Photography By Erin Douglas
Q & A with Erin Douglas
The Black Burner Project (BBP) is a project documenting people of color at Burning Man, with a mission to create an inspiring and informative space were “burners” of color can be seen as part of the Burning Man community; to encourage the curious yet apprehensive, and to challenge people of color to take action by stepping into the unknown spaces where we are few. Burning Man is a “ A yearly event of 70,000 or more people who gather and live for up to a week in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert-to create a temporary city (metropolis) called Black Rock City-dedicated to community, art, self expression, and self reliance.”
How did you discover Burning Man and what was your first experience like?
My initial intro to Burning Man was through a close friend who went for the first time early in our friendship. I knew from her description, and knowing the type of person she is, it must be a unique place, but I wouldn't say I was interested. It was never on my bucket list. She finally, some 7 years after going every year since her first time, gifted me a ticket. That is for sure the only reason I went. I knew that there was a reason behind why she gave me the ticket, and felt I should be there. I also knew it was an extremely generous gift, even without knowing the cost. I would have never turned it down regardless of how nervous I was about it. Now, I was fortunate to have most things figured out for me, very fortunate. They had a tent, bike, camp dues figured out. Getting everything I needed was overwhelming, and finding a ride to Black Rock City was still overwhelming. There is a lot to do to prepare, and coming from the East coast, having to fly in gives you very little space to overdo it. Although I did send packages to our storage ahead of time, I found later I didn't need so much.
Being over prepared is a good thing! You don't know what you don't need until you're there. You learn something new every year. Overall, my first experience was overwhelming, and magical. I didn't know it was magical at the time though. I didn't know how I felt, to be honest. I wasn't going there as someone who had camped before, been pushed to that degree due to the elements. I was an over-thinker. I wasn't into experimenting on pretty much any level. I learned it's not for that. People don’t go there for sex, drugs, and partying. However, If that's what you want, hey, you will find it. If that's not what you're into or your intentions, you won't be the only one. It's for anyone who is into anything. What you decide is for you, and no one is there to tell you otherwise. People are there with love and acceptance, to challenge you in a loving way. Now, there are 80k people who attend. I can't say there aren't people who don't take the ten principles seriously, or that there aren't some bad apples out there. It's fully possible. However, I think the majority of Burners on playa are loving, kind, supportive, and on their own journey.
I wrote a first person narrative for Essence online. You can check out if you search for it, but you'll find most Burners say, describing the experience is almost near impossible. Even the best creative explanation can be so good, so on point, but still leave out so much, and probably too over the top for anyone who hasn't gone to truly understand.
Would you say The Black Burner project was birthed in search of creating a community within a community? A place of comfort for the Black Burners?
I would say it was created as a means of comfort, as a means to drive awareness about the event, and to have a visual space that showed we are out here too, available for people to find.…...it was because so many people reached out to me after my first time truly wanting to know more, or they expressed their knowledge of the event, and desire to experience. Because they didn't know or see anyone who looked like them who went, they figured it wasn't for them. It was those people I needed to make this for. I thought to myself…..Wow, this person has known about Burning Man for 10 years longer than me, and never went because they didn't feel it was a welcoming space, and missed out on such a beautiful experience, and all it would have brought to their life…....the people, freedom, change in perspective, opportunities unlimited. They missed it because of the lack of representation which then goes into awareness as a community. Because we don't go, then we don't know. I am not here to convince everyone to go because it's not for everyone, but I feel if more people knew about it, and also hear the stories of Black and Brown burners, they can make a better decision on that, even if it is scary because it is. I encourage everyone to step into spaces, and experiences that will challenge us in the best of ways especially those where we are few.
I’ve researched and had plans to attend burning man and it always felt like a place where people who already draw outside the lines could exist for that week-judgment free. Are Black Burners afforded that same freedom at Burning man?
Yes. It's a place that gives you permission to be you....to create, to experiment, to play, to sleep, to do whatever you want, and not be judged. It is for those who already draw outside the lines, some of which have always lived life that way, others started after Burning Man. It is for those who have been holding back, who are looking to find themselves to see what it feels like to be, just do, to try, and not think too hard. It is a permission engine!
I think there are always scenarios where Black and Brown burners have felt unwelcomed. I also feel we bring with us our own baggage, feelings, and thoughts, but the journey of Burning Man is to help you leave it at the gate, and to teach you not to pick it back up when you leave.
What’s the future of the project as COVID-19 continues to threaten the future of large outdoor events?
I am still figuring that out. It is a passion project, but it takes up a lot of my time, and it has evolved since the idea and inception. I hope there will be an opportunity to collaborate as a supported project by the Burning Man Organization. I'm sure I will continue to share the stories because I think it is important. For me, currently, it is about how much time I want to invest in it? I am considering turning my weekly IG Lives into a podcast instead. I started IG Live interviews during COVID, and they have been great, informative, fun, and well received. It opens up the opportunity to tell even more, and in depth stories of Burners of Color, but an hour Live still isn't enough time. I know and understand the impact that the project has made not only to the community, but for the organization. I recognize my only opportunity to capture content and curate cultural events happens one week out of the year in a remote desert of 70-80k people who build a temporary city. Whatever I miss I don’t have, and I can't go back and get it until next year. For the first time, due to COVID, I couldn't partake in that. At the very least, I know I started something. I know it opened up, and put to the forefront an area within the organization that was not being focused on, and forced people to acknowledge that. There are a lot of people doing this work to push for a more inclusive playa, just doing it differently than me. I am now more involved with the organization, and their diversity plans. If I can't go on with this, I hope it opens up other amazing opportunities. I do think Burning Man will happen again, it is just a matter of when, and what it will look like.
What advice would you share, specifically with our Black readers looking to join the Burning man community online, or in person in 2021?
I'd say if you have an interest, some curiosity, there is a reason. Step into that.
Follow @blackburnerproject on IG and Black Burner project group on Facebook. We are out here, and we are all some crazy ass dynamic humans all into different stuff. I also host weekly IG Lives, which will start back up in October, interviewing Burners of Color about their experiences and/or talking about all things Burning Man. Please check out my IGTV for past interviews. The community is large, and people are helpful. Many times there are local Burner communities in your own city. Try Facebook (ie Burning Man New York or DC Burners) to find them.