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). Hy and Taryn, the two fictional African American sisters who anchor White Nights, Black Paradise, represent a mix of religious/skeptical belief that is rarely seen in literary portrayals of black women. Hy is a spiritual agnostic; her sister Taryn an openly identified atheist. Because neither of them subscribe to the dogmas and social prescriptions of the traditional Black Church they find the communal solidarity of Peoples Temple appealing. Throughout its lifetime Peoples Temple was variously described and viewed as Pentecostal, Christian, millennialist, atheist and spiritual. These shifting, and, frequently conflicting designations were evoked (and exploited) by Jones according to context and expedience. All attracted different segments of the community who were willing to accept the Temple’s unwieldy diversity for what they deemed to be the greater collective good. Yet there has been little examination of spiritual or religious diversity among the African American women members of the Temple. My re-envisioning of black female agency seeks to rectify that. For those who professed diehard Pentecostal beliefs Peoples Temple’s provisional secularism (with idolatry of Jones substituted for that of a supernatural deity) was a radical departure and compromise compelled by oppressive socioeconomic conditions. Jones’ denigration of the Bible forced the most religious African American women into a new reading of Christian ethical obligations. The absence of justice and equality in the world around them made this reading palatable. Jones challenged the existence of a just God in the midst of rank poverty and obscene wealth. Peoples Temple critiqued the persistence of anti-black racism against African Americans, the nation’s most devout Christian population. Echoing Epicurus, Jones and Peoples Temple emphasized God’s irrelevance and rejected redemption in the afterlife. Grappling with these contradictions, many traditionalists in the PT congregation agreed that God was indeed lacking if not fictitious.
The black women protagonists in White Nights, Black Paradise come to California at the tail end of the Great Migration in the 1970s. They are driven by the same “Promised Land” fever that spurred African Americans’ decades-long exodus from the South to the North. Originating as an unabashedly interracial church in the 1950s, Peoples Temple was a beneficiary of this movement. The church’s 1973 transition to the Fillmore community in San Francisco was itself the third leg of an internal migration that would culminate in Guyana. In a period in which most mainline churches were white supremacist, Peoples Temple’s leadership was able to capitalize on blacks’ yearning for inclusion and cultural validation. In an era in which many Bay Area black churches were accused of bourgeois conservatism, People Temple touted the radical progressive rhetoric of black liberation struggle. That said, as Taylor and other historians note, the movement was ultimately insular. It provided social programs, health care, housing and jobs (in exchange for total allegiance) for its members, but did not forge lasting coalitions with like-minded movements. In the novel, Taryn meets her lover Jess—a licensed clinical social worker whose family settled in the Fillmore community of San Francisco during the 1950s—in Peoples Temple. Jess’ lineage represents the Fillmore’s postwar shift from a predominantly Japanese American community to an African American one. Similar to their counterparts in Los Angeles, African Americans migrated to the Fillmore in search of jobs in the booming wartime industries. Both Los Angeles and San Francisco transplants found that the liberal façade of these cities hid an inveterately racist sexist power structure.
This mix of paternalism and progressivism is a source of deep ambivalence for the characters in my novel. In her book Slavery of Faith, Jonestown survivor Leslie Wagner alludes to this dialectical relationship vis-à-vis Jones’ public posturing. Jones dubbed her his “little Angela Davis”, connecting her to Davis’ radical activism while playing on the still nascent identity of a young person whose life experience revolved around the church. Wagner delighted in this comparison. Davis, after all, was a revered figure in the Temple’s political pantheon, an ally and a powerful role model for many young black women during that era. Ever the savvy showman, Jones successfully manipulated the revolutionary aspirations of young African Americans reeling from the fading promise of the Black Power movement. Peoples Temple’s rainbow coalition optics (epitomized by Jones’ own mini-United Nations’ style family) deflected criticism of Jones’ motives. The church’s association with Davis, the Black Panthers, American Indian Movement leader Dennis Banks and even the reactionary Nation of Islam lent it credibility among younger more politically progressive and radical blacks disillusioned with traditional black religious organizations. Jones, the “anti-racist racist” (Taylor, 2013), played the part of the white savior, but it was not without the imprimatur of his predominantly black congregation, steeped as it was in a heritage of white supremacy inflected through pop culture. In a nation shaped by minstrelsy and appropriations of blackness, Jones’ performance of black liberation struggle was a familiar one. From late nineteenth century blackface to Elvis’ theft of black musical traditions to Norman Mailer’s exaltation of the “White Negro” and white America’s multi-million dollar consumption of hip hop—whiteness has always been defined by the specter of black otherness. Jones was simply one in a long line of white minstrels who mined black idioms and Pentecostal religious practices. Yet what was perhaps most seductive to his black audience was the way he deftly combined white power and privilege with the stagecraft of Black Power.
This interplay was also appealing to some black folk because of the devastation of the Fillmore’s African American community by urban redevelopment projects (Hollis, 2004; Taylor, 2013). As Hannibal Williams contends:
The times were right to produce a man like Jim Jones. The circumstances of a community that is broken up, when the relationships that bind people together fall apart the time is always right for a religious scoundrel to take advantage of our credibility. Justin Hermann literally destroyed the neighborhood and in the process he made the neighborhood ripe for anybody with any kind of solution. People were desperate for solutions, for something to follow. (Taylor 2013, p. 92).
In his article “Breaking the Silence: Reflections of a Black Pastor,” J. Alfred Smith argues that “The 1970s were a dark age for the Black church in San Francisco.” (Smith, p. 139). Taylor maintains that progressive black pastors like Cecil Williams of Glide Memorial and physician/publisher/activist Carlton Goodlett embraced Jones precisely because they deemed most black churches in the city “irrelevant.” (Taylor, p. 101) Jones and Peoples Temple’s ascent in the political hierarchy of San Francisco reinforced their legitimacy among Bay Area African Americans.
Yet although there have been numerous portrayals of PT’s shrewd politicking, the racial politics of gender in the movement have gotten relatively short shrift. In my book, 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 called the shots in Peoples Temple and that their leadership was resented by some of the black rank and file. The movement’s veneer of interracial “sisterhood” was compromised by the reality of white female paternalism. Wagner alludes to this in her book, and the infamous 1973 “Gang of Eight” manifesto suggests that the climate of white (female) power, control and favoritism hamstrung socialist progress. In WNBP black women’s suspicion of white women’s dominance is symptomatic of the racial fault lines in second wave feminism. As with the power struggles of the women’s suffrage era, the largely white middle class leadership of the women’s movement (represented by groups like the National Organization for Women) was willfully ignorant of if not downright hostile to the intersectional experiences of women of color. At the core of second wave white feminist ideology was Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, a text which universalized the experiences of white middle class women pushing back against the narrow confines of domesticity, marriage and motherhood. While revelatory for many white women, the Feminine Mystique elided the realities of women of color who not only had to work but often served as maids and domestics in white women’s homes. Unspoken in white women’s critiques of gender and power in the home and workplace was the fact that postwar wealth massively advantaged white families. New Deal institutions like the Federal Housing Administration, the GI Bill and the Veterans Administration agency allowed working class and “ethnic” whites to move from inner cities or working class suburbs into more affluent suburban subdivisions protected from the dark other. Further, while suburban white women took advantage of job opportunities opened up by the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, black women were shut out. This fact was compounded by redlining policies which excluded blacks from buying homes in suburban communities with greater access to white collar jobs. As a result, when it came to equitable access to homeownership and professional jobs, black women were only nominally more “liberated” in the Promised Land than they were under Jim Crow.
Thus, for many black migrants, rigid de facto segregation on the West Coast turned the postwar “dream” of escaping Southern apartheid into yet another bitter miscarriage of justice. In both Los Angeles and San Francisco African Americans of all classes were tightly confined to working class black neighborhoods in South L.A., the Western Addition/Fillmore and Bay Point. White privilege conferred the white women in Peoples Temple with mobility, prestige and decision-making power over their black female counterparts.
These tensions inform the power structure of both the novel and the real world of People Temple. Black women in the book actively question and challenge white women’s authority. They draw on the reality of their marginalization both within mainstream society and the church hierarchy. The slights and indignities they suffer are not just due to racism but sexism, homophobia and transphobia. Historically, black women of all sexual orientations, unlike white women, have never had the luxury of being considered pure, innocent and feminine. This dichotomy was capitalized on by Jones and his white female regime; thus eliminating any real possibility of power sharing with the very black women who comprised the backbone of Peoples Temple. Throughout the Peoples Temple/Jonestown canon the specter of the “uneducated” African American is contrasted with that of the “educated” generally middle class to affluent white woman appointed by Jones to a leadership position. Certainly black women like Wagner, Smart and Christine Miller (a Los Angeles member who was the only recorded challenger to Jones on the so-called Death tape of November 18, 1978) did not fit the monolith of the “downtrodden” poor black woman. But this contrast insidiously helps establish the agency, expertise, dynamism, and altruism of white women.
For example, Mary Maaga’s book Hearing the Voices of Jonestown examines the complexity of white women’s roles in People Temple but essentially flattens black women into supporting characters whose proper names merit no more than passing reference if at all (case in point, Maaga badly flubs the name of Shanda James, a young black woman who Jones sexually preyed on in Jonestown and drugged into submission). White women like Carolyn Layton, Grace Stoen, Maria Katsaris and Annie Moore assume center stage as lead protagonists in a chapter ironically entitled “Restoration of Women’s Power.” There is no substantive exploration of white female racism and complicity in the white supremacist cultural politics of Peoples Temple. And Maaga goes to great lengths to evoke white women’s heroic management of Jonestown in the face of Jim Jones’ physical and mental decline. Painting a picture of the selfless white savior, Maaga concludes that “Leading Jonestown was constant work, and neither Jones nor the members of the community seemed to appreciate the long hours and dedication of the (white female) inner circle.” (Maaga, p. 99) Maaga’s portrayal valorizes the white female leadership in PT/Jonestown while leaving their all too intimate role in the exclusion of black women egregiously unexamined.
One of the ways that I attempt to address this lacuna is through the amplification of black journalism, symbolized by Hampton Goodwin (modeled after Jones’ ally Carlton Goodlett) and Ida Lassiter, a community organizer and muckraker. A trailblazing publisher and physician who espoused radical left politics, Goodlett printed Peoples Temples’ publications, treated Jones as a patient and served as his adviser. Lassiter is a fictitional character who mentors the young Jones then publishes exposés on the church’s inner workings in its later years. She is the voice of independent journalism and a conflicted witness to the church’s downward spiral. As the publisher of the influential black paper the Sun Reporter, Goodlett’s complex relationship with Jones is a historical curiosity. Why would an eminent black leader become entangled with Jones and how did his involvement help boost and solidify the media profile of Peoples Temple? For black people looking at PT through a twenty first century lens, the enigma of black complicity is a question that continues to confound. It is inadequate to say that blacks were duped, hoodwinked or even “brainwashed” into staying in Peoples Temple’s “cult” of the white savior. That narrative ultimately undermines cultural and sociological analyses contextualizing black women’s particular stake in the movement. But it also undermines the interplay of passion, desire and revolutionary longing that informed their involvement and ultimate migration. In the novel I suggest that black women were especially vulnerable because of their history of sexist/racist exploitation as well as their long tradition of spearheading social justice activism in the church. Black women civil rights activists often faced sexist opposition from black men and racist opposition from white women “allies”. Historically, the narrative of the charismatic black male civil rights leader has marginalized black women’s contributions to the civil rights and Black Power movements (Giddings 2007; McGuire 2011; Theoharis 2014).
For some black women migration was an act of positive 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 adventure is whetted by the prospect of Guyana. Ernestine Markham, a middle class school teacher loosely modeled on Christine Miller, leaves because she believes it represents 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 Peoples Temple and the context of being black and female in “white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy” (hooks, 1996).
Faced with the ashes of stateside revolution, the betrayal of the liberal California dream and a “socialist” movement that preached first world apocalypse and third world redemption, migration to Guyana could be viewed as a life-affirming rational choice, a tributary of black diaspora (Harris and Waterman, 2004). The final recording of the PT/Jonestown community reflected the trauma of this peculiarly black odyssey. Christine Miller’s lone plea on the Death tape was part of a long tradition of black female self-determination. Speaking for the voiceless, her final act of courage was a metaphor for black women’s complex role in Peoples Temple. Submitting to the “will” of the majority, Miller and the unidentified black women who shout her down pass into myth—reluctant “exceptional” heroine versus brainwashed minions. It may be comforting for mainstream America to believe that the black voices extolling suicide were simply gullible bystanders but the truth is shaded in gray. In the Jonestown of black feminist imagination, the agency of both the living and the dead demands that these ambiguities be part of history’s reckoning.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars and the forthcoming White Nights: Black Paradise.
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