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“The last time I sang the national anthem, I was on ecstasy.”
It was the opening line of Nicholas Powers’ talk at the Horizons Conference in 2019. The novelist, journalist, and poet had a soft spot for theatrics. Behind him was a slide with the title, “Obama Election 2008.” Everyone laughed. First and foremost, as a thinker and writer, Powers understands that politics is theater.
“He used to be a tour guide at African Meeting House, the first Black church in the Northeast, where he taught fugitive slave history and tied it to globalization sweat shop horror.” That’s a direct quote from his biography on the back of his book, Theater of War: The Plot Against the American Mind.
As the speech about race and psychedelics by the Nuyorican literature professor at the Horizons Conference unfolded, the crowd at the conference warmly embraced his candid, poetic, and radical ideas. Ever since, Nicholas Powers has graced us with talks at the California Institute of Integral Studies, and on podcasts such as The Lex Files, and in an upcoming New Yorker piece. He is also a contributing author for publications such as Indypendent and Truth Out.
In his speech, he brought together two freedom movements that were, infamously, uncommunicative. The Civil Rights movement of the 60s did not intersect with the psychedelic “hippy” movement, which is clearly reflected in make-up of the “psychedelic community” of today. It appears predominantly white. As this interview series with Chacruna demonstrates, that is not true. However, in what is dubbed “the mainstream,” that is, the political arena of the West, it is true.
As Powers writes on the back of his 2004 book, Theater of War, a terribly cheeky take on the 9/11 US National Security Strategy Report, “War is a masquerade, America is a reality TV show, the Administration is a cast of filmmakers and actors, the UN is a video game, Terror Alerts are dropped like bombs, those who lost loved ones in WTC taste their disappearance.” In this interview, Powers discusses politics as a form of theater, the performance of identity as masks,and his upcoming book on race and psychedelics.
MM: When did you start developing an interest in masks?
Nicholas Powers: I first became interested in masks as a kid when my mother would tell me about her day. In the 1970s and 1980s, mom dealt with racism as a Puerto Rican woman in New York. When she went out into the world, I noticed that she had to put on a professional mask in order to be treated with respect and to be paid decently. That didn’t always work, but she had an easier life because she wore it. At home, I saw my mother’s masks dissolve. It made me sensitive to how people wore them. How different they were when they were alone or in small pairs and revealed themselves.
Masking happens within the same cultural or racial group as well. I saw this growing up as young men of color tried to out “street” each other; it was a machismo mask, which was hilarious when you knew how nerdy and insecure they were. What gave me the language for it was a mentor, Dr. Louis Onuorah Chude-Sokei, who wrote about Bert Williams, a Jamaican-American entertainer who wore blackface in the 1920s and 30s. His academic book is called The Last “Darky,” and it talks about the “intra-racial masking,” which refers to the masks that people wear within the same racial group. It happens within gender, class, and even religious communities. It’s a human universal.
With psychedelics those masks dissolve. They bob up and down like a buoy, as huge waves of emotion rise from the bottom of the self. Everything “I” thought I was, becomes a small paper-mâché figure floating on a giant sea.
MM: How did psychedelics change or inform your understanding of what masks were?
NP: With psychedelics those masks dissolve. They bob up and down like a buoy, as huge waves of emotion rise from the bottom of the self. Everything “I” thought I was, becomes a small paper-mâché figure floating on a giant sea.
We have an ocean inside. It’s the body’s contained “sea of feelings.” On psychedelics, it is possible to experience the larger flows of life that spill into and out of us, lifting and crashing us down, churning us out onto strange shores.
MM: Let’s talk about your book, Theater of War: The Plot Against the American Mind. I laughed throughout.
NP: It was an intentionally humorous book.
MM: Essentially, you rewrite the “National Security Strategy of the United States of America” from 9/11 as a Freudian slip. You even put a Playbill in the front of the book, as if it were a play with “Casting by Fundamentalist Islam” and “Direction by Dick Cheney,” for example. Where did the idea for this book come from?
NP: I’m deeply indebted to the work of Lacan and psychoanalytic theory, in general, but it was inspired by this joke Freud used to tell.
Freud was talking to someone whose family member had recently come into a lot of money. You know how that is—the whole family was circling like sharks. The guy was trying to pretend that he didn’t want the money, but then, he slipped. He said something like “famillionaire” (laughter). He wanted the money, and the truth could only come out in a slip of the tongue.
When the National Strategy report came out after 9/11, everyone knew that the document was a euphemism for imperialism.
When the National Strategy report came out after 9/11, everyone knew that the document was a euphemism for imperialism. It stated that the Bush Administration was using 9/11 as an excuse to implement policies that it wanted to already put into motion. As I was listening to the sounds of the words, I began associating them with other words that were actually more truthful about the document’s imperialist intentions.I decided to interpret the whole thing as if it were a Freudian slip.
MM: Why the title, Theater of War?
NP: I knew a lot of people were going to die because of the lies the President told. I needed a title that captured both the pompous seriousness of bourgeois imperialism and the absurd performances that I saw on the nightly news.
I wrote it late at night, when the city was quiet and skies were purple. I got into a hypnotic state, as if I were looking at the report with x-ray eyes. I saw this ultraviolet language beneath the official words. I wrote that down; and then, daybreak came.
MM: You are a psychedelic journey, Nick.
NP: What’s a term that you liked from Theater of War?
MM: Um, “valiums” for “values.”
NP: Yeah, that was great.
MM: On that note, why did you decide engage with this movement of psychedelics?
NP: A couple years ago, a close friend asked me to give a talk about race and psychedelics, because the community was, and still is, very white. I ended up doing a small workshop at Alchemist’s Kitchen, and then he asked me to develop that into a talk for the 2017 Horizons Conference. It was called “Black Masks, Rainbow Bodies: Race and Psychedelics.” Afterwards, people invited me to speak at conferences and podcasts. Most recently, I did a series called Psychedelic Secularism with the Brooklyn Psychedelic Society.
For a while, I felt like an imposter because I’m not a scientist, neurologist, or therapist. I’m a writer, a literature professor, a journalist, and a poet. However, I was in the counterculture. I was going to Burning Man and other regional festivals and going to workshops.
Join us at Sacred Plants in the Americas II
In the counterculture, there is a kind of New Age, syncretic religion present. It’s very fluid with everything from crystals, astrology, Wicca, paganism, house music, drum circles. I never found any of that helpful.
MM: Psychedelic secularism? What does that mean?
NP: In the counterculture, there is a kind of New Age, syncretic religion present. It’s very fluid with everything from crystals, astrology, Wicca, paganism, house music, drum circles. I never found any of that helpful. What does it mean to be secular and to do psychedelics? How do I approach this from a secular position?
I define “The Mainstream” more as the ideal of the middle-class American Dream than an actual lived reality. People often define themselves by an illusion.
MM: What do you think about “mainstreaming” psychedelics? Does the counterculture become the culture; is that the goal? I’m confused as to what the “mainstream” even means.
NP: I define “The Mainstream” more as the ideal of the middle-class American Dream than an actual lived reality. People often define themselves by an illusion. In concrete terms, to enter the mainstream is to be commodified and ideologically sanitized, so that either the person, the idea or the movement is palatable to the corporations who package it and the consumers who buy it.
The psychedelic movement has begun to enter the mainstream. At the same time, it exists outside of it. There’s a civil war going on between factions who are fighting over the direction of the culture. Will it be accessible? Will newly engineered psychedelics dominate the market? Will the counterculture be left behind? Will the politicization of the scene lead to greater historical relevance, or in-fighting and purity tests?
In a sense, psychedelics are belatedly following the other parts of the 60s counterculture that have been mainstreamed via commercials, fashion, lingo, music, and literature. Yet, for all the Baby Boomer nostalgia industry, a real hardcore part remained outside. And that’s because it preexisted the 60s but found, however brief, a public expression in the Summer of Love.
The transformative ideas of egalitarian living, home-sharing, spiritualism over materialism, feeding people, free love, and the psychedelic slogan, “turn on, tune in, drop out” leaping out of society were already present in the American hobo culture of the 60s. The nation’s roads and highways, city streets and flop houses were already teeming with runaways, some of whom converged on Haight Ashbury. I read in Joan Didion’s in Slouching Towards Bethlehem:
We’re seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community is a social vacuum. Once we had seen these children, Ave could no longer overlook the vacuum, no longer pretend that the society’s atomization could be reversed.
The thing that gets glossed over in the romantic image of the drugs, drum circles, and dancing in Golden Gate Park was that a lot of the kids were runaways. They fled broken homes.
I read a lot of essays from the Haight-Ashbury period. The thing that gets glossed over in the romantic image of the drugs, drum circles, and dancing in Golden Gate Park was that a lot of the kids were runaways. They fled broken homes. They ran away from World War Two veteran fathers who suffered from PTSD and numbed it with alcohol. They escaped mothers who were suicidal or depressed. A river of lost children circulated through the trains, the bus stations, and the abandoned homes. They practiced, out of necessity, egalitarian living, which meant sharing food, beds, and love. They brought those values to the ‘60s just as much as the middle-class kids discovered those values on psychedelic trips.
Today, when I go to the smaller festivals, the less expensive ones and the totally free “be-ins,” like Occupy Wall Street or, more recently, Occupy City Hall, the homeless come, attracted by the free food, free community, and agape ethos. Again, they bring those values to the revolution, with all the attendant problems of addiction and mental illness, just as much as the politicized youth proselytize them during strategy meetings.
MM: A shaman I knew once said that belonging is the fundamental wound. Are you familiar with the work of political theorist Hannah Arendt?
NP: I wish she was still alive.
MM: She wrote, famously, that the “break from belonging” was the defining characteristic of the twentieth century. It was at the root of our modern feelings of isolation and loneliness and, interestingly enough, totalitarian regimes. Thus, broken homes, as an image, make sense as feeding the culture, especially the “subculture.”
NP: I’m not surprised that National Socialism/Fascism grew after a World War and economic collapse in Germany. I’m not surprised that the Trump government rose in this country at this time of mass foreclosure, the opioid crisis, and the diminishment of white racial status exactly as capitalism hollowed out the upward mobility of the American Dream. All these broken people created a version of an egalitarian community, but a twisted one, whose social contract is written in the blood of hated Other.
MM: You were saying at the beginning of this conversation that you felt like an imposter because you weren’t a scientist. The last thing anyone wants is to have only scientists and researchers around. Haven’t you seen the movie Contact, starring Jodie Foster?
NP: That’s one of my favorites, especially when she says, “they should have sent a poet.”
MM: Yes, exactly my point.
NP: I am the Jodie Foster of the psychedelic world! Ha! Well, I don’t feel like an imposter now, and part of that is because psychedelics show me that life is art. You can access playfulness. All the colors are pulsing, and all the sounds are music. Every movement of the body is a dance. Play is healing.
I’m writing a book aboutpsychedelics and race. The work challenges the confident self-righteous tone of a lot of social justice writing. Instead, introducing psychedelics into the mix creates a very fractal experience.
MM: Are you writing a book about psychedelics?
NP: I’m writing a book about psychedelics and race. The work challenges the confident self-righteous tone of a lot of social justice writing. Instead, introducing psychedelics into the mix creates a very fractal experience. Imagine your ego becomes a kaleidoscope. Your “I” is one part of a whole set of other “I’s” revolving and reflecting in a geometrical chaos. It is an angle that yields very new insights that are hopeful and scary.
The book will be like if James Baldwin took LSD, wrote a manuscript, and then Wanda Sykes edited it.
MM: Does that mean this book will be another hybrid form: part journalism and part personal narrative?
NP: Yes, just like the Ground Below Zero and The Theater of War. What makes the mixed genre, long narratives work is a consistent emotional through-line. I can dabble in reportage and personal narrative because, in the end,the book is driven by a need to integrate disparate, far flung experiences into a cohesive self. It is a work that has political and artistic consequences. The book will be like if James Baldwin took LSD, wrote a manuscript, and then Wanda Sykes edited it.
MM: To wrap up, since you are in New York, how do you see the coronavirus impacting New York City? I’m curious from the perspective of arts and culture; what do you think is going to happen?
NP: I think it’s going to take the city years to recover from this. A lot of businesses are closed. If we get federal aid to plug the state budget, we won’t have a total shutdown of city services, but they are going to be trimmed. In the aftermath of COVID-19, we may see a New York like the late 70s and 80s, which was gritty and filled with empty buildings that will become a blank canvas for artists. New ideas, new genres, and new music are born in the ruins.
The upcoming generation may have a unique moment. If you hit the city’s low point very hard with art or buy a building or start a political movement or a new religion at that time, decades later, people will immortalize you, like we did with Hip Hop, CBGB’s and The Nuyorican.
MM: Joseph Papp bought The Public Theater in New York City for a dollar.
NP: Let me look in my wallet; I heard there was a bridge in Brooklyn for sale.
Art by Mariom Luna.
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