By the time they had been holding court on stage for nearly an hour, my blood was boiling.
I was being held hostage, in broad daylight, in a public park in Dunedin, Florida.
The gathering had been promoted on Facebook as a “Peaceful Solidarity Candle Light Vigil.” The image said “Together we rise,” with a row of fists in all colors.
But the result was a display of pure white privilege. Look at us white people, gathering without violence or rioting. Look at how nicely white people can talk about black people. See how we can get together without looting any local stores.
The organizer was white. The bagpiper who played “Amazing Grace” was white. The minister was white. The mayor and all the other speakers were white. With the exception of the mayor, they were also all male. They talked about how wonderful it was to have a peaceful gathering, and they thanked and congratulated themselves and the participants for coming.
The hundreds of people in the crowd were there in good faith. They didn’t know they were going to be used to promote this message. There were people there of all ages, with a handful of black participants who probably represented Dunedin’s actual numbers, about 4% black.
Today, it’s apparent from their Facebook posts that most of them are completely unaware of what happened with their complicity.
I sat in the middle of the crowd with three friends, completely trapped. If I stayed, I was one more white person who appeared to support the systemic racism that the speakers had no idea they were portraying. If I walked out in disgust, I wasn’t supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
It was a lose-lose situation. My friends and I were literally squirming in our seats.
Up on stage, the organizer began to quote Dr. Martin Luther King for the second or third time. Finally, I lost it.
When he paused to take a breath, I shouted, loudly enough to be heard by all, “STOP QUOTING BLACK PEOPLE AND LET THEM SPEAK!”
On stage, the man shut up, stunned. There was a moment of collective shock, and then the crowd cheered.
What happened next? When he scanned the crowd for black faces, it became evident that he had not booked a single black speaker. His eyes fell on a black woman with a sign that said “Let my son live.” “Hey, you, with that sign, come up here and speak,” he called out to her.
I wanted to cry. This is not how allies work. We do not drag unsuspecting black people on stage to be the token representative of the entire movement. We do not suddenly demand that they jump in front of a microphone to validate us.
She did a great job, speaking briefly about her experiences and fears as the mother of a black teenager. Judging from the applause and cheers, the crowd appreciated her more than any of the previous white speakers.
After she spoke, the organizer announced that he didn’t want the event to go on for too long, so he was going to end the vigil. He later followed up on the Facebook event page, writing “I hope I did the cause justice, and If I even only inspired one person as a call to action, then that makes it worth my time. I am far from done.”
The crowd milled around a bit, unsure if we should just go home. Then something magical happened. Alexis Glasgow took the stage, and she saved the day.
Alexis is young, black, and female. Hers is the voice we need to hear.
Three days earlier, Alexis and two other women had organized a large sit-down protest at Coachman Park in neighboring Clearwater. Raised in Clearwater and attending American University in Washington DC, she has a young, fearless black voice, and she is using her words to fight for justice. Alexis is the kind of leader that allies like myself need. She can help us understand the work that needs to be done.
Alexis brought us back to the reason why we attended the vigil. She talked about the Black Lives Matter movement, about the injustice that is all around us. She gave us hope that there will be change and that it will be led by the black voices we have been silencing for 400 years.
If you are an ally, your job is to listen. Not to white people speaking on behalf of black people, but to black people speaking up for themselves. One of the signs I’ve seen at protests is “Silence = Violence.” Allowing the white speakers to go on for an hour last night was an act of oppression.
It is not up to us to speak right now. As allies, we have the resources to produce events, to rally our white friends, but the speakers MUST BE BLACK. The leaders MUST BE BLACK. If you don’t have black friends, then call on people who are not your personal friends. Ask a black business owner or a black minister if they will speak. Ask someone from a neighboring community to speak.
There are many black people who work in Dunedin and cannot afford to live here. Ask them to speak.
If I ever attend another Black Lives Matter event that has been co-opted by white people, I will no longer sit quietly, listening. Silence = Violence. LET THEM SPEAK.
Every time I see Mease Dunedin Hospital, I remember the kindness of the people who took care of my father there. Over the course of seven months, I interacted with hundreds of caring staff members, from the emergency room staff — who got used to seeing me every month or two — to the ICU nurse who kept him alive, to the young man who cleaned his room.
Since my Dad passed away last year, I haven’t seen those folks, but with the hospital across the street, they’re never far from my mind. I decided to create a sign to post in my window, to let them know they are appreciated. I made the signs available in PDF format, so you can post one for the medical workers in your neighborhood, too!
Go to the I Smile First website to download a PDF and print it out. There’s a color version or a black-and-white one that you can color yourself.
Five years ago, I marched in my first Martin Luther King Day parade in Brunswick, Georgia. I found myself immersed in a joyful celebration of black culture that most white people don’t experience, and I have always treasured the photos and memories from that day.
A couple of years later, I photographed a similar parade in Clearwater, Florida. I wondered why it was so small, even though the community was bigger. I’ve since learned that nearby St. Petersburg boasts one of the oldest and biggest MLK events in the nation, so Clearwater is strictly a neighborhood event.
I considered driving to St. Pete this year, but bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. Instead, I drove to Cherry Harris park, just a few miles from my home, and used my camera to capture the beautiful faces of the parade as well as the people who live along the route.
Thank you to everyone who attended the march and allowed me to photograph your smiling faces! Please send me an email if you’d like a higher resolution copy of one of these photos (free).
A couple of years back, I got tired of trying to keep up with over 120 linnear feet of mural space at Burning Man. It was time for a new solution, something I could paint at home and either ship or carry to Nevada.
The following painted panels are my solution. There are now 21 of them, each about 4 feet wide and 7 feet tall. In 2018, my theme was an encounter between DMV Hotties and Burgins. This year’s theme was “The Gift,” and it depicts gifts I have given, received, or witnessed.
I am honored to also display these panels at Alchemy 2019 and AfterBurn 2018 and 2019.
If you’ve followed my past travels along “the Mother Road” you might recall that Highway 66 was officially dismantled, with I-40 using much of its roadbed. However, there are many short bits of Historical Route 66 that run through towns along the route. I find thought-provoking gems on the old, weed-choked sections, like this ruin that I found west of Tucumcari, New Mexico. Artists and poets had left their mark on it.
There doesn’t have to be another person present to have a lovely conversation. To wit:
“Hey, Frankie, did you see that?” We were climbing into the mountains on US 89A in Arizona, and a flock of wild turkeys was crossing the road.
“Yep,” he said, succinct as always.
“I’ve seen cattle-crossing signs, elk-crossing signs, and deer-crossing signs with bright yellow flashing LEDs, but I haven’t seen any turkey-crossing signs,” I told him.
“Me, either. I’ve been watching for bear-crossing signs,” said Frankie.
“Maybe there aren’t any bears up this way,” I suggested.
“You’re looking at one,” he reminded me.
“To be precise and safe, I’m looking at the road, not at you. And you’re not crossing. You’re traveling along the road.”
“Harumph,” he said, and fell silent.
“Look! A truck-crossing sign!” I exclaimed. A few minutes later, I continued. “And a people-crossing sign with more yellow lights! I guess people and deer are somehow more special than trucks.”
Frankie just continued looking out the windshield with his big dark eyes and a mysterious smile on his face.
“Hey, Frankie, have you seen the sky today? It’s absolutely amazing.”
“It always is,” he replied, “but I’m glad you noticed.”
People in Florida don’t usually know about Burning Man. When it comes up in conversation, I have a chance to position it as “a gigantic arts event,” “an experimental temporary city,” or “a campout in the desert with 75,000 people.”
However, driving across Nevada this year, I discovered a different kind of people: Those who think they know about it, and are 100% wrong.
At a rest area north of Las Vegas, I stopped to fill my water bottle. An older fellow in a truck rolled down his window and started hollering at me. “The water here is not drinkable! It’s full of mercury and lead! You should go across the street (there was a gas station over there) and buy bottled water!”
As the truck drove off, I noticed a young man cleaning the restrooms watching the encounter. I walked over to him and asked his opinion. “They test the water here,” he said, shrugging. “I drink it all the time. But be careful — it comes out really fast.”
He wandered over as I was filling the bottle, and somehow, it came up that I was heading to Burning Man. “It’s getting really big out there, isn’t it? I heard you guys have Burger King and McDonald’s out there now.”
“Well, no,” I answered. “Have you ever heard about decommodification?” He shook his head at the big word, and I launched into a description of what it was really like. “There’s nothing for sale out there, except for ice, and in one place, coffee. We practice gifting, so you might find someone giving away hamburgers, but nobody selling them. Some people give away jewelry.” I touched one of my earrings, which featured the Burning Man logo. “There are even bars that give away free alcohol.”
I could see from the look on his face that he was skeptical. He’d probably seen the Instagram photos of supermodels, and he was thinking, “I clean bathrooms for a living. I don’t belong at Burning Man.” Then a stranger pulls up in a van and tells him it’s a magical place in the desert with free food and booze, and he’s very welcome there.
I can see that overcoming the misconceptions will be an uphill battle.
A couple of days later, I stopped in Reno, where I had new tires installed and bought about a hundred dollars worth of provisions. On my way out of town, I made an additional stop at Wal-Mart for about a dozen forgotten items.
Evidently, this store had a problem with theft, because many items were in locked cases. The bicycle tire and tube I needed were among them, so a clerk got them out and then walked to the cashier with me. She placed them on a shelf behind the cashier and bid me good day.
Ahead of me were three young men with tattoos and four shopping carts. From their conversation, I discovered that they were buying all the supplies for a theme camp. It took the cashier over 45 minutes to ring up their $900 order, and all I could do was wait patiently.
Finally, they left and he turned to me, shaking his head. “Wow, those Burners…they’re weird.”
I smiled at him, saying gently, “Don’t make fun of us, now!”
I thought his jaw was going to hit the conveyor belt. “Y-you?” he stammered. “I didn’t know there were ol- um, um, older people out there. Is it true the tickets are $500?”
I nodded, adding that there were some discounted tickets available.
“You mean, like a senior discount?”
I was in a good mood, so I didn’t smack him or call for his manager. I was still laughing when I reached the playa, three hours later.
The number one question asked at Burning Man is “How many Burns have you been to?”
When it was time to leave Burning Man, the three-hour trip took took ten hours. Half of those were “pulsing” on the playa, where the cars are grouped and let out onto the road in batches. Rather than sitting alone with the engine idling, you can turn off the car, walk around, chat with folks, and pass out the last of your dusty Oreos.
During one pulse, I was sitting in the driver’s seat with the door open. A young man walked up carrying a stick with a butterfly on the end of it. Holding it out like a microphone, he asked me to give my best Chewbacca imitation! That was probably the best conversation-starter ever.
He then asked us the number one question, so I told him it was Stig’s first. “Mine, too!” he said. They compared notes about the life-changing experience.
Whenever this happened, I would sit back and enjoy the encounter. If it was a veteran, Stig got a super-warm welcome, like he was now an initiate of a very special club. If it was another first-timer, they shared feelings that only first-timers can understand.
Eventually, the fellow with the butterfly looked at me. Was it my first Burn, too?
I chuckled, because it was so far from the truth. “It’s my thirteenth,” I said. Like the kid in Wal-Mart, he was blown away with astonishment. And then he had a million questions. What was it like when I started? What did I think of it now? What had I learned? Had it changed me?
I couldn’t answer all his questions in such a short conversation, but I was honored by his respect. I found myself thinking that if I stop going, it will be OK — folks like him will keep the spirit alive.
After dropping Stig at the airport and catching up on 15 hours of sleep in Java Mike’s hotel room, I pointed Muffie the Van eastward on US 50, the “loneliest road in the USA.” There were few cars and fewer towns, so I topped up the tank whenever I saw a gas station. At one such stop, in the old-west mining town of Eureka, a fellow driving a propane truck walked up to me and asked, “So, how was Burning Man?”
We both started laughing at his question, because despite wearing “normal” clothes and having taken two baths and two showers, there was no way to hide my Burner status. The dust-covered camper and four bicycles were a dead giveaway.
The propane driver’s name was Bob, and he was about my age. He admitted to wishing he could go. “But my adventurous spirit left me about four years ago.”
“I think you should go,” I told him. “Your adventurous spirit is out on the playa, waiting for you.”
I told Bob that you are never too old to go, and there have to be a few responsible folks like us out there to keep the place safe. “Besides,” I pointed to his truck, “we burn a TON of propane!”
I felt like a one-woman mission, traveling the country to overcome Burning Man misconceptions. No, it’s not just young, sexy people with money. Everyone is welcome. Especially you.
The legendary Bill Brown once defined the modern frontier as any place more than two hours from the interstate. If you look at a map of the US, there’s still a lot of frontier to conquer.
Crossing Mississippi on US 49, I saw gas prices as low as $2.11. To my dismay, the tank was full when I saw that price, and by the time it was getting low, gas was over $2.35. So when I saw $2.24 at a nondescript gas station, I decided to make a U-turn.
I filled the tank and washed the windshield, but I still needed a restroom and a receipt, so I stepped into the mini-mart, where the woman behind the counter greeted me with, “If you ever decide to sell that van, you should let me know!” I admitted that I’d only had it for two days, so she was going to have to wait a while.
There was something unexpected about finding Janet at Fastmart #09 in Magee, Mississippi. She didn’t have a local accent, so I asked where she was from. The list included New York, the Carolinas, and Tennessee, but she dreamed of traveling in a rig like mine, a follower of the #vanlife movement.
At one point in our lively conversation, I mentioned Strangers Have the Best Candy, and her eyes widened. She reached across the counter, grabbed a big bunch of candy, and pressed it into my hand. “Here you go!” she said, laughing.
Janet had the look of “what am I doing here, of all places?” that I see when I look into the mirror in Dunedin, Florida. Her husband’s family ties had led them there in that flow of life that picks us up, swirls us around, and drops us off in unexpected frontiers, like Magee and Wichita Falls, Texas.
After I passed through Dallas on a Sunday morning, I started a long northwest trek on US 287, with fields and ranchlands on either side. I had passed through Wichita Falls when I realized it was time to stop for the day, but there was nothing ahead for hours. So I turned around, returning to the KOA north of town.
The place was tidy and well-appointed, but the woman running it apologized for its condition. It was under new ownership, and they were working the kinks out.
There was something about Tina that spoke of a broader experience, so I inquired about where she was from. It turned out she was from my old neighborhood, between Havelock and Beaufort, North Carolina!
We had another interesting trait in common: We both had retired too young. She and her husband retired and built their dream house, but sitting and drinking coffee as they gazed at the water wasn’t as fulfilling as they expected. The retired folks in their community were much older than they were, and it was hard to connect. They decided to try full-time RVing instead and set off across the country.
Then the opportunity to rebuild this business turned up, and all of a sudden, they were living on the frontier in Wichita Falls, Texas. Running a KOA campground, rebuilding and expanding it will provide lots of interesting challenges. But six months had barely given them a taste of the traveling life, and I wondered if Tina, like Janet and I, asks herself, “what am I doing here, of all places?”
There’s a story in Strangers Have the Best Candy about a lady who lived literally just up the road from Tina’s dream house in North Carolina. Belle had never driven outside her own county, but she ran a farm stand and strawberry farm on Highway 101. She taught me the important lesson that you don’t have to travel to meet interesting strangers. They will come to you, even on the frontier.
When I look into the mirror and ask, “What am I doing here, of all places?” I’ll remember that.
Thanks to some kind friends, my first night was not even in the van, but in a real bed in a house in Santa Rosa Beach. I was extremely grateful, since that first day of driving was super-stressful.
On day two, I continued west through Pensacola and Mobile, and then headed northwest on US 49 in Mississippi. It’s considered a “scenic highway,” which translates to wooded vistas and a wide, 4-lane road. At the end of the day, I pulled into a campground that said “WiFi” and looked like it had plenty of room, with some heavy equipment indicating construction in progress.
A confusing set of signs at the office directed me to “the back.” At first, I tried to walk around the building, then realized they were referring to the back of the property. Back there, I found a handful of very grubby RVs and cabins and the manager, Carrie.
She took my payment and told me to choose any spot. “Except, well, maybe not that part…” She gestured down the road, and her voice trailed off. “And not out front, because, you know…” her voice trailed off again. I didn’t know, but it didn’t seem like a good time to ask.
I thanked her, got in the van, and selected a site near the restrooms. I was excited about my first campout in the new van.
As soon as I plugged in the electrical cord, magic happened! The house air conditioner started humming and pouring cold air into the tiny (hot) space. The display on the microwave lit up. And I tested the stove burner — it works!
I sat down and read through all the manuals. I am now the proud owner of something called a “cartridge toilet,” which features a custom-molded toilet paper holder. I also have mood-lighting. It’s cool, but not as cool as my toilet paper holder.
It didn’t take long to go through all my new systems. I was ready to stretch my legs and explore this mysterious campground.
It had the feel of a ghost town, where you walk past a cabin and the curtains stir. In the middle of the road, something shiny caught my eye. It was foil from a Polaroid photograph, mixed up with the dirt and a handful of family snapshots. The people were awkwardly charming, posed in their 70’s outfits, washed out by the bright flash.
Why were someone’s precious memories scattered in the dirt?
A few minutes later, a golf cart overtook me, with Carrie and her black lab. I asked her about the photos, and all the pieces fell into place.
Three months earlier, on May 11, there was a record rainfall — almost 15 inches. In less than an hour, this place was completely under water from the nearby creek, and people had to be rescued by boat.
Now I understood. The strangely flat, sandy terrain. The mud stains on everything. The small handful of remaining RVs. The furniture piled up in the office window. “That was my home,” she said. “I had four and a half feet of water inside. I lost everything.” She shrugged and looked at her dog.
At the time of the flood, there had been 55 families living at the Perk Creek RV Park. They all lost everything. I thought of the handful of photos in the dirt and asked where everyone had gone. “I don’t know,” she said, “but they’re not coming back. They’re scared to.”
Thinking about the former residents, now scattered, left me somber, recognizing how easy it is to lose everything in a instant. But Mother Nature is resilient, and I noted bright green grass poking up through the sand. It gave me hope that a new community will eventually grow here, like the grass. Although the faces and memories will be different, joy and laughter will return to this place, as it does to all of us.