Posted by Tyra Fennell in Blog, Kommunity Kiki, Tyra's World on September 7, 2015
Scene 1: Rebirth on the Playa
“Everyday you are born again Tyra, so make it count.”
During the first week of September 2015, I spent 5-days on an incredible journey to gain a better understanding of myself by utilizing 10 principles: radical inclusion, gifting, de-commodification, self- reliance, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy. I also wanted to experience amazing art I had only seen in San Francisco and American Steele in Oakland. My stage during this journey was Black Rock City, Nevada, in a desert located just past the Pyramid Lake Paiute Native American Reservation at a little art event called BURNING MAN.
In order to plan for Burning Man, you have to prepare both emotionally and physically. During this process, I spoke to many burners who worked diligently to help me get ready. I noticed that most of my Black friends were scared for me while my non-Black friends worked tirelessly to help me prep. I constantly thought about race and privilege; though I tried to free myself of this, it was almost impossible. I would say this burden was carried with me throughout the entire experience so, I am embracing it with full transparency by crafting this manifesto as Black Girl Burn 2015 (#bgb2015).
My trip to Burning Man was a gift from my business partner so that cost was covered however to adequately prepare for the trip was pricey. For those who are interested in attended Burning Man but don’t know where to begin, please view my survival list below provided to me by a friend.
Upon approaching Black Rock City and driving along the runway to the Playa (the desert), all I could think is my God no one can imagine this, you really have to experience it. I thought to myself, everyday you are born again Tyra, so make it count. As we passed the check point, listening to the Pet Shop Boys, somehow it was like entering a dream state. Magical. I’d finally arrived.
Scene 2- Comfort and Joy in the Gayborhood
“Shit in the toilet, not on the Seat”
My first morning at Burning Man, I woke up to heat and bleeding fingers so I sprayed on some apple cider vinegar, a must at Burning Man and got my day started. The Playa dust causes the skin to crack and sometimes bleed, the apple cider vinegar apparently counters the effect. It was a lifesaver. I wanted to hit the port-a- potty (aka hell) before it got to gnarly so I could begin viewing the art in the deep Playa. As I approached the toilet, I saw a sign that stated, “shit in the toilet, not on the seat.” It seemed like a no brainer but apparently many did not listen. The bathrooms were the worst part of this journey.
I spent most of my first day riding around on my bike, another must on the Burning Man survival list and the only way to get around the Playa besides the art cars. I rode alone on the first day trying to locate all of my friends at their various camps without much success so I made new ones. There was a camp surrounded by neon flags, an outdoor gym and a sea of naked beautiful men called Comfort and Joy located in what is known as “Gayborhood” at Burning Man. This area is unofficially designated for gay camps.
My friend knew the camp leader Coop, who escorted us into an enclosed tent, offering Perrier water and turning on a misting machine laced with lavender. Needless to say, feeling the cold mist in the middle of the desert was a welcomed relief. Coop and his band of hot friends then proceeded to educate us on their collective history at Burning Man. For example, they began as a small camp but have since grown into a non-profit organization, supporting a myriad of causes including contributing to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.
The Paiute Tribe has lived on the shores of Pyramid Lake for nine to ten thousand years. The final stretch to Black Rock City is in the heart of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation, a beautiful ancient lake located in the heart of the Paiute Tribal Reservation, 35 miles northeast of Reno, midway between Reno and the site of Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert. Needless to say, like many other Native American tribes, the Paiute Tribe struggles to maintain with a whopping 44% unemployment rate, the revenue from citations, Indian Tacos, camping and garbage collection fees during Burning Man help fuel their struggling economy. The majority of the Tribe is young, comprised of individuals under age thirty-five (35) years; the median age is twenty-two (22) years. From the road headed to Burning Man, you can see their dilapidated homes. How can anyone ever right that kind of wrong?
When I was with the men of Comfort and Joy, they provided me with these troubling stats about the Paiute Tribe and explained the Tribe’s progressive stance regarding its gay members. According to Coop, the Tribe has always been open and supportive of their gay members, even elevating some to leadership positions. In addition to raising money for the Tribe, Comfort and Joy coordinates other camps at Burning Man to collect donations including food, tents and bikes but Coop wants to do more. As I became acquainted with the amenities offered at Comfort and Joy, including a fully equipped dressing room, a stage, theater lighting, a fully equipped kitchen and showers, I noticed a brotha rocking a BLACK LIVES MATTERS t-shirt. Kismet!
Scene 3- Dorothy Meets the Scarecrow
“I don’t care if the Wu-Tang Clan and Jill Scott performed at Burning Man with Beyonce and Jay-Z, this will never be an event Black folk gravitate to…like NEVER!”
His name is Steven Thrasher, a columnist for the Guardian in London. Meeting Steven reminded me of the scene in the Wiz when Dorothy met the Scarecrow. He provided me with a socio-political refuge and kinship in the same way the scarecrow provided comfort to Dorothy. Race was running rampant through my mind with no no place to process thoughts. Thrasher was understanding and a friend during a time when I felt a bit out of place. Like me, he was on a mission to understand people’s fascination with Burning Man and ask the question, why are their so few people of color, particularly African Americans in attendance?
Well he and I both agreed this event is definitely not one that would be attractive to most African Americans. I mean I don’t care if the Wu-Tang Clan and Jill Scott performed at Burning Man with Beyonce and Jay-Z, this will never be an event Black folk gravitate to…like NEVER. And, sorry Larry Harvey, it is not because of slavery or because Black people do not like to camp however, before I delve into the top reasons the majority of Black folks are not attending Burning Man, I will describe the brothas and sistahs who will attend and note, I am one of them.
I may look like a Huxtable but I am attracted to counterculture and art. I am an artist so I relate to many aspects of Burner culture. I suspect the 0.7% of Black people who attend Burning Man are like me. Many African Americans I encountered also identified as queer. Another interesting trend amongst Black Burners, the majority I saw, mostly men, straight or gay, had white partners or were in a group of all white friends. I also spoke poignantly with Thrasher about the response I had received from Black men who avoided me like the plague; no eye contact, salutation or “the nod.” I also had to check in with my friend who was also an African American female to see if she had experienced the same thing. She yelled a resounding YES! I thought, do Black people at Burning Man want to escape their Blackness and purely exist as Burners? Do they want to fold into a persona counter to who they are in the real world? And, for those Black men, did seeing me embarrass them? Make them ashamed? Make them resentful? Did I represent their disapproving sister, mother or aunty? I asked Thrasher who assured me he did not have those feelings. I wish I had the nerve to ask the brotha in my camp who never spoke a word to me, even when I smiled.
Okay, now that I spelled all of that out, let me say what everyone knows. Burning Man is not for white people because you would not find the cast of Duck Dynasty in attendance and Ann Coulter would probably run into her tent, fall into a fetal position with Holy Water and a Bible, rebuking what to many conservatives is an event that resembles Sodom and Gomorrah. Burning Man is for people who are into counterculture and art. Those who are able to lose all inhibition and live without the social constructs that confine us all in the real world. Yes, it’s attendees are mostly white but the event itself is not exclusionary by any means.
Now before my comments section blows up, let me clarify. I think whenever a culture offers what speaks to them artistically and welcomes all to partake, which Burning Man does, you have a choice to join or not. Now, I know people talk about the cost but you set your vacation priorities and many of us (my people) would rather spend that money on a cruise or a trip to the Caribbean than being in a dusty desert. I get it!
The real question is who exactly is posing this diversity question about African Americans and Burning Man? I can guarantee, it’s not Black people. Why can’t people accept that people are different and like different things? I attended a party during Burning Man at the Distrikt and told my friends that I was waiting for Charlton Heston aka Moses to come down with the 10 Commandments and see all of the out of control partiers and just send a plague. Okay, now that’s a joke and for the record, I am not religious but I am telling you, there were several times when the similarities were uncanny. My God, am I Ann Coulter (that was a joke)? I would yell out while my friends laughed, “Lord Jesus, know my heart, I am merely a tea totaling observer who loves art.” Trust me, Black folk ain’t ready.
Okay now the top reasons most Black people won’t be rockin’ at Burning Man (In Tyra’s humble opinion):
- The typical Black women is not going to like all that Playa dust in her locks, weave, perm, Afro, nothing! That’s universal whether you’re a head wrap honey or an Atlanta Housewife…dust in hair and no effective way to wash it is a OH HEEEEEEEELLLLL NO!
- Black American culture overall is conservative. I know (talking to Black folk) you think you aren’t but trust and believe …you are. For example, most straight Black men are not going to like throwing back a drink with another man’s junk hanging out within arm’s length and if you go to Burning Man, you have to be okay with this because it may very well happen. I attended a dinner with a naked lady on a table with sushi on her and it wasn’t covering much. No thanks!
- Black people don’t generally gravitate to any music over 140BPM (beats per minute). Full disclosure, I used to be a song writer in Europe so most of my playlist is way over 140BPM which means techno, hard house, trace, drum and bass and the like which is another reason I will be headed back to the desert. I loved the music but Black folk? Nope, not interested.
- Now, white women, what you did have in common with sistahs during your time at Burning Man was getting your hair braided to protect it from the elements. Good on you but guess what? Most Black folk would find the myriad of faux dreads and Farrah Fawcett cornrows at the least, annoying. Can we say cultural appropriation on fleek?! Not to mention the random Native American head dresses, men walking around in Burquas and turbans. Yeah, no, those aren’t costumes people. That compounded with the level of intoxication would cause serious side eye from many Black folk. No thanks, pass!
- Burning Man is a playground for urban planners however, there is already a shortage of African American urban planners in this country and those in the field are more interested in planning around their neighborhoods in the city not some abstract concept in the desert. So no go there.
The Bay Area is having its share of diversity and inclusion issues so why would Burning Man or any other cultural event in this area reflect a different reality? The real question is if you are an African American artist that wants to experience a weeklong retreat that speaks to you what are your options? Black people let’s work on that and leave the Playa dust to those who want to brave it.
Stay Tuned for Part II: I write about the Freaknik Factor and the cost of Burning Man, my obsession with the Unicorn Man, Whip Its and something called Molly….. #bgb2015
Burning Man Survival List
** BM Ticket and ID (plan to carry your ID with you, bars card now)
- Large Rubbermaid tubs
- Ziploc bags (quart) (I sub-pack everything to keep clean and organized in the tubs)
- Med kit
- Ear plugs (for dancing or sleeping)
- Goggles (sand proof)
- Camera / spare batteries
- Poi gear & fuel
- Duct tape
- Day pack
- Extra shoe insoles
- Playa boots
- Camp shoes
- Day socks
- Night socks
- Sleep socks
- Foot Lotion or Vinegar (Playa dust is alkaline, vinegar helps clean feet as well as zippers on tents, boots)
- Cowboy hat
- Warm hats (night)
- Head lamp
- Light for tent (inside and out)
- Extra batteries
- Long underwear
- Gloves / arm warmers (light weight)
- Fur Coat
- Camelbak / water bottle
- Communal water
- Box of dust masks
- Baby wipes
- toothbrush and paste
- make-up and hair stuff
- Hand sanitizer (easy to carry bottle)
- Condoms, Lube
- Waterless shampoo & soap
- Detangler / Leave-in conditioner
- Vitamins & Supplements
- Eye drops
- Nose drops
- Birth control
- Repair kit
- Air Pump
- Chain oil, DW40
- Bike lock
- Sleeping Bag
- Air mattress + pump
- Rebar + tennis balls
- Camping chair (mark it as your’s)
- Personal Cup (portable for bars)
- Utility Knife
- Shot glass (portable for bars)
- Clorox Wipes
- Single Ply TP