Black and Burning: My Experience as a Black Woman at Burning Man

Update! After all this time, a video. These images don’t even capture a sliver of my experience, but it is a glimpse into the Playa world.

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Back in 2006, my old roommate became obsessed with getting to this festival out in the desert with a bunch of wild hippies. I, being a hippy artist myself, was intrigued, but tepid. I considered myself open-minded, having been well-traveled, and spending time with a diverse group of folks as a performing dancer. But did I want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere, with a bunch of mainly white folks, after hauling a bunch of art crap across America, only to have to bring it all back home? The idea wasn’t thrilling. Every year, my friend continued to go, and I wondered if I too should venture out, despite my fears. Though we haven’t been in touch for years, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to go there.

Burning Man always seemed to me like a very white event. Not that I had a problem being around white people all the time. Growing up, and being in the digital design profession, I was always one of the few blacks in attendance. But I often wondered if I would feel completely out of place where so few black people would appear. The concept of Burning Man is a very ‘white’ thing. Billed as a freeing, life-changing experience, Burning Man offers the chance to witness madcap artistry, meet likeminded, if otherworldly people, and release your soul in ways that are not fathomable in the real world. It’s no wonder so many people flock to this event. But in all honesty, there’s not a lot of talk of Black people wanting to go out in the middle of nowhere and survive. Perhaps because Black people have had to do that for centuries, in real life. So why the hell would we want to go through that again? Camping out, braving the elements, letting your lips, skin and hair get dry and dusty as hell. What is fun or freeing about any of that shit? Not to mention that Larry Harvey, director of Burning Man has explicitly said that Black people don’t like to camp, which is not entirely false.

We black people are alchemists. We can take horror and sorrow and turn it into magnificent things.

But add to this notion the ticket prices, the costs of logistics, bringing (and taking!) everything that you will need with you into the desert to survive for a week, the lack of modern showers or anything comforting outside of your RV or camper van – those added factors are enough for any typically sane Black person to say hell MF no.

Oh, and the wooden Burning Man at the end of the festival. I went to the burning with a lot of trepidation of what I might feel. My daughter hated it when I even mentioned it to her. She let everyone she met after the burn know that everything about the festival was great, EXCEPT the burn. And I knew right then that all those civil rights movies, articles and books I had presented to her had sunk into her little 6 year old head, despite her obsession with Minecraft and Baby Alive dolls. Watching a man burn at the stake was real, and horrifying, and scary as fuck.

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burning-man-2016-1Burning Images: NY Daily News

Luckily, I met with a sister in our camp who told me this and it changed everything about my mood. She said, “We black people are alchemists. We can take horror and sorrow and turn it into magnificent things. Just look at us, how we survived, and thrived.” As we talked a brother strode up to us on his road bike. He was deaf, but happy to connect with other Burners of color. And he taught us how to sign “Happy Burn”. It was awesome.

As I rode down the Playa and along the roads of the camps, I made sure to acknowledge every Black burner with a smile, a hug, a wave, an acknowledgement to let them know that yes, we’re here, and I support you being here. I saw dusty legs. Matted, sand-covered hair. Naked black bodies. Assured smiles. They saw me and their eyes said “You’re a Black Burner. You really are free.”

Below, Burning Man in pictures. Most images are mine, but a few aren’t. Half the time my phone was dead, I left it at camp, or simply didn’t give a damn, and just wanted to experience.

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