Last year I attended Burning Man for the first time, convinced by a friend who had returned from the event in 2015 bubbling over with excitement.
“You have to come with me,” she told me and another (black) friend. “We’ll make our camp the blackest one out there.” She was only kind of joking.
Months later, I arrived in Black Rock City, Nev., the temporary desert city built each year by Burning Man attendees, and I was greeted by several black “burners” who said how happy they were to see me. According to them, I was part of a growing trend of black folks attending an event often considered a “white-people thing.”
Sadly, the data doesn’t support the existence of such a trend. Perhaps they had seen a few more brown faces that year, but the people-of-color segment of Black Rock City’s overall population remained low. Burning Man census data shows that of the 70,000 people who attended the event in 2016, 79 percent were white; 9.4 percent were mixed race or “other.” Just 1 percent were black. In 2013, that number was 0.9 percent.
Burning Man founder Larry Harvey famously told The Guardian in 2015 that the reason more black people don’t attend the event is that “black folks don’t like to camp as much as white folks.”
At this year’s Burning Man, Emanuel and I caught up with journalist Steven Thrasher, who wrote that Guardian article, and asked what he thought about the spreading belief among some burners that the number of people of color had increased.
“People have told me that they’ve come because they’ve read the articles or because they’ve connected with organizations since I wrote about them,” he said. “I think word has just gotten out.”
But even he suspects the harsh conditions at Black Rock City might make it a less-desirable destination for many people of color than more urban events like Afropunk, an annual festival that takes place in Brooklyn, N.Y., the same weekend that Burning Man begins.
Still, for the black people I spoke to who return to Burning Man year after year, the experience remains profound. For some, it’s a place where they can leave some racial burdens behind. For others, it’s a place where they can see the functions of racism more clearly.
As Yodassa Williams, one of the people I interviewed said, you begin to have certain realizations when you feel like “a pepper in a sea of salt.”
Cordell Erskine, 26
Self-identification: American born of Jamaican parents
Hometown: New Jersey
Occupation: Student at Montclair State University
But I throw the fist up when I see [other black burners]. Like, yeah, we’re out here. I call this the white person’s hajj, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily just for white people. In real life as well, when I see another black person doing some white-people shit, I don’t necessarily have the inclination to, you know, make friends.
You know, like, I’ll find merit in you, if you have merit, if you’re a decent person, if you’re a human being who treats somebody with decency and respect not because of the color of your skin, you know?
Yeah, but I will throw them the power fist.
My friends, if they came here, with all the gay dudes around here, they would have aneurysms. I don’t particularly like that kind of thing, but people want to do what they do. If that’s natural to them, let them do it. When I get home, I want to be like, “Guys, save up $1,000. Next year we’re going to Black Rock City.” I’ll show the pictures, and they will be like, “Why is that guy naked? Why are there all those gay guys?” I’ll be like, “Just ignore that shit. It’s a free community. People can do what they want.”
I’ve always heard of Burning Man, but I never really knew what it was. I don’t adhere to the whole mentality of you can do certain things or can’t do certain things. This year I was doing some different stuff like going to musical festivals. I thought Burning Man would be just another one. And nope. It takes all the elements of camping I learned from childhood and flips it on its ear. Oh, and we’re in the middle of a desert. There’s that.
Clarence Daryl Edwards, 50
Hometown: Washington, D.C.
Occupation: Works in public policy and public affairs
You get to dial your own reality in a lot of ways. You get to dial your own “who you are.” That’s why I think this should appeal to more burners of color or because it’s a way of ... you can push that identity, if you want to. Not get away from it, but you don’t have to be trapped by it.
It’s like, “Blow up the stereotypes. Why not?” That’s why you had the Miles Davises going over to France and people like that. Richard Wright. That same tradition. Pioneers in the black community. James Baldwin. That’s the tradition that we all come out of as people of color.
Black people are counterculture by the very nature of our being. So with that in mind, I don’t think it’s weird for me to be walking around looking like this being at Burning Man. It’s like we invented counterculture in the U.S. Come on. Come on.
This is a culture where difference is heightened and celebrated. When I walk out this door here, so much oddity is going around. You don’t have to be what society says you are. You don’t have to be a nigger. You don’t have to be Daryl Edwards who wore a suit and tie to work every day. You can create yourself at any given moment at any time because the future is now.
Yodassa Williams, 32
Hometown: Oakland, Calif.
Occupation: Works in the fashion industry, personal shopper, writer
Camps with: Que Viva, one of the few people-of-color-majority camps
Previously wrote about her experience as a black burner
I was working in the fashion industry, very burnt out from my job and the expectations. My best friend from high school went to Burning Man the prior year and gotten over a lot of really intense things in his life. I was moving into that pinnacle of like, “I don’t know what the next step is, but I don’t like where I’m at.” He was like, “Come to Burning Man and bring all of that with you.”
That was 2014. This is my fourth year. My first two, I was with the friend who invited me, his camp. There was another mixed-race person, but I was the most obvious brown face in the crowd. I was here to focus on my own thing, but I did see there’s not a lot of brown faces out here. I think it needs to become way more inclusive. They talk about radical inclusivity, but I don’t see it.
My third year, I started making an effort when I saw other people of color—stopping and being like, “What brought you here?” I felt that commonality with other beautiful, brown faces that I would connect with. They’d be like, “I’m realizing things that I need to let go of.” Or like, “Going to the temple was the first time I’ve cried in a decade, and I didn’t know I could do that.”
And I’m like, “This place is magical, right?” And I would just feel that instantly, like we’re looking in each other’s eyes and I’m like, “I know you’re getting it, right? You’re getting this Burning Man thing deeply.“
This is my first year with camp Que Viva. I was a little apprehensive about joining. It felt a little social-justice heavy. I wasn’t sure of the exact vibe, if it was just going to be very somber. But in connecting with [camp leader] Faviana outside of Burning Man, I found I was really in line with her vision. Especially now that I’m moving toward what I feel is a deeper purpose for me.
To be honest, there was another camp that I was looking at. I was concerned because we did a Skype, and I saw everybody was white. The leader of the camp, her name was Becky. And, you know, “Beckys.” I felt like the universe is trying to tell me that I don’t need to be around Beckys this burn.
So that’s when I was like, “Faviana, can you take me?”
Nick Powers, 42
Self-identification: Black, Afro-Latino, Puerto Rican or Nuyorican
Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Occupation: Literature professor and founder of the People of Color camp
There was this Italian guy I met in New York; he was one tent over. Some of his friends had died in the [twin] towers—and he was feeling a great release here. He wanted to me to feel it, too. He hooked me up with some psychedelics and sent me into the desert. I went out and released it. So Burning Man, to me, became a place where I could release the tension that had corkscrewed my body in the real world.
Later on I realized that there were other tensions as well, racial tensions. There was this workshop for people of color only at Burning Man five or six years ago—Asian brothers and sisters, Desi, black Caribbean American and recent African immigrant, Latino. As we’re talking about our experiences at Burning Man, I realized how free I felt. I realized the levels of white surveillance and double consciousness were lowered here.
Here, for some reason, the whiteness is turned down, and the weirdness is turned up. Just to put it in blunt terms, white people aren’t looking at you, because there’s a dragon spitting fire … or a person dressed like a Hindu god … or someone dressed as a bunny with a huge, fluffy cock. Compared to that, someone with brown skin isn’t really that big of an issue.
Then an odd sadness followed, because I realized how unfree I felt in the regular world. My soul had become callused, like those Anglerfish at the bottom of the ocean that grow a hard, steel crust of skin—because you have to numb yourself from the invisible weight.
I created the People of Color camp three years ago. It’s a safe space where we can talk without negotiating with white people’s defenses against being accused of racism, so they can more quickly realize their own personal transformation. Our camp isn’t just multiracial, it’s multinational. We’ve got Colombians. We’ve got a white woman who’s married to a Chinese-American woman. We’ve got a Caribbean brother. We’ve got me.
As a presence at Burning Man, I see a lot more melanin; we have a Black Lives [Matter] altar at the temple, but we’re still like a novelty. This is and always will be a majority-white event. What I’m considering now is that we might need a black burn or a people-of-color burn. Because there are different psychological needs that people of color need to re-create their power and their beauty.
Dominique Lyons, 31
Hometown: Petaluma, Calif.
Occupation: Burning Man ranger, farmer
I was dating this guy, and he bought me a ticket, because there’s no way I was going to pay for it. And I just went. In a terrible way. I had no food, no water. I brought beer and a burrito. I brought a bag of clothes. The only other thing I brought was a bike. That was 2011. I’ve gone every year since.
That whole week was a shit show. I moved my camp from one side of the playa to the other. I then proceeded to spend all my time at “Yes Please,” a polyamorous gay camp. I knew I liked women, liked men. I like penises and vaginas. But I didn’t know I was poly, I had no idea what that was.
I remember sitting on this couch one day, and I was starving. And somebody was like, “I have a pudding cup. Let me feed it to you.” I’ve never met someone who would just feed me into my mouth like a baby. It was definitely sensual. It was friendship and love. I was like, “This is me. This is me all over the place.” I immersed myself in that culture. I became polyamorous. It changed my life.
I identify as Afro-Latina. Where I live, it’s more Caucasian people. I’ve dated men and women of the world, but I still date primarily Caucasian people. So I’m always really aware of my race, always like, “OK. I’m a brown girl.” But out here I feel equal to everyone. I have friends who are cardiologists, doctors and lawyers. They’re like, “You’re fucking cool. I’m going to listen to you.” In the real world, that would never happen.
And yeah, being of color has not kept me back from achieving goals at Burning Man. If anything, it kind of makes me cooler, and in the real world that’s not the case. So I’m trying to bring people. I brought my cousin who’s Italian and black. I think color brings color.
This year, when I became a ranger, I met another ranger who was an African-American woman. I was like, “What if I come upon someone who has a problem with people of color?” She’s like, “You know what? That’s not really out there.” Burning Man doesn’t call to that type of person.
Burners are crazy, down people who are already thinking outside the lines anyway. They see somebody walking down the street with a tiny sombrero on their dick and be like, “Oh, that’s normal.” They’re strong people.
Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity and length.
Stephanie Beasley is a staff writer at Politico, based in Washington, D.C. You can catch her in the halls of Congress or on Twitter just about every day of the week.
Emanuel Cavallaro is a former newspaper reporter from the Midwest who now works as a writer and photographer on the East Coast. In his free time, he records music and plays a lot of video games.