Black Women and the Jonestown Massacre

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This guest post by Sikivu Hutchinson discusses her research and motivation for writing a novel about the experience of African American women in the Jonestown Massacre.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.

On November 18, 1978, over nine hundred members of the San Francisco-based Peoples Temple church (including over three hundred children) died in the Jonestown, Guyana jungle settlement named after the church’s white founder, the Reverend Jim Jones. Members died from a lethal cocktail of cyanide and Flavor-Aid. Contrary to popular myth, some chose to take the poison and some were forced. The Jonestown massacre has become shorthand for the perils of religious idolatry and blind faith. It’s spawned a virtual cottage industry of scholarly books, novels, films and plays. Yet, despite the fact that nearly fifty percent of those who died were African American women, none of these treatments have actually been by or about black women.

My new novel White Nights, Black Paradise, is the first to focus on the black women of Peoples Temple and the Jonestown massacre. My initial research was driven by what seemed to be one of the most basic and egregiously unanswered questions—where were the black feminist readings on and scholarship about Peoples Temple and Jonestown?? As UC San Francisco historian James Lance Taylor remarked to me recently, the erasure of black women is “a double victimization because the people who were victimized get hidden by Jim Jones’ ego (and) it made them into a bunch of freaks. It’s important to bring out that this was a significant event and it needs to be registered along the lines of major tragic events in black history.”

Founded by Jones in Indianapolis in the 1950s, Peoples Temple began as an activist church with an emphasis on multiracialism and civil rights. In its three decades of existence, the church established numerous social welfare programs for its predominantly African membership, requiring parishioners to tithe at least 20% of their incomes. After Jones had a vision of nuclear holocaust in the 1960s, the church transitioned to California, establishing branches in Ukiah, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The communal Jonestown, Guyana settlement was originally intended as a “Promised Land” free from the racism, white supremacy and residential segregation of the U.S.

When she was introduced to Peoples Temple in the early seventies, former Los Angeles member Juanell Smart “had given up on religion, church and ministers because I had been married to a Pentecostal preacher for a number of years and knew the ins and outs of the church.” For Smart and others who followed family members into the church, Peoples Temple provided a bridge between the radical politics of the Black Power movement and the waning civil rights focus of the Black Church. The Temple forged strategic, if wary, relationships with the Nation of Islam (most notably at a 1976 Los Angeles event attended by then Mayor Tom Bradley and Angela Davis), the Black Panthers and progressive black churches. Rising to prominence in San Francisco, the church organized around affirmative action, affordable housing, police brutality, South African apartheid and the odious 1978 Briggs Initiative, which would have barred gays and lesbians from teaching in California public schools.

Reflecting on her association with the church, Smart notes that, “I have always been a skeptic so it was hard for me to be a true believer for any length of time.” Smart’s skepticism and questioning of authority led her to break from Peoples Temple before Jonestown. Nonetheless, she lost her four children, her mother and an uncle in the massacre. Now an atheist, she remarked in an interview with me last year, “I grew up believing that there was a sky god and he was going to take care of me. Then Jim came along and said that there wasn’t a god other than him. Jim aped what the black ministers did but he added a caveat and I’ll just throw in this and be their savior. Him calling himself God was a means to an end. What picture have people seen of Jesus Christ?”

Smart represented the rich religious diversity in the church. The lead protagonists in White Nights, Black Paradise are African American sisters Hy and Taryn Strayer, a spiritual agnostic and an openly identified atheist. There are very few portrayals of black women skeptics in American literature. The most prominent one that comes to mind is in Nella Larsen’s 1928 novel Quicksand. The sisters are attracted to the church because it appears to reject the social conservatism and gender hierarchies of traditional black churches. They’re also attracted to it because of its communalism, cultural solidarity, activism and secularism. Throughout its lifetime Peoples Temple was described as Pentecostal, Christian, millennialist, atheist and spiritual. These shifting, and, frequently, conflicting designations were evoked (and exploited) by Jones according to context and political expedience. For the original Pentecostal members of the church, its transition to a more secular focus was a radical departure, but justified by the church’s involvement in social justice activism. In 1973 Jones proclaimed, “The bible is the thing that brought us, it’s what they used to rip us out of the rich lands of Africa and put us into chains as they’re still doing four hundred years later. So I question their bible and I question their god who says ‘slaves obey your masters.’”

Jones loved to declare his “blackness” while playing the white savior. Indeed, the Temple’s pro-black alignment disguised a white power structure largely comprised of young white women (many of whom were sexually involved with Jones) fatally loyal to Jones. They became his henchwomen and enforcers as the church grew more regimented and authoritarian. Hit by multiple allegations of abuse and fraud in the late seventies, the majority of the congregation emigrated to Guyana at Jones’ direction.

Yet, although there have been numerous portrayals of Peoples Temple’s shrewd politicking, the racial politics of gender in the church have gotten short shrift. In White Nights, Black Paradise, Peoples Temple is not only symbolic of progressive black social gospel traditions but of a racially divided secular women’s movement. It is no secret that white women’s leadership was resented by some of the black rank and file. In both the church and the broader Second Wave women’s movement, the veneer of interracial “sisterhood” was compromised by the reality of white female racism. In the novel, black women actively question and challenge this dynamic.

Nonetheless, for some black women in Peoples Temple, emigration to Guyana was a positive act of self-determination. In White Nights, Black Paradise, sisters Taryn and Hy leave segregated Indiana for segregated California. Taryn finds that she’s unable to advance at her Bay Area accounting job because she’s not a straight white woman. Hy becomes disgruntled by the city’s limited job market and its climate of racist police violence. Frustrated by these realities, their appetite for change is whetted by the prospect of Guyana. Ernestine Markham, a middle class school teacher leaves because she believes Guyana is a better alternative for her troubled son. Devera, a Black-Latina transwoman writer whose family is wrapped up in Peoples Temple, yearns to be a pioneer at the Guyana settlement. Markham speaks of her desire to teach in a school system where black children aren’t taught to hate themselves. Each woman is politicized by the times, her experiences in the church and the context of being black and female in what bell hooks has described as “white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”. In the final analysis, the novel resists easy indictments, seeking to frame black women’s life-altering decisions in all their richness, complexity and ambiguity.

December 18, 2015

 

 

About the Author Karen Garst