By Sikivu Hutchinson
I boarded the plane in a fog of dream and nightmare with all the others leaving America for the last time. Nursing mothers with squealing babies in the row behind me, elders in front flipping through their bibles, Ebony magazines and Readers’ Digests, eyes aglow like Christmas. On our stealth mission to the other side we wondered, watched, drank in the shifting remnants of the cities and towns below, demonic, beloved spaces that had held us close then betrayed us.
A black female writer novelizing Peoples Temple and Jonestown must weave through a landmine of memory and myth. The Jonestown canon, the reams and reams that have been written, is like a country unto itself, a kaleidoscope of porous boundaries incapable of containing the dead, the living, the in-between. In the decades since the mass murder-suicide of over 900 members of the predominantly black Peoples Temple church at Jonestown, Guyana on November 19, 1978 it has been fictionalized to roaring excess, ghosting into American popular culture as the grotesque culmination of an oft-ridiculed decade. Like many I was introduced to Jonestown through newsreel caricatures of bug-eyed cult zombies, endless rows of black corpses and the Reverend Jim Jones’ aging Elvis-meets-Elmer Gantry swagger. Jonestown has become cultural shorthand for blind faith and cautionary tale about religious obsession. But buried beneath the psycho cult clichés is the power of black women in the Peoples Temple movement. As the largest demographic in Peoples Temple black women have seldom been portrayed as lead protagonists in popular representations of Jonestown. Despite the horror of Jonestown’s demise its representation cannot be separated from dehumanizing cultural representations of black people in general and black women in particular. While Jonestown as cultural “artifact” is perversely sexy—the object of near necrophilic projection and fantasy—Peoples Temple is a historical stepchild; its legacy an unwelcome reflection of the lingering race, gender and class divide in “New Jim Crow” America.
Faced with this mythologizing I began my novel, White Nights, Black Paradise, at the end. It opens with a lone child, identity unknown, partly gesturing to the loss of black girls’ voices, partly to the psychobiography of Jim Jones as lovelorn singleton and partly to the naked terror that any child walking in the stifling heat among the community’s dead and dying must have felt in the Temple’s final moments. The book’s title reflects the dual nature of PT’s trajectory. White nights were rehearsals/demonstrations of loyalty and collective despair. They evoked both the impossibility of a worldly paradise and the (hollow) approximation of one via the church’s multiracial social justice vision.
My initial research into Peoples Temple was driven by what seemed to be one of the most basic and egregiously unanswered questions—where are the black feminist readings on and scholarship about Peoples Temple and Jonestown?? As 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.” Many of the literary portrayals of black women involved in Peoples Temple have been limply one-dimensional. At stage right, the elderly self- sacrificing god-fearing caregivers who opened up their wallets and deeded their homes to the Temple with few reservations. At stage left, the loyal “rudderless” young women who came up in the Black Church and followed disgruntled family members into the Temple collectives. From Mammy to the trusty sage black sidekick, we’ve seen these stick figures trotted out ad nauseum on TV and in film. They are serviceable (to use Toni Morrison’s term) props to the main event—i.e., the mercurial path of the brash white savior/rock star/anti-hero. The 1997 film The Apostle, starring Robert Duvall as a disreputable white Southern Pentecostal preacher redeemed by a predominantly black female congregation, wrapped up all of these Americana caricatures in a nice countrified bow.
Confronting this erasure of black women’s agency, the novel asks, what was the context of black women’s involvement? What drove them to join, stay, leave, resist and/or collaborate? What were the complex motivations that kept some tethered to Jones and the movement until the bitter end and how can these decisions be recuperated as rational? How, ultimately, did black women shape Jim Jones and vice versa? When she was introduced to Peoples Temple in the early seventies 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.” (Smart, 2004) Smart’s comments imply that she might have been disillusioned with the sexism, corruption and moral hypocrisy that plagues organized religion. Nonetheless, when she attended her first Peoples Temple service Jones’ criticism of abusive relationships resonated with her. Smart lost her four children, her mother and an uncle in Jonestown. Her article on the Alternative Considerations of Jonestown site captures her ambivalence toward Jones while she was a member of the Temple planning commission. She 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. In a recent conversation with me she identified herself as an atheist.
Mainstream stereotypes of black hyper-religiosity have always precluded more complex representations of black faith and religious skepticism (Hutchinson, 2011). [Read more…]