering. If you listen, late at night, they are telling the history of the KKK joke.

(Source: The Paris Review)

Thursday, 9 July 2020

Coronavirus: How 'immunity passports' could create an antibody elite

Governments around the world are testing citizens for coronavirus antibodies, to work out whether people have had the deadly Covid-19 disease.

Some countries are setting up so-called "immunity passports" and others may follow suit.

The idea is that a passport would certify that you have had coronavirus and will not carry or contract the disease again, opening up a way out of lockdown restrictions for the holder.

But is this theory correct? And will it create a group of antibody-carrying elite who can date, travel and work as they wish, while others are still limited by health precautions?

'I know I'm clear, we should meet!'

Pam Evans, from Aberdeen, has just had a rude awakening to the new reality of internet dating. She says that a man who was interested in meeting her took a novel approach.

Pam Evans does not want to break lockdown rules by meeting men who think they are immune to Covid-19

"I had one guy at the weekend: 'I've just been tested last week for Covid so I know I'm clear, we should meet up' And I said: 'Oh no, absolutely not'... he became just absolutely abusive straight away."

Pam's hopeful date was trying to take advantage of his apparent negative coronavirus test result as a reason to break lockdown rules to visit her.

Is this a sign of how those who get a certificate stating they've already had coronavirus might use their privileged position in society?

In New York, people are using antibody tests - showing that they have been exposed to the virus and have recovered - as a way of suggesting they are safe to date.

They are photographing positive test results to use as a kind of improvised "Covid-immunity passport".

If you have antibodies, the theory goes, you will not get the disease again.

Dating aside, what if we could decide who is safe to return to work or get on an aircraft? For those people. the Covid-19 lockdown could be over.

'Immunity passports'

The idea behind immunity passports, is that of a certificate confirming that you have had Covid-19. It could be used to enter places that those people without one are barred from.

To get one, you'd have to test positive for antibodies created after exposure to the virus.

A mock-up of a Covid-19 immunity passports - a way to avoid quarantine after flying?

Estonia is building an "immunity passport" system, and Chile is also planning what it calls a "release certificate", following such principles.

Tavvet Hinrikus, co-founder of the money exchange firm TransferWise, helped in the development of Estonia's phone app-based system.

"There are areas where I think it's a no-brainer we should use this, like… who takes care of our elders; can I go and see my parents?

"If immunity as a concept exists, then I think people who have immunity should be cleared to work with elders, or the same for frontline workers," he says.

Other apps are being developed to display antibody - and potentially immunity - status. One example is Onfido. Its co-founder, Husayn Kasai, says some US hotel chains are now accepting immunity passports via an app.

"It's predominately for guests who want to access some of the services, be it the spa or the gym, where social distancing isn't an option."

Antibody elite

But could there be a sinister aspect: the potential for a supposedly Covid-immune elite to develop?

Estonia's Covid-immunity passport uses mobile phone technology to identify users. Reuters

Robert West, professor of health, psychology and behavioural science at University College London (UCL), fears a "divisive society".

“Certification could create a multi-tier society and increase levels of discrimination and inequity” - Robert West, University College London, UCL

"You can imagine a situation where if you can get hold of some sort of certification, it will open up doors for you that wouldn't be open to people who can't have that certification.

"It could create a multi-tier society and increase levels of discrimination and inequity." Prof West also warns that the entire premise of immunity might be on shaky ground.

"It wouldn't be based on solid scientific foundation. It would be based on a probability that you may or may not be susceptible [to coronavirus] yourself or may or may not be in a position to pass the virus onto other people.

"It would be to the detriment of sectors of society, really being driven by commercial pressures."

Prof West envisages a point where people with recent antibody certificates would be able to work with vulnerable patients in healthcare roles, or that firms might use their workers' immunity passports as a way of competing with other companies.

But he believes there's not enough evidence to show that having antibodies is a reliable way to tell how likely you are to catch or pass on the virus.

'She's OK, she has antibodies'

The air travel sector has been hit particularly hit hard by the pandemic and John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Europe's busiest airport, London Heathrow, wants all countries to recognise antibody certificates.

Chinese shoppers use an app to show they are healthy before enter a shopping centre: Could immunity apps be used in the same way? AFP

"What you really need [is to know that] your health passport... is going to be accepted in the country you are going to, and you'll be allowed to return home safely without having any kind of quarantine."

Carmel Shachar, of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School in the US, fears that people may actually try to catch Covid-19.

A scenario she worries about is: "If you want to go back to work, you're going to have to contract a deadly disease, one that we don't actually want you to have, from a public health point of view or from an individual point of view."

She also worries about privacy. "If my employer can demand medical information about me, have I had Covid, do I have antibodies - are they allowed to do so? If they have that information, are they allowed to share it?"

The commercial benefits of publicising this information for certain industries are obvious, Ms Shachar believes. "If I work at a restaurant, can my employer tell every customer who walks in the door: 'Oh don't worry, she's OK because she has antibodies'?"

Ms Shachar thinks known immunity could be of significant benefit. 

"You might say, for healthcare workers working with Covid patients, or nursing facility workers... we do want to see immunity."

She says that people really want to get back to how things were before the pandemic, or a "new normal" that is close to it, and are prepared to make compromises.

Testing questions

Getting to that "new normal" as quickly as possible is the target for governments around the globe, Many find antibody-testing the entire population a tantalising idea where infection rates are high.

Antibody test blood samples: Countries are gearing up to offer mass antibody tests. Getty Images 

In Germany, the country's disease control and prevention agency, the Robert Koch Institute, is conducting large-scale random antibody testing.

But questions remain about the accuracy of some of these tests. Research published in May by the US-based Covid-19 Testing Project found that 12 antibody tests were accurate between 81-100% of the time.

While the US Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned that some antibody tests could incorrectly state you had antibodies - up to half the time. Meaning those who'd never had Covid-19 could mistakenly think they had immunity, and might then act riskily because of this false sense of security.

And even if the test correctly identifies that you have antibodies, does that mean you are actually immune? The World Health Organization (WHO) has expressed its doubts.

In the UK, for example, concerns were voiced by 14 senior academics in a letter published in the British Medical Journal at the end of June, saying that antibody tests for UK healthcare staff were being rolled out without "adequate assessment".

Back in Aberdeen, Pam is similarly unconvinced by the antibody testing argument.

"We don't know how long this immunity could last for. We don't know if it is 100% right if you've had those symptoms. There's no harm in meeting somebody and sitting and having a coffee in a park," she says.

"I'm not someone who'll kiss on the first date anyway. So to me, having that two metres apart means that a guy can't lunge on you for once!"

(Source: BBC)

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

How to compost in a cardboard box at home

There’s a smell emanating from my kitchen.

The days are marching toward Tokyo’s unrelenting, mold-inducing summer, but I’m not concerned: This odor is earthy, rich and fragrant.

I’m making compost in a cardboard box, a method that’s become popular in Japan over the past decade. The cardboard box composting system’s draw is that it is both cheap and simple, bad-odor-free and well-suited to small Japanese spaces. I don’t need to buy any special equipment apart from coconut peat and kuntan (rice husk ash), both of which are readily available from gardening centers. Nor do I need a special place to set my box up, though sunlight and ventilation are important for success.

One reason I’m interested in composting is to cut down on food waste that has a tendency to quickly fester and smell during summer.

Rich soil: The author’s composting project just before stirring in the day’s food scraps | JANE KITAGAWA

Cutting down on landfill methane emissions — a potent, smelly greenhouse gas — by producing less garbage is an added perk.

COVID-19, said to be exacerbated by the loss of animal habitat due to climate change, has also been a wake-up call. Despite a plethora of online shopping options in Japan, I’ve long thought about microgardening, and figured a ready supply of compost might be the impetus for me to start.

Although Tokyo-based urban gardening advocate and educator Jon Walsh hasn’t yet tried this composting method, he did give me some general tips.

“The basic rule is if you feel comfortable adding something to your compost, do it! Once you start composting, you’ll be really surprised how much material you are not throwing away,” Walsh says. “Scraps from your salads, fruit and vegetable peels. It’s wonderful. Compared to Disneyland, this is real magic.”

My compost, which I covered in an old IKEA children’s towel, becomes an anthropomorphic pet of sorts. Three weeks in, I’m enjoying the easy rituals of feeding my microbe monster its daily diet of food scraps — fruit and vegetable matter, fish and bones, and tempura oil; meat is the one type of food waste this method can’t process. New food gets added to a funnel I dig in the center of the mix, which keeps the box from decomposing, and the kuntan absorbs moisture, so there aren’t any leaks. I’m still wary of attracting insects, but my grade-schooler, who hasn’t otherwise shown much interest, likely wouldn’t mind.

I learn the hard way that I need to chop up my scraps into small pieces — a corn husk I mistakenly add must get picked out, and two overly large kabocha chunks stubbornly refuse to decompose — to generate the heat that kick-starts the composting process and helps kill off any disease-causing organisms. This is where my manual food processor comes in handy.

“Heat drives the bacterial activity, so the hotter the temperatures get, the faster the bacteria work to break down the compost material,” says Walsh, adding that I should check and stir the compost on a daily basis.

He also urges me to begin planning my microgardening journey. As I keep generating compost, I’ll certainly need an outlet for it.

But Walsh’s best advice is the most simple. It’s also failproof: “Just try it and see what works.”

Cardboard box composting


1 large cardboard box

Spare corrugated cardboard for reinforcing the box floor

Duct or masking tape

Coco peat (coconut ash)

Kuntan (rice husk ash)

Small hand shovel or scoop to stir the compost

Base or stool for the box to sit on

An old T-shirt, towel or cloth to cover the box


  • Tape and secure the bottom and sides of your box against moisture and unwanted insects
  • Line your box floor with corrugated cardboard. Place the box on a raised ledge.
  • Add coco peat and kuntan to the box until it’s about ⅔ to ¾ full. Make sure the coco peat to kuntan is a 3-to-2 ratio.
  • Stir the mixture using your shovel.
  • Dig a hole in the center of the mixture. Add up to 500 grams of food scraps per day into the hole and then cover with topsoil.
  • Close and cover your box.
  • Repeat steps 4 to 6 daily. The compost should be ready in approximately three to four weeks

(Source: JT)

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

US seizes items thought to be made from hair of Muslims in Chinese labor camps

Border officials say shipment contained 13 tons of weaves and other hair products worth $800,000

US federal authorities have seized a shipment of products made from human hair believed to have been taken from Muslims in labor camps in China’s western Xinjiang province.

Customs and Border Protection officials said that 13 tons (11.8 metric tonnes) of weaves and other hair products worth an estimated $800,000 were in the shipment.

“The production of these goods constitutes a very serious human rights violation, and the detention order is intended to send a clear and direct message to all entities seeking to do business with the United States that illicit and inhumane practices will not be tolerated in US supply chains,” said Brenda Smith, executive assistant commissioner of CBP’s office of trade.

A shipment of hair pieces and accessories from China, part of which is suspected to have been made with forced or prison labor in violation of US Law. Photograph: US Customs and Border Protection/AFP/Getty Images

This is the second time this year that CBP has slapped a rare detention order on shipments of hair products from China, based on suspicions that people making them face human rights abuses.

Rushan Abbas, a Uighur American activist whose sister went missing in China almost two years ago and is believed to be locked in a detention camp, said women who use hair weaves should think about who might be making them.

“This is so heartbreaking for us,” she said. “I want people to think about the slavery people are experiencing today. My sister is sitting somewhere being forced to make what, hair pieces?”

Wednesday’s shipment was made by Lop County Meixin Hair Product Co Ltd. In May, a similar detention was placed on Hetian Haolin Hair Accessories Co Ltd, although those weaves were synthetic, not human, the agency said.

Both of the exporters are in China’s far west Xinjiang region, where, over the past four years, the government has detained an estimated 1 million or more ethnic Turkic minorities.

Detainees are held in internment camps and prisons where they are subjected to ideological discipline, forced to denounce their religion and language and physically abused. China has long suspected the Uighurs, who are mostly Muslim, of harboring separatist tendencies because of their distinct culture, language and religion.

Reports by the AP and other news organizations have repeatedly found that people inside the internment camps and prisons, which activists call “black factories”, are making sportswear and other clothing for popular US brands.

The Chinese ministry of affairs has said there is no forced labor, nor detention of ethnic minorities.

Xinjiang authorities announced in December that the camps had closed and all the detainees had “graduated”, a claim difficult to corroborate independently given tight surveillance and restrictions on reporting in the region.

Some Uighurs and Kazakhs have told the AP that their relatives have been released, but many others say their loved ones remain in detention, were sentenced to prison or were transferred to forced labor in factories.

(Source: The Guardian)

'I left her as a baby - 16 years later she saved my life'

After losing everything in the horror of Hurricane Katrina, artist Matjames Metson was broke, traumatised and "braced for the end" when he received an unexpected phone call. It was from the daughter he hadn't seen since she was a baby, and it gave him a reason to live.

Matjames Metson was 16 when he met the future mother of his child.

"Selanie walked into my American history class and I was just blown away. I was like, 'Oh my God, who is that?' It was an instant: 'I need to know who that person is.'"

Matjames's parents were artists, and his stepfather worked as an art professor at a succession of different art schools.

"We moved endlessly, it seemed like," Matjames says, "and I'd never really had an opportunity to make actual friends. I'd meet people and then we would leave and so it always gave me this distance that I still hold on to today, I think."

Getty Images

After a stay in the south of France, the family moved to the small town of Yellow Springs in Ohio, where he met his first girlfriend, Selanie.

"We got together and we had a relationship for several years and then it had actually ended, but we had what they call now 'a hook-up' and Selanie became pregnant," says Matjames, "but we were still not a couple."

Matjames was 18 years old and didn't feel ready to become a father.

"I was utterly terrified. It threw my world upside down," he says.

"I didn't have the faculties to deal with it in any sense. I was too young, too naïve and I didn't know what to do."

Selanie gave birth to a little girl called Tyler.

After she was born, Matjames met Selanie at the entrance to the Glen Helen Nature Preserve, and he cuddled the baby for the first time.

"I held Tyler in my arms for about 30 seconds I'd say, and that was it.

"I didn't understand that it was my child on an emotional level. I knew biologically I was involved and I was just like, 'Oh my God this is just really heavy. I don't know how to react to this, I don't know what to do.'"

Matjames says it started a lifetime of running away - from everything.


"It's classic fight or flight. Having zero self-esteem at the time, I chose to run and continued to do so."


After stays in Montreal and Boston, Matjames eventually arrived in a bustling and vibrant New Orleans around the age of 19 or 20.

"I was a kid, I was young for my age, emotionally, and all of a sudden here I am in a very exotic, very different place. It was a good place to hide, I suppose."

But if he was hiding from his past, he couldn't completely escape from it.

In a graphic novel Matjames produced later about his life, a sketched image shows him hunched over, carrying the heavy weight of guilt on his shoulders. It felt like carrying a "16-tonne block of burden" around, he says.

This contributed to a mental breakdown that left him in an institution "for quite some time" he says.

When he was discharged he gradually became a well-known face in the city's French quarter, famous for its nightlife, its music and free-flowing bourbon.

"I went in as a fairly anonymous resident of New Orleans, but I came out and it gave me some sort of mystique, and suddenly I knew everybody. I was living in someone's closet and I didn't have anything except for my pens, so I'd go to the coffee house, the bar or wherever people were and I was embraced as a character and a spectacle," he says.

Getty Images

He'd always been an artist, but now began getting more attention. As he didn't have a permanent home, all his work had to be on paper.

Later, as he became more of a "domesticated creature", he started making assemblage art - finding objects and gluing them together into sculptures.

New Orleans was a treasure trove for this he remembers. Wherever you looked - even on the ground - you could find the artistic equivalent of gold dust- such as early American photographs that were 100 years old. He would find beauty in repurposing materials such as wooden matches and lolly sticks.

And he was successful, making art "like a fiend" and exhibiting at shows in the city, while supporting himself by working in bars, and riding around the city on his bicycle, delivering pizza.

Meanwhile his daughter, Tyler Hurwitz, was growing up in Yellow Springs with her mum, Selanie, another talented artist. She remembers accompanying her mother on an upholstery apprenticeship at the age of four.

"I was submerged in a creative environment from the time I was born basically, and that has never ended," she says.

Her home was a happy one. Selanie had got married and had another daughter, and growing up in this tight family unit, Tyler says she didn't take a great interest in her biological father.


"I had so many people and family and friends surrounding me all the time, I guess I just didn't really think about it," she says. 

"It wasn't something that had ever existed in my mind, so it wasn't ever a huge question as to who my father was, or where he was, or why he wasn't there.

"I never asked, therefore I didn't really know."

Like her mother, she became an expert at upholstering furniture and a skilled artist.


By the age of 30, Matjames was considered one of the city's "home-grown" artists, despite the fact he'd lived the first two decades of his life elsewhere. He also had a permanent job restoring antique builders' tools. His two dogs, Pikachu and Pearl, were everything to him.

"Suddenly I was like… 'I can't believe I've survived to 30,'" he says. 

He'd had a "live fast, die young" mentality, and decided it was now time to slow down. First he moved out of the French Quarter, then he left New Orleans altogether for a few years, returning in the spring of 2005.

"I get an apartment, I unpack my stuff and that's when Katrina hit," he says.

Getty Images

Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in August 2005, flooding large areas of the city. Nearly 2,000 people were killed and one million displaced, and there was a terrifying breakdown of law and order.

"It was utter destruction," says Matjames, who is still distressed by what he witnessed. "If I close my eyes I can still see it.

"There was a lot of loss of life, everything was completely broken. 

The stores weren't open, the groceries weren't open, the crime was insane. There's so many people just losing their houses and possessions, it was nothing more than just utter desperation on everybody's part."

Matjames's apartment was waterlogged and he lost most of his belongings, including almost all of his artwork.

Fearing that he might not be able to take his beloved dogs with him, Matjames remained in the wreckage of the city for eight days, until one day he found a working payphone, called his mother to let her know he was safe, and then called a friend, who helped get him, Pikachu and Pearl to Los Angeles.

He moved into a very small apartment on a busy intersection in the LA district of Koreatown, with demolition crews busy all around.

"Once I'd moved into this flat they literally tore down every building surrounding me. So the little four-storey building I was in suddenly was infested with mice and cockroaches and meth heads," he says.

"Someone gave me a futon, I had a little black and white TV and maybe a couple of T-shirts and that was it."

Pages of a graphic novel, Survivors Guild, by Matjames Metson

Matjames says his dogs were not only his best friends, but also his children, his confidants and even his eating partners.

"When I got regular food they'd get some," he says. "And when I didn't have regular food I'd eat some of theirs. I'd reach in the dog food bag and eat handfuls of dried kibble."

He found a job in another part of the city, working as a "stock boy" in an art supply store for $7 (£6) an hour, but would have to beg for change for the fare to travel there.

Whenever the phone rang, it would be bad news about a friend from New Orleans suffering from the after-effects of the storm.

He thinks many of them had post-traumatic stress disorder, the consequences of which could be devastating. "Some people drank, some people took narcotics, some people committed suicide."

Matjames says he shut down emotionally, and would sit in his apartment just staring at the television set, not even changing the channel. He couldn't make art and says he was "braced for the end".

"My capacity for self-preservation was slipping and slipping and slipping and I had nowhere to really turn," he says, "until the phone call which not only saved my life, but it changed my life."


Tyler, who was then 16, was cleaning her bedroom when her mum came in and handed her a piece of paper. On one side was a PO Box number, and the other a mobile phone number. Her mum told her this was how she could contact her biological father.


"I think that she just kind of stumbled upon it in a stack of papers and was just like, 'Oh, better give this to Tyler in case she wants to call,'" Tyler says.

"It was just like a very nonchalant thing that she'd just done, and she specifically asked me to write instead of call, but minutes after she gave me the paper I called the number. I think half of me really was not expecting anybody to answer, so I didn't put much thought into it.

"I kind of had this mentality of, 'I've got nothing to lose.' So when he answered, I wasn't emotional, and I wasn't nervous."

She says she hadn't even made a conscious decision to call, she was simply acting spontaneously.

Matjames feared it would be more bad news about one of his friends - and then he heard Tyler's voice.

"Have you ever heard the name Tyler before?" she said.

Matjames replied: "Tyler, I've been waiting for this call for 16 years."

"Then I said, 'Do you hate me?'" says Tyler.

"I said, 'I really don't hate you. Do you hate me?'" says Matjames. 


"And she said 'No.' Like here I am, a total messed up, traumatised artist guy who had zero to offer her, but we talked about music and we talked about this and that."

Tyler says that as they finished the call they didn't plan how to stay in touch, but just knew that they could call each other if they wanted to.

For Matjames, the call was life-transforming.

"I really feel as though my spine straightened and my eyes opened and I stopped looking on the ground and started to say, 'Well OK, here I am in Los Angeles, my daughter thinks that's amazing, maybe I should think that's amazing?'"

He says he wanted to impress Tyler and the only way he felt he could do this was through his creativity.

"I'm not going to be able to do it with my home or my bank account or my clothes. I'm going to be the best artist I can possibly be, and that is something I have picked up and have not put down, and I owe that all to Tyler."

As he slowly got himself back on his feet, he began to produce and exhibit his work again. He was able to move to a better apartment and a few years later, as a new exhibition of his work opened, Tyler flew to LA to meet him for the first time.

"I was nervous, which I feel is understandable," says Tyler, "but then the second that we were acquainted it just felt OK, it felt natural and normal and I was perfectly content with being myself."

She instantly noticed the physical resemblances too.

"I have curly hair and my mum has pin-straight hair and it's always been a situation trying to figure out how to deal with my hair," she says. "So when I met Matjames I was like, 'Well, we both have curly hair, that explains it.' And we have similar hands and we both have green eyes."

One of the first pieces of art that Tyler says Matjames showed her was an intricate sculptural assemblage tower.

"If you open this door and unlatch this thing and you slide this over, you'd look down in there and in between a bunch of nails you'd find my name," she says. "So my name is hidden in a lot of his work, you have to search for it, but it's definitely there and it's just kind of cool knowing where to look."

She believes this symbolises the motivation that she provided for Matjames to resume his work as an artist.

Having visited Matjames in his artistic habitat, Tyler later challenged Matjames to visit hers in Ohio.

"I knew she was right and I had to do it. It was like resetting some sort of machine," he says.

"It was a way for me to suddenly become my age and grow up and stop being the teenager who ran."

While he was there, Tyler was re-upholstering a sofa and Matjames got to help with the project and witness his daughter's artistry at work.


"My whole inspiration behind upholstery and my love for furniture and fabrics was initially inspired by my mother," says Tyler, now 29. 

"So the sofa was really a project where the brains of all three of us came together."

Meeting Matjames has also meant that she has connected with his parents - his mother, stepfather and father - all of them artists.

"To be a creative person and then suddenly find your long-lost family, only to find out that literally every single one of them are artists - it's wild," says Tyler, who, inspired by her grandparents, is now studying again in the craft and material studies department of a university in Virginia.

Over the years, Matjames and Tyler have talked a lot about why he left her.

"She understands why I had to go," says Matjames.

"We talked a couple of weeks ago. She was like, 'You couldn't have lived here, it wouldn't have been the right thing for you, no matter what.' So it's nice to have the person that I left clearly understanding why I had to do it and not resenting me for it, which is huge and brave and really remarkable."

Tyler acknowledges that there is a social stigma associated with fathers who leave a family, but says what Matjames did was right for him, and ultimately for her too.

Had she adhered to "societal standards" and judged him negatively it would have achieved nothing, she says. Instead she has gained a new family, a new source of inspiration, and is "living a great life".

(Source: BBC)