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Monday, February 9, 2015

Policing Our Girls

WLP Conference
By Sikivu Hutchinson
“Let them haul the little monster out of school and into jail”.  These were the words of a commenter on’s site responding to an article on the handcuffing of a six year-old black girl named Salecia Johnson at a Georgia elementary school in 2012.  Disproportionately targeted by zero tolerance discipline policies, black preschool and elementary school children have the highest rates of suspension and expulsion in the U.S.  While demonizing black children has always been a treasured American tradition, little black girls have never been included in white heterosexual gender norms of sugar and spice and everything nice.  From Topsy to Sambo to Buckwheat, the specter of the wild borderline criminal black pickaninny, destined to come to a violent end, helped frame narratives of white childhood innocence and American national identity from the 19th century to the present.  The hapless motherless Topsy, a black girl caricature featured in the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was one of the first and most enduring minstrel images of black children under slavery.  In the book, Topsy is contrasted with the virginal angelic character of Little Eva, the white daughter of a “benevolent” slaveowner.  The fount of moral goodness, Eva forgives Topsy her thievery and “heathen” ways, making her promise that she will become a good Christian.  

Images of chaotic uncontrollable black femininity continue to influence the policing of black girls in public space.  The unique academic, social and emotional toll that criminalization takes on black girls is the subject of the African American Policy Forum’s (AAPF) new report “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected”.  Under the direction of legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, the AAPF has been at the forefront of challenging President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative to include girls of color.  Nationwide, black girls are suspended six times more than white girls.  In big city school districts like New York and Boston, black girls are a whopping 90% and 63% of girls who are suspended.  Rates of expulsion were even more strikingly disproportionate between black and white students, especially among girls.”  By contrast, black boys are suspended three times more than white boys.  Yet, much of the national discourse around school-to-prison pipelining either focuses exclusively on boys of color or shoehorns girls in as an afterthought.  The traditional racist/sexist marginalization of black girls’ lived experiences means they often fall through the cracks of culturally responsive intervention and prevention strategies that address state violence.  According to the report, “Black girls sometimes get less attention than their male counterparts early in their school careers (because they) are perceived to be more socially mature and self-reliant.”  As Crenshaw notes, the myth of black girls’ resiliency often precludes focus on the gendered and culturally specific ways black girls are targeted by disproportionate discipline policies.  Hence, “It’s important that (black girls’) resiliency not be used to cover real life burdens and obstacles.”
The myth of the strong, self-sufficient “everyone’s rock” black woman is legion within mainstream American culture, helping popularize and sustain a thousand neo-mammy images.  From a very young age black girls are taught to be mega-caregivers; self-sacrificing and devout, placing everyone else ahead of themselves, branded as unwomanly if they don’t toe the line of respectability politics.  When she was in her senior year “Victoria”—a former foster care youth and first generation college student—would routinely come to school three or four days a week.  Entrusted with taking care of her younger siblings, Victoria often fell behind on her schoolwork.  She was also a sexual abuse survivor living in a building where a female resident had been raped in the garage.  Now in her second year of college, Victoria’s experiences were common among the girls that I’ve worked with in my Women’s Leadership Project (WLP) gender justice program.  
While male students are generally not expected to shoulder the burdens of childcare and caregiving, these are routine expectations for girls of color.  In her 2002 teen girls’ of color anthology My Sister’s Voices, Iris Jacob (who was eighteen at the time) writes poignantly about the toll the unequal burden of caregiving takes on girls of color:
Girls of color have forever been caretakers.  That is what we are taught, from babysitting our siblings to cooking for our families.  Part of being a caretaker means defending men of color—our fathers, uncles, brothers…We have been trained to stand by them…We as females of color have been told that sexism does not exist for us or is not important.
WLP students report that caregiving, domestic responsibilities and supporting younger siblings are a tremendous source of stress, reducing time for self-care, schoolwork and college preparation.  Adding to this dynamic, black girls disproportionately experience sexual violence, intimate partner violence and trauma.  Many of the young women in WLP are abuse survivors.  As the report notes, because they live in an environment that normalizes anti-black anti-female violence girls may “act out” due to “untreated trauma”.  
Yet, even as they grapple with trauma and victimization, black girls across academic lines are saddled with the stereotype of being loud, unruly, “ghetto” and too outspoken.  While being inquisitive and assertive in the classroom is often encouraged in and expected of boys, these same qualities are tacitly discouraged and viewed as disruptive when exhibited by black girls.  As AAPF researcher Monique Morris notes: “There is an important point of departure between the conditions affecting Black females and males with respect to the role of discipline and educational attainment in the ‘pipeline’ between schools and carceral institutions…the behaviors for which Black females routinely experience disciplinary response are related to their nonconformity with notions of white middle class femininity, for example, by their dress, their profanity, or having tantrums in the classroom.”  Bucking white hetero-norms, black girls are often targeted and penalized for not being sufficiently “ladylike” or deferential to authority, a dynamic that is especially insidious when they’re hypersexualized by male peers.  The report notes that black girls are particularly vulnerable to being disciplined for defending themselves against sexual harassment, physical abuse or bullying on school campuses.  My former student “Victoria”, who is straight, was suspended for one day after she attempted to defend herself against a boy who hit her and called her a bitch.  “Jada” and “Megan”, 10th and 11th grade WLP students, were pushed by their school principal after getting into an argument with him about going to class. Getting suspended for fighting back against sexual harassment, physical abuse or bullying is also common for queer and trans girls of color who are may be viewed by school administrators as having provoked attacks by straight or cis students.  In 2002 Washington Prep High School in South Los Angeles (a former WLP site) was the subject of a lawsuit partly as a result of over-disciplining LGBTQ students.  
Damned if they do and damned if they don’t, black girls who are pushed out of school are more likely to become incarcerated and pregnant at an early age.  Yet, there is no mainstream fascination with, nor celebration of, the untapped brilliance/dynamism of incarcerated “outlaw” black girls.  Ever infatuated with the “primitive” hyper-masculine ingenuity of black “thug” life and gangsta culture, mainstream America has no cultural space for black girls who’ve been incarcerated.  Indeed, the tabloid fetishization of young white female convicts—from Amy Fisher to Susan Smith to Jody Arias to Amanda Knox and Casey Anthony—humanizes them as privileged objects of sympathy, pity and cultural identification (while demonizing or marginalizing women like Marissa Alexander).  At opposite ends of the state violence spectrum, criminal white girls get framed as victims while slain black men get framed as either public enemies or martyred icons. 
Thus, when feminists of color argue that the criminalization of black girls demands a national policy focus we’re still confronted with the “all of the women are white and all of the blacks are men” regime.  As a publisher who recently rejected a book chapter I wrote on the policing of black girls in K-12 schools indicated, black boys “crises” should be our primary focus.  Pushing back against this rhetoric, the AAPF report emphasizes the need for disaggregated educational data that reflects race/gender disparities (for example, the U.S. Department of Education and most school districts do not provide discipline data that has been disaggregated by both race and gender).  It also stresses the importance of youth programming and curricula that address pushout intersectionally, taking into account the impact sexual violence, trauma, caregiving/parenting responsibilities, pregnancy and the educational opportunity gap have on black girls’ lives.  These are radical notions in a nation that preaches exceptionalism and profits from the violent policing of six year-old black girls.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the founder of the Women’s Leadership Project and author of Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.  Her novel White Nights, Black Paradise on the Jonestown massacre and Peoples Temple is due in fall 2015.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Dissing DuVernay and the Lessons of Selma

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Every child in the U.S. should be required to see Selma for at least two reasons.  First, Ava DuVernay’s powerhouse film captures the political complexities and tactical ambiguities that informed civil rights movement organizing; from the behind-the-scenes factionalism among movement organizers to the FBI’s war on activists to the media’s influence on bringing black resistance to Southern terrorism straight into white Middle America’s living rooms.  Highlighting the contributions of black women activists and other lesser known unheralded organizers, the film reminds young people that historical change does not spring from the exceptional actions of visionary individuals but from collective action.  In this regard, Selma is an important antidote to mainstream portrayals that fixate on Martin Luther King as the sole impetus for the movement. 

Second, the lessons of Selma itself are relevant to DuVernay’s “omission” from the Academy Awards nomination for Best Director.  True to Frederick Douglass’ assertion that “power concedes nothing without demand” the snub of DuVernay is criminal but of course not unprecedented.  Just as sustained organized action brought down Southern apartheid so must sustained organized action be directed at Hollywood’s billion dollar White Boy’s club.  Each year, people of color flock to inane comedies and big budget action flicks in record numbers (Latinos have the highest film going rates and the lowest rates of representation in mainstream film).  In the few theater chains that deign to operate in the "ghetto", we watch white people play out themes of heroism, romance, swashbuckling, leadership and political intrigue underwritten by multinational corporations which rarely endorse people of color portrayals that don’t hinge on minstrelsy.  Given this, why would the Academy, helmed by a cabal of older white men like the Tea Party, give a brilliant fierce black woman like DuVernay its imprimatur for disrupting one of white supremacy’s most sacred preserves?  Shaming white Hollywood into “validating” a few token nominees of color every five years does nothing to address its apartheid structure; refusing to support its lily white fantasies at the local multiplex does.

In Selma, DuVernay alludes to the limits of dismantling de jure segregation vis-à-vis de facto segregation.  Toward the end of his life, King confronted economic injustice and the intractability of capitalist exploitation.  Moving from “reform to revolution”, his final push for the Poor People’s Campaign underscored the divide between ending Jim Crow voting rights restrictions versus redressing deeply embedded structural race and class inequities.  In some respects, DuVernay’s exclusion from the film industry’s white male director canon exemplifies the elusiveness of the latter.  While white Hollywood post-Charlie Hebdo recently patted itself on the back at the Golden Globes for supporting free speech and the increase in diverse portrayals of (white) women, conditions for women of color are still in neo-Aunt Jemima territory.  Critiquing this civil liberties’ love fest, black feminist writer Britney Cooper slammed white Hollywood’s empty activist rhetoric as it ignored the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Ripe for parody, liberal and progressive whites are obsessively fond of trotting out their savior on the cross allyship with downtrodden people of color.  To wit not one prominent white actor, actress, director or producer has spoken out about white supremacy in Hollywood greenlighting, financing, casting and decision-making.  But as Selma foreshadowed, the wages of whiteness are a far more insidious regime than segregated lunch counters.  

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Framing Black Queer Resistance: An Interview with Black Lives Matter L.A. Activist Povi-Tamu Bryant

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Last week, activists from the Black Lives Matter Los Angeles (BLMLA) coalition spearheaded the Occupy LAPD encampment, demanding a meeting with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck as well as the firing and prosecution of the officers who murdered Ezell Ford. The issue of black self-determination—queer, trans, disabled, undocumented—is at the forefront of this thriving mass movement, which not only challenges white supremacy but challenges the orthodoxies of mainstream patriarchal hetero-normative civil rights organizing.  On Tuesday I spoke to BLMLA activist Povi-Tamu Bryant, who was waiting to address the LAPD Commission after the dismantling of Occupy LAPD’s encampment and the arrest of fellow BLMLA organizers Sha Dixon and Dr. Melina Abdullah.  Dixon, Abdullah and Bryant, along with fierce black women BLM founders Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza, have brought an intersectional lens to the movement in an era where black youth of all genders and sexual orientations don’t see the complexity of their communities represented in hyper-segregated classrooms with apartheid curricula. Bryant’s comments on Ethnic Studies and the need for culturally responsive education were especially relevant in light of the recent implementation of a new California law banning suspensions for willful defiance in grades K-3. Willful defiance has long been used to target and criminalize “unruly” black children as early as preschool.  For children of color, criminalization at the preschool level is often the first phase in a path that leads to pushout in later grades and incarceration in adulthood.  It is also one of the most devastating tools in the destruction of culturally responsive education.  This partial victory is important in context of the growing leadership of community organizers who have waged daily resistance to police and state violence which has resulted in the stolen lives of black youth like Ford, Aiyanna Jones, Tamir Rice and Rekia Boyd

SH: Historically when we look at civil resistance to state violence there has been a lot of focus on black male leadership and black male victims, often to the exclusion of black women who’ve been murdered, as well as of black women activists who have been on the frontlines of movement organizing.  What motivated you to become involved with Black Lives Matter L.A.?

Bryant: I was motivated to become involved last year after the acquittal of George Zimmerman.  I realized in that moment again just how little black lives are valued, and it made me feel like it was important to be around black folks, to share my rage and grief with black folks and to be showing up for myself, my community and my family.  BLMLA has a particular frame around the value of all black lives mattering; showing that black trans lives matter, black women’s lives matter, black disabled lives matter and black immigrant lives matter.  Having that frame allowed me to show up as myself—as a black queer gender-bending woman—and it has allowed me to really be involved with lifting up the disparities that black communities face. 

SH: You mention the impact that state violence and dehumanization have on queer black women in particular and we know black trans women have high rates of physical abuse and criminalization.  How has that critical consciousness been factored into the emerging movement in terms of bringing forward activists that are doing intersectional work?

Bryant: With BLM we went from a hashtag to a movement.  We’ve tried to be super-intentional about creating space that lifts up the voices of folks that aren’t often lifted up when we think about black liberation and black struggle.  We come out of a very visible civil rights history in that a lot of the leaders that held up are often black men.  We see a lot of that happening today.  We’re trying to disrupt that narrative and flip the frame around what it means to do movement work to allow things like emotional labor be understood as movement work, to allow things like healing justice to be recognized as movement work.  We work with amazing orgs like the Trans Women of Color collective, who’ve been informing our thought process and dialogue and building our infrastructure around how do we make our space inclusive of trans women.  How do we make sure that the violence that’s experienced at super high rates by trans women is part of our narrative.

SH: There has been an increase in very frontal criminalization of black girls (both nationally and here in L.A.) which flies under the radar, especially with regards to national policy emphasis on young boys of color such as  President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative.  How can we incorporate the intersectional work BLM is doing into high schools and middle schools when it comes to classroom engagement with young people?

Bryant: We’re thinking about all black lives, including black youth who have been at the forefront of our conversations.  I think there’s a way for empowerment.  I think that’s important to inform policymaking decisions and decisions about the use of funding.  We recently got Ethnic Studies passed – what are those curricula going to look like and how are they going to lift up the lives and leadership of black queer folk, black women, black youth and all of these folk who are at these marginalized intersections? How do they actually get folded into the conversation so that the students see themselves reflected in that curriculum?  Educators should be engaged in this dialogue around what it means to have an intersectional approach in the classroom.  I think there are tons of institutional barriers already, but to not even be able to see yourself in the classroom--that’s adding layers of trauma to what we’re already experiencing in the classroom.  There’s a part of me that thinks that’s the very least of what we can do.  I think that we have some people around the table in BLMLA and in BLM nationally who are thinking about these things.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

White Wealth & the Cult of White Victimhood

By Sikivu Hutchinson

When President Obama and other corporate Democrats approved the recent spending bill they thumbed their collective noses at working class communities of color.  Brought to us by Citigroup, JP Morgan and other robber baron banks who plunged thousands of homeowners of color into crippling debt, the new budget will phase out Dodd-Frank regulations that prevented banks from trading in “the risky derivatives that sparked the financial meltdown of 2008”.  It will also increase the amount wealthy donors can contribute to political parties and cut some multi-employer pensions. The financial meltdown disproportionately affected African American and Latino homeowners who were targeted by Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Countrywide and other big lenders for subprime and predatory home loans.  Although Obama is perfectly willing to engage in the optics of fake racial reconciliation on Ferguson and the Eric Garner case, his endorsement of the new bill further underscores his cynical disregard for the socioeconomic wellbeing of communities of color.

In black and Latino neighborhoods across the country the legacy of the mortgage debacle is vividly exemplified by months-old For Sale signs, “bank-owned property” notices on lawns and abandoned homes. CNN Money reports that “Between 2004 and 2010 blacks and Latinos lost nearly a quarter of their wealth, whereas whites lost nearly 1%”.  While the mortgage debacle gutted black and Latino wealth, the wages of whiteness have protected white working and middle class Americans from wholesale economic blight.  According to a recent Pew Report, “The Great Recession hit all Americans hard, but only whites have seen their wealth rise during the recent recovery…widening the already massive wealth gap between whites and other racial and ethnic groups to near record levels.”  Despite this fact, some whites still want to claim the ultimate victim status in the blue collar disenfranchisement sweepstakes. In their minds, poor whites are losing ground due to waves of job-stealing immigrants, reverse discrimination and affirmative action. According to this narrative, anti-white racism is the last acceptable preserve of bigotry and cops like Darren Wilson are themselves victims of a backlash against white males.

Clearly poor and white working class families were belted by the Recession.  However, the persistence of racialized wealth inequality eludes even the most progressive white “anti-Wall Street” policymakers. Although left-wing darlings Congressman Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren (who led the charge against the rollback of Dodd-Frank regulation) have been some of the most vocal opponents of the oligarchy class they’ve had relatively little to say about the role white supremacy and institutional racism play in wealth inequality. In a recent NPR interview about the midterms and his presidential aspirations Sanders was asked about racial disparities in job access and income.  He dismissed the question, implying that it was short-sighted if not petty.  Musing on why Democrats continue to lose white voters he maintained, “I am focusing on the fact that whether you're white or black or Hispanic or Asian, if you are in the working class, you are struggling to keep your heads above water.”  Sanders argued that Democrats fail to appeal to the economic interests of white working class voters but seemed willfully ignorant that the GOP’s appeal has always been based on white supremacy.  Simply put, some whites remain wedded to the GOP due to racism and race partisanship—as long as the Democrats represent big government spending and “handouts” to lazy blacks and undocumented Latinos “hostile” to American values, white working class people will continue to be beholden to the Republican Party for decades.
Sanders’ colorblind paternalism is all too common among white liberals and progressives.  When they trot out the mythic “working class” they frequently invoke images of heartland workers whose formerly unionized jobs have been decimated by globalization, destructive free trade and right-to-work policies.  Yet whites of all classes have been bolstered by the rebound in the stock market as well as rising rates of homeownership and increases in home equity.  While only 47.4% of people of color were homeowners in the last year, 73.9% of whites owned homes.  The bulk of black and Latino middle class wealth is concentrated in homes that are worth far less than those of working class whites.  Because homeowners of color are more likely to own houses in socioeconomically depressed segregated communities that have not rebounded from the recession their home equity is often minimal to nonexistent. 

For black women the nexus of income inequality and the wealth gap is even graver.  Although black women’s median wealth levels are among the lowest in the nation they have the highest workforce representation among all groups of American women.  Black women over sixty-five have the least wealth of any group in the U.S. and are less likely to have employer-funded pensions.  Because black women are more likely to work for poverty level wages right-to-work laws are especially devastating for black families.

Sanders and other liberal-progressive policymakers have long proposed creating a federal jobs program to redress income inequality. But a federal jobs program will not remedy decades-long segregation in the U.S. housing market nor bridge the gargantuan race/gender wealth gap.  It will not improve a K-12 school system which disproportionately criminalizes youth of color while shutting them out of college.  Neoliberalism and capitalism thrive on and exploit disparities in race, gender, sexual orientation and geography; a fact that has always worked to white America’s advantage.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Teaching Against Terrorism

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Now that the grand jury in Staten Island has desecrated Eric Garner’s dying breath and re-confirmed fascism in the U.S. what Black person has confidence in the justice system?  What descendent of slaves has “faith” that speechifying, praying, and pleading for the system to recognize Black life will have any demonstrable impact on the United Terrorists of America?  Who believes that the rule of law means anything other than a jack boot and a lynch rope around the neck of African-descent people who built this country brick by brick? 

As progressive educators many of us enter the classroom every day with fierce expectations of change and redress.  Working against textbooks that obliterate poor and working class people of color, we teach our students about social history to enlighten, inspire, transform and enable them to think critically about the similarities and differences between past and present.  Even among those of us who push back against grand narratives that pimp the obscenity of Western exceptionalism there is an implicit assumption about progress; a secular faith in “advancement” despite the face of insidious institutional racism. 

Today, we go into the classroom with that secular faith blown to bits yet again. Today, some of us will tell our students that the Garner decision makes it important to amplify that people of color have always fought terrorism on this soil.  Some of us will say that the U.S. has a history of using the Orwellian language of freedom and justice to vilify the non-Western other while waging terrorist war against its own.  During World War II black activists fought the hypocrisy of the U.S.’ campaign against fascism in Europe.  These interventions were the legacy of 18th century revolutionary war era protests and legal resistance that free and enslaved Africans mounted against the tyranny of “democratic” empire.  Social justice pedagogy is designed to empower young people to critique, question and ultimately organize against these contradictions.  When we teach we try and lift up these brutal contradictions and show how they inform the present.  In an age of wall-to-wall corporate media it’s one of the last bastions of decolonization for youth of color who are told that race is no barrier but see white supremacy at work every day.  But in the cold light of unrelenting state criminality and savage indifference to black life it’s difficult to remain hopeful.
Discussing racism and discrimination with South Los Angeles students in a new multiracial leadership group before the Ferguson decision, some were initially hesitant to unpack their experiences.  Yet in the same school students reported that some teachers divide their classrooms by seating “smart” Latino students on one side and “underachieving” African American students on the other.  In the same school black boys are led away in handcuffs by school police every week.  In the same school “out of control” students of all genders are physically restrained.  In the same school, and in schools just like it across the district, black students are grossly under-represented in Advanced Placement and Honors classes but pack special education classes and detention halls.  Unlike the murder of Eric Garner, these are the routine, everyday acts of state violence that are never captured on videotape but also signal that breathing while black remains a punishable, lethal offense.  Our challenge as activist teachers and mentors is to keep pushing students to see that the system doesn’t want them to see these terrorist violations as the same.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

"No Rights Which a White Man Was Bound to Respect" -- Slavocracy 2014

In 1857 Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney uttered these defining words in the Dred Scott decision which further embedded black dehumanization and non-citizenship into U.S. slavocracy.  In 2014 killer cop Darren Wilson walks free after being cleared of the lynching of unarmed teen Mike Brown by a white supremacist grand jury which endorsed Wilson's characterization of Brown as a subhuman "demon".  One hundred and fifty eight years later Blacks are not citizens, not human, not "legible" within the regime of white innocence.

Fill the streets. Teach-in, talk to every child about the importance of this criminal obscenity against human rights and Black humanity.  Join people of conscience around the world in mobilizing against state violence and law enforcement impunity in mass resistance to apartheid Amerikkkan style:

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

No More White Saviors: Jonestown and Peoples Temple in the Black Feminist Imagination

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.[1]

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 18, 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[2]) 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.

Works Cited
Giddings, Paula. Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching (New York: Harper Collins, 2008).
When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (New
                York: Bantam Books, 1984).
Harris, Duchess and Adam John Waterman. “To Die for the Peoples Temple: Religion and Revolution
After Black Power,” ed. Moore, Rebecca and Pinn, Anthony, et al. People’s Temple and Black Religion in America (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004), pp. 103-122.

Hollis, Tanya. “Peoples Temple and Housing Politics in San Francisco,” ed. Moore, Rebecca and Pinn,
Anthony, et al. People’s Temple and Black Religion in America (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004), pp. 81-102.

hooks, bell. Killing Rage, Ending Racism (New York: Henry Holt, 1996).
Maaga, Mary. Hearing the Voices of Jonestown (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1998).

McGuire, Danielle. At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—a New History of
the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (New York: Vintage Books, 2010).

Smith, Archie. “An Interpretation of Peoples Temple and Jonestown: Implications for the Black Church,”
                ed. Moore, Rebecca and Pinn, Anthony, et al. People’s Temple and Black Religion in America
                (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004), pp. 47-56.

Taylor, James L. “Black Churches, Peoples Temple and Civil Rights in San Francisco,” from From Every
Mountainside: Black Churches and The Broad Terrain of Civil Rights ed. Drew Smith (Albany: SUNY Press, 2013), pp. 85-110.

Theoharis, Jeanne. The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (New York: Beacon Press, 2013).

[1]White Nights, Black Paradise (Infidel Books: Los Angeles, forthcoming 2015).
[2] Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (London: Vintage Books, 1993), p. 25.