Essayist, journalist, memoirist, poet and teacher Nicholas Powers collects more than 50 articles – some of them previously published in The Indypendent, The Indyblog and The Village Voice – written in the 12 years since 2001 in his second book, The Ground Below Zero. Powers is at the center of each narrative, whether reflecting on the September 11 terrorist attack on New York City; championing the healing energy of the annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert; or reporting on life in some of the world’s most wretched places.
For the most part it’s a beautiful and evocative book. That said, the many references to his 4-foot-long dreadlocks – by the end of the text they are significantly shortened – are unnecessary. Similarly, the strutting of an array of sexual liaisons through many of the entries is tiresome. Still, the positive heavily outweighs the negative in this otherwise intense, moving and well-crafted volume.
Powers is at his best when recalling the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and his vivid descriptions of the first weeks following the World Trade Center’s destruction bring the period back with incredible force. He captures the scene perfectly, from young soldiers sporting heavy black machine guns as they patrolled city streets to the in-your-face expressions of anti-Muslim bigotry that became ubiquitous.
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“Arab was the new black,” he writes. For a brief second this shift caused Powers to feel a sense of personal relief. After all, as a dark-skinned Latino, he had been on the receiving end of racist name-calling and worse. It was an awkward and horrible realization and Powers wondered how long it would take before the “eye swings its spotlight back on me…Under the question lingered guilt that the hate that drained away from me now filled Arab bodies, and we who were black not brown, Christian not Muslim, western not eastern, could wear the American flag like a new skin.”
Indeed, as the United States draped itself in red, white and blue, Powers notes that it became difficult to find tangible outlets for the expression of grief that did not kowtow to reflexive patriotism. Like others, he became afraid that the desire for retribution would lead to even more death and destruction. And like many of us, he protested, but could not prevent, the war.
At the same time, the non-stop expression of collective angst triggered something in Powers that he did not anticipate: the recognition that he had been molested as a child by his mother’s brother, his uncle Emilio. As he attempts to tease out the truth, he learns that his family history is rife with abuse, with each generation doing to the next what was done to it.
Not surprisingly, by the time Powers left for Burning Man the following summer, he was searching for healing and redemption. “Burners break rules to release desire from shame, and even as they tell God to kiss it, they also search for God in each other,” he writes. “At Playa del Fuego, our alienated desires transformed us into who we wanted to be. Strangers fed each other. A sauna was built and kept going all night so people sore from dancing could relax. Drum circles pounded rhythms that lifted Vietnam vets, scarred and limping from a forgotten war, to wave their hands. … Standing at the bright blaze, I mulled my place at the gathering when a man gave me magic mushrooms. He did not want money and scooped some into my palm. I had been gifted.”
It’s a joyous moment. And while Powers is recharged by the weeklong festival, he is nonetheless aware that Burning Man is a temporary utopia, open only to those with enough discretionary cash to travel to a remote oasis. What’s more, as one of a handful of non-white Burners, he acknowledges that as an academic with a Ph.D., he is a highly privileged exception. As he dances around the soaring fire, his prayer is for inclusivity, for everyone, “including ghetto kids,” to be able to experience the fleeting euphoria he feels.
Once back in the real world, Powers devotes himself to challenging the many limitations imposed by race, class, gender and sexual preference. But how best to use words – his weapon and tool of choice – to cast a light on the downtrodden, hurt and impoverished?
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, he quickly headed south and wrote about being “an emotional carpetbagger” for The Village Voice. “Ahead of me lay a city silenced by water,” he began. One woman begged him and the journalists he was with to leave her alone and not take photos. “The camera clicked and clicked,” he continues. “She stopped asking and pressed her mouth into a grim line. They could not give her the dignity she asked for because degradation sells papers. The most valuable thing she had was her tragedy.”
Later, he traveled to Chad to interview refugees from Darfur as a reporter for The Indypendent. “I went to the edge of the Sudan where the earth desert had soaked up blood, and memory lay ripped across the land,” he writes. “I went to bear witness to genocide and came back safe. I feel a heavy guilt for being safe, for having only listened to stories. Nothing I did was real. … The measure of my voice was taken and found infinitesimal. Whatever is worth saying will be buried in media noise. Whatever is done will never be enough.”
When his accounts were slammed as “war porn,” by colleagues, Powers had to decide whether to keep reporting or find another way to express himself. He opted to continue his first-person journalism, travelling to Haiti then going undercover to report on the treatment of single, homeless men in the New York City shelter system. His personal look at the city’s widely hated stop-and-frisk policy and time spent in Zuccotti Park as part of Occupy Wall Street are perceptive and offer salient details that make people and place seem tangible.
What’s more, The Ground Below Zero asks pertinent questions about the limits and obligations of kinship and the role of the journalist/writer in fomenting change. Furthermore, by weaving the personal and political into a tight knot, the book highlights the universality of human experience while at the same time refusing to ignore the many variables that make each individual unique. Powers’ writing is intimate and revealing, honest and forthright, passionate and probing. There is arrogance here, but Powers is saved because he is consistently on the side of the underdog. This makes The Ground Below Zero a good, bold, provocative read.