The sight of the campground brings back memories of South African shantytowns—hundreds of multicolor tents crammed side by side like overlapping teeth, makeshift doormats made of cardboard and plastic, trash everywhere. Only we're in Saugerties in upstate New York and the majority of the people here are white. And middle class. This bourgeois shantytown isn't a way of life; it's a weekend getaway.
It's the first night of the inaugural Hudson Project, a three-day music and arts festival on Winston Farm—a grassy 800-acre venue that prides itself on having hosted Woodstock '94, the chaotic, mud-covered music festival held to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the original Woodstock festival of 1969. More days of "peace and love."
I took the train from Penn Station with two college friends. They were dressed in short shorts and tank tops with colorful bracelets and necklaces, big camping backpacks strapped to their scrawny backs. I wore black leggings and a black and white crop top, and I dragged a large black trash bag filled with a change of clothes, two vibrators, and 1.75 liters of Bacardi rum and cranberry juice in a plastic bottle.
* * *
Using two mini flashlights we pitch our tent in the dark, between a teepee and a canopy. A girl wearing face paint with an arrow seemingly piercing her skull—the arrowhead on one side, the feather on the other—approaches us. She opens her hands, holding what I'm told is acid. She reaches into her panties and takes out more. Gives it to us for $40.
"This will tell you who you really are," she says.
I wonder what she means by this. What will I come to know? Am I really about to discover my true self while tripping on a muddy farm in a town I can barely pronounce?
We split the tab three ways the next morning, slip it under our tongues (that is the ideal way to do it according to Google), and wait for it to kick in. We smoke a joint and leave the tent around noon.
"I can't explain it," my friend says, "but I'm definitely more than high."
The world is three-dimensional now. Nothing's straight, only slanted. I see lights and hear music differently, as if I'd been blind and deaf until this moment.
I don't recall exactly what happens next. I remember being in front of a stage, dancing with my eyes closed—as if trying to keep hold of a fleeting dream. I'm wearing clashing patterns and swimming goggles on top of my head. I've left my bra in the tent next to my inhibitions. I close my eyes tighter. Raise my arms. Try to live in the moment. I'm swaying in hypnotic submission, surrendering to the EDM. The drugs. Dancing as if I'm home in front of the mirror and no one is watching. Then I remember that I'm surrounded by thousands of other people—misfits in bathing suits and body paint, Halloween costumes and glitter, tie-dye everything. I open my eyes to see if anyone's watching. No eyes on me. Everyone's having a party of their own.
We are all together—and all alone.
* * *
For a while, the music feeds my hunger. I try to prolong the moment—by dancing harder, by focusing on the music harder, by smoking and drinking harder. I try to stop thinking about the mud under my feet and the $7 pizza slices and the sign on the shower that reads "$6 for 1, $10 for 2." I try to forget that we are all doing this by choice.
But it's temporary. After a while the smoke clears and the lights go out. The world's no longer slanted. We're moving in the same spot, not going anywhere, mud hardening like concrete under our feet. Did I really pay more than $300 for this?
I close my eyes again. I'm tired of thinking. Overthinking. I keep wondering if my expectations are too high. Today. Every day. If I should be more enchanted by the banality and bullshit and the glitz of capitalism, if there'll ever be a way for me to see the world through unbroken rose-colored glass.
They—the sociologists and generational theorists and Pew enthusiasts—say that Generation Y as a whole needs to lower its expectations. That we need to accept "the new normal" in our everlasting-Recession era: chronic job-hopping and economic instability, high unemployment and debt, the bootleg remnants of the splintered American Dream (in other words, the longtime realities of America's poor, black, and disenfranchised). Despite the decades-long unrealistic expectations we've been spoon-fed by Disney, our parents, and society, they urge us to accept things as they are. To learn to stomach delaying the leap into adulthood: making 40 the new 20, putting off marriage and children, moving back in with our parents, embracing downward mobility. To come to terms with the reality that a lot of us will be swapping home ownership and white picket fences and red doors for renting paint-peeling apartments and half of two-family homes—if we ever make it out of our parents'.
My thoughts are suspended when a group of girls warns us to watch our shit. We're told that more than 20 tents have been robbed on our campsite—the tents slashed, money, drugs, cell phones, and car keys taken.
"I can't believe people here would do that," a girl who looks barely 18 says. "We're supposed to be fucking loving and peaceful."
* * *
The next day we each pop a molly, allegedly our generation's drug of choice. I read there's a defining drug for every decade. Pot and psychedelics in the '60s and '70s, crack and cocaine in the '80s, heroin in the '90s, and us Millennials, we have ecstasy. Usually in powder and capsule form. The stimulants cause euphoric highs and heighten your sense of community and connection to the people and music around you. A disillusioning way to bring the simultaneously hyper-connected and disconnected closer. Another lost beat generation's quick fix for an internal bleed.
We are in front of one of the smaller stages listening to a jazz band from New Orleans when we start rolling on the molly. I try to live in the moment again. In between checking to make sure that my stomach looks flat underneath my cheetah-print top and that my lips aren't chapped. Do I look fat? Are my lips white? Am I saying this out loud? Can they hear me?
I check my face with my iPhone camera. I don't look my best, but nobody does. I grab our water bottle of rum and cranberry juice (which we succeeded in getting past security along with other contraband) and start to move my arms and hips again. I'm half-dancing in the present, knowing that this moment—these moments—can't be separated from what is to come and what came before. Am I not capable of happiness? It was reality that brought me—us—here, and it's the thought of Monday morning (and the days to follow) that keeps us out in the rain. Am I really the only one thinking this?
After the band leaves the stage I meet a girl in a tie-dye sports bra and tie-dye—or were they black?—yoga pants who matches her boyfriend (who admits that he hasn't showered in four days). She says she works 10 hours a day and that the festival is her "break from reality." How I saw it initially.
We all talk and dance. She Hula-Hoops for a while. My friends freestyle in a cypher with a group of racially ambiguous twenty-somethings. It rains harder. No one around me complains. They just drink more, keep free-styling and beat-boxing.
It's all a sign of the times. A time of disappointment and hope. The era of Obama. Maybe if I close my eyes again, this time harder, like everyone else I will forget about the high unemployment rates and underemployment and student loan debt and the fact that most of what I won't remember will be captured and displayed in Facebook and Instagram photographs.
The girl in tie-dye teaches my friend Hula-Hoop tricks. Chest-hooping and knees-to-waist. I stare at my friend's bare stomach. Her waist beads become an extension of her body, staying in place with every swivel of her hips. My eyes keep wandering back to the beads. I can't see the beauty without seeing the history. Without thinking about the fact that African waist beads—which have become a popular accessory in the U.S., a fashion statement, girls and women buying them on sites like Etsy, wearing them under and over their clothing—date back to ancient Egypt. They were worn underneath clothing as a symbol of womanhood, sexuality, and fertility. The meaning of the colors and different shapes of the beads varied by tribe and message, not skin tone and outfit.
Like a bunch of other festival revelers, the tie-dye-wearing Hula-Hooper and her crew share their knowledge and drugs. Along with joints they pass on compliments about how beautiful our skin is and how mesmerized they are by our hairstyles and the fact that we know the words to "white songs." They can't really be black, can they? I imagine them thinking. You can tell by their tone that they consider themselves sincere, generous even. The backwards generosity maybe an upshot of the electronic dance music credo, PLUR—Peace Love Unity Respect. I can't help but question if it's kindness or if they don't even see us.
My friend dubs it "black privilege." It's her glass half-full way of looking at racism, at least for the weekend. Instead of playing the race card or getting all angryblackwoman, we should just relish the moment, that for once in our lives we're benefiting from bigotry. Like a slave praising massah for leftover scraps and holey shoes. Am I supposed to say thank you? Should I just believe white people when they claim they aren't racist as a preface for saying something racist, like introducing us as "my black friend" or complimenting how articulate we are? I don't think there are enough psychedelics in this too-big world for me to ever consider microaggressions good-natured banter.
* * *
Saturday night the festival headliner Kendrick Lamar appears on stage underneath the circus tent. He's 5 feet, 6 inches tall and dressed in an oversized white t-shirt and baggy jeans. He's rapping about Compton and poetic justice and I'm thinking about Jimi Hendrix. Rocking out in his black military jacket with gold braids, performing his distorted rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" on a screeching electric guitar. A performance that would become emblematic not only of Woodstock but of the entire 1960s. Rock journalist Al Aronowitz of the New York Post wrote that it was "the most electrifying moment of Woodstock" and "probably the single greatest moment of the sixties."
We come down off our acid so we light another blunt while Kendrick performs songs from his 2012 album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city. I nod my head and rap along for a while. Until the THC wears off. Then I'm standing still. Thinking. Again. Is Kendrick Lamar our Jimi Hendrix? Is this our version of crying for freedom? Are we today's counterculture? I watch the crowd—all the white people in designer thrift-store clothes and American Apparel bohemian chic rapping along to "Backseat Freestyle." In unison they shout, with their arms pumping up and down, "Martin had a dream. Martin had a dream. Kendrick have a dream."
I try not to laugh. Or to think about the thousands of pale Millennial hippies rapping about Dr. King's dream. Yet I can't help but wonder if they know that he also says "One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free." I question if they care that this still holds true. My friend passes me the joint. I try to inhale until I can no longer hear white people screaming "nigga" along with Kendrick. I wonder why I can't be more like them. Their drugs must be stronger.
Jasmine Salters is a budding essayist and PhD candidate at UPenn working on her first collection of essays. She uses black feminism and the personal essay to draw outside the lines of academia and give voice to those at the margin. Tweet her at @blkgirlwithapen.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]