Out in the Nevada desert, people are preparing to burn an effigy of a man, and hopefully be inspired, refreshed, and renewed by the experience. The annual Burning Man festival is a total “wha?” for some people and utter old hat for others, so if you don’t know about it, I will send you straight to their website, BurningMan.com.
I just got back from the playa, or the Black Rock desert where the festival is held. It was a somewhat truncated trip because work beckoned. I say “somewhat truncated” because one of the things you learn from being on the playa is that everything may not be right, but it’s right where it needs to be and right on time. So the fact that I flew a couple thousand miles and drove another three hours to be in a place with no running water for four days was exactly as it had to be, and totally worth it. While I was there, I helped build a bunch of structures for my theme camp, and for the first time I also did some reporting, on black participants at Burning Man.
To say that black Burners are a minority is beyond obvious, but as I found out many of the African-Americans (and Afro-Brits, etc) who come have been taking part in Burning Man for over a decade. I saw more color than ever before among the participants, which is to say not a lot but a noticeable uptick since I last attended three years ago. The people of African descent I spoke to included a man who did live event radio broadcasts to one who taught fire arts to another who helped run the media tent. They were there to dream, and to do.
It strikes me, and not for the first time, that Burning Man is resonant with metaphors for American life and politics. America is a shared dreaming, a place with rules and codes that are constantly being challenged and re-worked. Our Constitution was re-worked by debates over slavery and gender, among others. We have re-coded our laws to suit our changing morality, sometimes, as with California and Proposition 8, crossing the same line many times using different branches of government.
Although Burning Man is designed to be and is a place of, as they put it, “radical self-expression” as well as radical self-reliance, it has rules. No firearms, for example… You used to be able to bring guns and shoot out over the vast open lands. Now you can’t, because, among other things, it’s simply not practical to have fifty thousand people in various states of self-expression and also have weapons around. (Some will argue that point, but most agree to that rule, and others, including the rule that nothing other than coffee is to be bought or sold within the festival circle.)
One of the reasons I go to Burning Man, and I think one of the reasons many people go, is because every single moment you are forced to check in with your own relationship to other people’s choices, and your own. As Burning Man has swelled from a gathering of hundred, to thousands, to fifty thousand people, space is literally mapped out and negotiated, and the negotiations themselves are one of the most interesting parts, to me, of watching the city’s drama unfold.
What is politics but a literal negotiation of space, in forms including Congressional redistricting, as well as allocation of resources? Some negotiations are not pretty, and right now America is pulled taut by a mix of economic stress and tensions over ethnicity, immigration, and identity. We are growing as a nation and feeling the growing pains.
On Tuesday, I head off on my next reporting adventure, which I’ll talk more about later. For the online, radio, and multimedia specials “Pop and Politics with Farai Chideya,” I’ll be going on a multi-day road trip through Florida with multi-media journalists. We’ll be interviewing Senate candidates, citizens, and undocumented immigrants. We’ll be hosting a meetup in Miami. And we’ll take a look at the ways in which people use political tools — from activism to running for office — to negotiate resources and space.
I’ll leave for my reporting trip inspired by my trip to the desert, which, as every time I go, opened my mind and my heart. Driving to and from the festival, through miles and miles of open country with open sight lines, past Tribal lands and small towns, I saw a part of America that the New Yorker in me rarely sees. Is it any wonder we sometimes misunderstand each other, or take each other for granted, in this vast land? How do we come to an agreement of what is the common good? Those are questions I’ll take with me on the road.