With less than a 2-week notice, I left for the Black Rock Desert with a couple plastic containers full of clothes, some faux fur (red, of course), a bike, and a gallon of sunscreen. I wasn’t sure why I was going–or what the purpose was–but I knew I needed this experience. Revelations continue to crystallize as future lessons, sermons, and papers germinate.
But what follows represents what I know for sure about my purpose, realized just minutes before the end of my seven days in the desert (eight if you count the drive from Berkeley to Reno and then the long, slow drive overnight through the desert among thousands heading toward our destination).
Like the beauty of the morning, sunset, and evening skies, the Burning Man community is full of warmth, peacefulness, and openness to everyone. This community’s mission of radical inclusion and kindness to the earth represents an extraordinary creed the community lives into with a fervor and authenticity any church would aspire to. Generosity–of gifts, possessions, hospitality, spirit–signifies its hallmark.
Yet, like the sands of the desert that lies beneath that same sky, Burning Man is very…white.
I did see people of color but precious few; their representation was far below the demographics of the broader population back in the default (what burners call life outside the Burn). Perhaps it has something to do with racism or the fact that maybe the festival circuit and/or camping are viewed as a “white people things” or both. [Read interesting viewpoints here (“Is Burning Man a White People Thing?”) and here (Burning Man’s black campers explain why they are the 1%).]
The Burning Man experience is not easy to access for many (most) people; the cost of a ticket alone, plus supplies, arranging food and housing in a locale where temperatures reach both extremes, taking a large amount of time off of work, and getting to and from the desert all make Burning Man accessible primarily only by people with means and/or the ability to save for a year, who can afford to take off so long from their jobs, those who have great connections with others, or a combination of all three. [I myself was able to go only because of my sister and brother-in-law’s generosity and years of experience with the event.]
Part of the reason I knew I needed to go once I had the chance was to understand who the Burners were, what motivated them to such an extreme experience, and how the event informed who they were back in the default.
Knowing the unbalanced demographics, I decided to take a few hundred #BlackLivesMatter and #BlackTransLivesMatter stickers and hand them out. The reaction was mixed: some people took them and put them on immediately; others looked at me funny, giving me the impression that Burning Man was not a place for activism; some just passed me by. I have to say that overall, people were generally disinterested in the concept or the conversation. That does seem like a sweeping generalization for 75,000 people but that’s what my gut told me.
As soon as construction was finished, we sojourned out to the Playa to go to the Temple–the holiest place constructed on the desert.
The Temple is designed to be a place where people can bring their grief–particularly over the loss of family, friends, pet companions–and where burners can come and meditate in silence, in community, in spirit. Immediately, I could sense the holiness here. Every surface of the temple inside and out was covered with photos, mementos, photographs, tsotchkes, short notes and long poems carrying prayers that beckoned for peace and cried to let go. Monks chanted, people played sacred music on exotic instruments; others were silent while people cried and held one another.
During the week, I walked through the Temple several times observing this great outpouring of love, grief, and healing. So many loved for so long; others gone far too soon. Photos of loving pets tugged at my heart. I also observed a giant poster to police officers lost in the past year, a memorial to Berta Caceres, and a deeply moving, meticulously prepared tribute to the 49 people murdered at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
But where was the memorial to the men and women–cisgender and transgender–lost to police brutality and violence?
I searched and searched for the names of Trayvon and Michael and Sandra and Tanisha and Ty, and Philando but I could find them nowhere.
And I grieved, shedding tears for it seemed no one among the 75,000–myself included–had brought these Black lives to the Temple.
So moments before we set out for the default, I made a banner from one of my dusty pillowcases and with my black sharpie, wrote as many names as I could recall and hopped back on my bike and raced out to the Temple.
It was near sunset when I arrived. I found an open, visible spot at the most visible side of the structure and climbed the pillars to hang the banner. A few people watched as I hung my crude, hastily assembled memorial; one white woman whispered, “thank you.”
Then, my own tears came, each one an expression of grief over someone’s life, over my own compliance in the System that killed them, because of my slothful action.
And then in front of me stepped a young Black man. He stopped at the banner for minutes and was still. Then he raised his hands, took a photo, and walked away wiping his eyes. I knew in that instant at least one black life in the desert knew that Burning Man saw him, held him up, cared about his life, maybe even cared about all Black lives.
Gentle reader, please know I do not tell this story to say “hey look at me!” Rather, I do so to point out the work that all of us who are privileged with whiteness can and must do. Our actions do not have to consist of huge gestures or dramatic pleas–although those certainly help. But the actions of our every day lives of countering racism with love, of putting a BLM sticker on our cars in our window, or on our backpacks, or showing up with our bodies with people of color–these actions will change life here in the default and make it just a little bit more like life in the desert where people gather to dance and find the spirit and become radically one with each other.
What I saw during my time in the desert was in large part people who are hungry for connection–connection with one another, with the earth, with the spiritual or with the Universe–people who want to celebrate life and worship with great joy. I hope that these people saw the banner, perceived what it represented, that perhaps their hearts grew in new places, and that they return back to the default with more compassion and a desire to break the system of racism, too. I know that was certainly my experience.
So tonight as the Temple and everything in it burns in the same manner as the Man burned last night, I pray that reconciliation comes for all those grieving who placed memorials and prayers in that place. And I pray that the flames of the temple lick up and consume every bit of racism found in every heart and that the spirits of Emmit, Oscar, Tamir, Brenda, Yvette, Rae Lynn, Erykah, and Walter–and the thousands like them–soar above the Playa, released and free, touching the hearts of those who dance with the desire for action and greater love back in the default.
This is my prayer. May it be so.
Amen and Ashe.