Due November 2015
“So much conversation regarding atheism and humanism gains no traction, and does little to push beyond areas of comfort and well worn arguments. Sikivu Hutchinson’s work offers an important corrective to this. With clear and sharp insights, Hutchinson pushes readers to recognize and tackle the patterns of thought and action that limit any real ability to respond to issues of race, gender, and sexuality from a transformative and humanist perspective. Read her work, but fasten your seat belt first!” — Anthony Pinn, author African American Humanist Principles and The End of God Talk: An African American Humanist Theology View on Amazon
“Sikivu Hutchinson’s superbly written and well-researched book stands out like a sore thumb among the books of “New Atheists” such as Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. Hutchinson puts forth a bold analysis of the political and religious culture wars raging across the U.S. She examines the Religious Right, scientism amongst white secular humanists, the need for social and economic justice, the ethical imperative to defend the rights of LGBTQ people, etc. She does all of this from the perspective of a progressive African American feminist.” – Norm R. Allen Jr., author African American Humanism
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“Sikivu Hutchinson’s vision of Jonestown, of the real people who left behind despair for what they thought was belief and hope, is a valuable one – her take is the one America hasn’t yet seen.” Susan Straight, author Between Heaven and Here and Take One Candle, Light a Room
“Sikivu Hutchinson’s beautifully written novel captures the complicated relationship between remembering the past and attempting to forget. Her work is hauntingly evocative.”
–Duchess Harris, Professor of American Studies, MacAlester College, Author Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Clinton/Obama
DUE FALL 2015, Preorder on Amazon
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By Sikivu Hutchinson (from White Nights, Black Paradise) The night watchwoman does not drink coffee. She never pees. Never leaves her post for a smoke break, a phone call, a fart in the subzero weather that’s kicked in the teeth of Dover AFB. She sits behind the air force base security console with gloved fingers, eyes darting from screen to screen, scanning for shadows, her desk stacked with packages stamped classified. Our arrival here has been a sensation. A few reporters descended in earnest. A few locals banded together to gawk and complain. The locals say the cold, the snow, is the worst it’s been in a while. That it portends something bad, that it’s a fitting greeting to us. When we were over there we secretly dreamt of a white Christmas. Even though it was forbidden fruit; low-hanging, sickly sweet, a safe place to hide in when the monsters came. Because we didn’t really celebrate Christmas the natives accused us of being Jehovah’s Witnesses. That ratty charade of a million cultists worldwide. Maybe the watchwoman is one of them. Trundling door to door like a wind-up toy with a Santa Claus sack of end-of-the-world pamphlets. When we begged for money in the town square the native children gave us garlands because they felt sorry for us. The white ones and the mixed ones in our group were to be in the forefront. We black ones just looked like all the other children running around, blending in with everyone else. The best window dressing they tell us. The watchwoman’s shift begins at midnight. She takes the bus back home at 8:30, passing the morning shuttle crammed with airmen off to training. She watched us on the banged-up TV set that only has three clear channels, getting her children dressed as the heater rumbles on, shielding their eyes from our bloated bodies while she tries to turn to Woody Woodpecker, to Bugs Bunny, to ordinariness and animals bashing their brains in. We don’t blame her. It’s a mother’s instinct to protect their young from bad things. We have identical lines on our necks. Mine from birth, hers from age, the slow creep into middle age; even at thirty-five she was still young but spiraling downward, an older woman having a baby for the first time thousands of miles from home. She changed my diaper right on the folding chair next to her in the pavilion. She sits in the front row waiting for the performance to begin. A good seat means a plate of hot food at the end of the meeting. It means recognition that she is dedicated. It signals to the leadership that she is serious. The nurses delivered me by C-section, the first one in the settlement. They cleaned me then plopped me on her chest, unable to pry open my clenched pink fingers. She wears my bloody fist print with pride all week, a tiny Black Power salute embedded under her clavicle. She is exempt from participating in the drills because of the C-section. At night we lie together cheek to cheek, listening to the rain blow through as our people rip and run, rehearse and fortify. The takeover could happen anytime. It will come in a flood of white parachutes, blazing military guns, contaminated water. Best to sit on the edge of preparedness than to be caught off guard, slack, flabby, complacent. Her voice is too hoarse to sing me a lullaby. Her body too heavy from the painkillers. Her brain too tired from the crashing chaos. But secretly, really, she is not that kind of mommy. So she holds me to her like a fine cut piece of steel. Does the watchwoman know this as she walks through the morgue inspecting the surnames, lingering at familiar ones, the long and winding road of church families, generations’ deep, the crazy quilt of birthdates stretching back to Indiana, Texas, Chicago, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi. She eats her dinner alone in the cafeteria, the transistor radio by the cash register burbling about hit squads, spies, Negro fanatics that go bump in the night. Be careful down there, the cashier says, banging a roll of nickels into his drawer. Them spooks down there are liable to snatch you up. Does the watchwoman know that when mommy spoke there was no trace of Amarillo about her? That her accent was clean, discreet, with no upturn at the ends of a question, no licorice sucking drawl like that of her grandparents who’d followed Father to California after Newark burned in ’67, their dry cleaning business destroyed. The same thing was happening in San Fran before we left. The same plague of government lies and cover-ups. The same developers thick and ripe as fresh maggots, spewing out eviction notices to the black people. To own land and be Negro was criminal. But this is what the watchwoman doesn’t know, eyeing the mountain of boxes stacked to the ceiling in drill formation rows, marinating in snap judgment. She has worked at the base for three years with no benefits, no sick leave, no retirement or overtime, playing the part of the good night soldier to her sundry charges, the ever changing cast of inmates in the morgue; blessed by God, she’s told, to have a stable job in her neighborhood when so many have been laid off, are rootless and living hand to mouth due to laws that spit on the working man. After a week the press has left, bored by the absence of revelation, fireworks, by the scratching and clawing of next of kin bellowing for revenge. When they begin the grind of identifying remains who will come forward to claim us, mommy and me, lying intertwined, as though I’d never left her to venture on my own into the outside world?
Excerpt from White Nights, Black Paradise
By Sikivu Hutchinson
The basketball shot punched into the backboard, flipping off the rim, taking a millennium to land back, melting all buttery in his hands as he turned it around, did a quick layup, manufactured the swish of an invisible net in his head.
How you like that motherfucker? He thought to his brother standing across from him, his eyes obscured in the velvet dark of right before the streetlights fluttered on, the court stretching in front of them like a sliver of dead jungle beneath the window of a plane. Was it true that their mother had dressed them alike right down to the underwear? Was it true that she’d tried to get their picture taken for Christmas at the neighborhood Woolworth and been turned away? That she’d hired one of the church members to play photographer at the last minute, bouncing Demian on one knee and Jimmy on the other, two peas in a rotten pod. The sitting was captured in a collection of amateurish black and white pictures rammed behind the birth control herbs in her dresser drawer. The top of his head is torn off in one of the pictures; his arm around the adopted sister who’d died in a car crash right after being baptized.
She was a refugee from a faraway war torn land, they said; a boat person who washed up on the Pacific shore; never even learned to brush her teeth or write her name in English, flashed through their lives like a handful of lightning then was gone. She was his mother’s jewel, the last book in her rainbow kiddie trilogy. And when the sheriff came to deliver the news she fought him like a wolverine on speed, haggard from doing the church’s books, wrung out with grief.
Daddy, how come you didn’t bring her back from the dead like you did me? Jimmy had asked. Their dad had put his head in his hands, not trying to hide his tears. He asked the Lord to give him strength then took it back.
“There is no fucking God boys. Look what he did to your innocent little sister.”
Demian had kept the black and white picture all these years, fascinated by the symmetry of their bodies, two alive and here; one dead and floating above them, their secret guardian angel.
On the court he and Jimmy always had an audience. A wise ass regiment of snickering eleven year-olds from the Catholic Brotherhood’s after school program running color commentary on every fuck-up and half-step Demian and Jimmy made when all the other players had left and the two of them circled each other like queasy suitors. They made great sport out of Demian’s bow-legged free throw, Jimmy’s ponderous dribble and hard fakes, playing the dozens as though their lives depended on it. Pretty boy, white boy, Bambi, they shrieked. Didn’t they know that Father was a foiled basketball great. A forward with more smarts than agility, pissed on by the others for being a mongrel mixed breed. Wasn’t for that he would’ve led the team to victory. Athleticism, competition, teamwork; that’s in your genes boys, your family inheritance, doesn’t matter whether you’re so-called homemade or not, you’re part of my flesh, my soul, my body and nobody can take that away from us.
We may be from a misfit church but at least we don’t have priests who make choir boys give them head. You tell ‘em that when they try and fuck with you. They’re victims. Objects of pity. The crumbs these charities throw out to these ghetto orphans dwarfs in comparison to the billions they’ve looted from third world countries.
Demian had rehearsed, honed that line in his head, wanting to spit it out at an opportune moment, to draw blood, send the little Catholic charity punks reeling back to the parish. He could never work up the nerve or the meanness.
Could he cut himself open and quarantine the genes that were his father’s for an hour, a day, a year.
Who would assume the mantle, be the rightful heir. Speak truth to power like Dad. Lead the flock to Canaan. Beat back the Pharisees, or whatever the correct analogy was. He couldn’t remember, despite all the years of drilling, training, regurgitating biblical shit in the early days back home in Indiana.
Demian had not changed clothes from that morning. He took off his terry cloth shirt and put it on the park bench, levitating from the smell of his own must, the soggy remains of his fear and anxiety seeing his brother at the donut shop. Jimmy waited for him to get back on the court then thrust the ball at him. He caught it in his chest, cradling it for a second, faking, throwing it back to him with the same brute force that they’d learned when their father had stood over them with a stopwatch, timing them on who passed the ball the fastest.
At the tenth pass Jimmy stopped, conceding. He chucked the ball lightly at Demian, bending down to tie his high top sneakers, a floppy pair on loan from one of the Temple thrift stores.
“That reporter took a real shine to you.”
“How do you mean?”
“You know what I mean.”
“He’s not a homosexual.”
“Whatever he was he was putting the moves on you and you fell for it.”
“I have the right to speak my mind.”
“Speaking your mind is one thing, getting played for a punk is another.”
Demian gripped the ball, holding it over his head, breaking into a hard dribble. Jimmy’s breath hung in the air, a lingering rasp leftover from childhood asthma.
He passed the ball to Jimmy. Jimmy drove down the court and did a layup, squeals crackling from behind the gate.
“Time for ya’ll to go home!” Demian shouted.
“Fuck you snowflake,” they chortled.
Jimmy waved his hand dismissively at Demian. “Leave ‘em alone. What other entertainment do they have in their lives? We’re privileged to have a family, to have a place that’s ours.” He stared coolly at his brother, starter mustache droopy with dew. “Dad wants us to leave in a few weeks.”
“I’m not going.”
“You tell him that?”
“In so many words.”
“That’s not good enough. You have to be direct with him. He expects us to show leadership over there, we’re the only ones who can really be trusted not to screw up his vision.”
“I don’t really care what his vision is for that place. I have a life here that I’m not going to ditch just because he wants to play king of the fucking jungle.”
“And what life is that? Smoking weed? Staying out late, getting up late, drifting and screwing your way through every zip code in the city?”
“No, that’s Dad’s thing, get your propaganda straight.”
“Stop deflecting. We go over there for fifteen months, clear the land, get supplies, supervise construction, establish relationships with the locals. You’ll pack a career’s worth of experience into just one year.”
“I don’t want that kind of career. I don’t want to waste one second of my life busting my ass doing shit work for his pipe dream.”
“Look, I know he’s not perfect. He’s done some messed up shit, hurt some people, cast weak ones out when they should’ve been protected. He’s atoning for all that. This move is a chance for atonement. Not just for him but for everybody. It’s bigger than any one person. If you see it as just his pipe dream then you don’t get it.”
“What do Louise, Cassandra and all the other little old black ladies who’ve given Dad and the church their homes and life savings have to atone for Jimmy?”
Jimmy took a step back. “Nothing. Not a single thing. Maybe atone was an overstatement. I just know some people have been waiting their whole lives for this.”
“Then let them go in my place.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Take some acting classes. There’s a few theater groups I want to check out.”
“Theater? Dem you’ve never acted in your life. You know how hard it is to make it in that industry, to make any kind of decent living? Yeah, it’ll be easier for you whatever you do because you’re white but even then people will judge you right out the gate because you’re Jim Jones’ son. As long as we’re pariahs in this place and the conditions for black people stay the same you don’t stand a chance here. Your conscience won’t let you.”
“I don’t have the same kind of negativity as you.”
“Right, you’ve always had things, you had parents, you had white skin. You say jump, the world says how high? What do you have to be negative about when you’ve been sheltered all your damn life?”
“Get off it Jimmy I didn’t get any fucking special privileges. If anything…”
“If anything what? Mom and Dad bent over backwards for a poor little nigger orphan and left Homemade out in the cold?”
“Yeah. Yeah that’s right.”
“You don’t believe that.”
“Stop telling me what I believe.”
“No one’s saying you don’t have your own mind.”
“Stop acting like it then.”
Jimmy put his hand on Demian’s shoulder. Demian flinched, trying to pull away, his brother holding him firmly. “Remember the summer we spent at grandma’s when everyone was out on the road at the Wings of Deliverance thing.”
He was silent. Muddy water gurgled up in his throat. Baby frogs suctioned up his leg, precious as tiny glow-in-the-dark toys. Down, down, down, he’d gone, landing in the seat of a rusted trike. Down, down, down and this was surely the end, he’d thought, of his stupid eight year-old self. Never be able to eat spaghetti with melted cheese again, never be able to press up against Kira’s thigh and pretend like it was an accident, never be able to fly a plane to Brazil. He would sit at the back of the funeral home, drinking in his parents’ hysterical laments at yet another lost child. But then his brother’s arms were around him, snatching at his collar, grabbing hold to the scruff of his neck. His brother’s arms pushing through the hail of leaves, twigs, bone imploring them to stay and play for a while, take a spin on the dead baby’s marooned tricycle.
He’d jumped in the creek on a dare from a neighbor boy; keeping his t-shirt on, ashamed of his scrawny freckled chest even though he and Jimmy had been lifting bricks all summer to get buffed up.
Betcha Sambo can swim better’n you Stringbean, the boy had taunted, cramming strips of baloney sandwich in his hatchet face as he swatted horseflies away. He was the first of many audiences captivated by the spectacle of he and Jimmy; tall, gangly, thick as thieves maybe, watchful of their bodies, selectively protective of each other; now here was Demian taking the bait, jumping into the glorified piss hole he’d feared since he was a toddler.
“Yeah, I remember. What about it?” he asked sullenly.
“That time in the creek. You were petrified. Grandma—tiny little grandma—wanted to beat your butt afterward. Went on and on about this kid drowning in the summer of ’48 that they didn’t get to in time.”
“You want a fucking medal after all these years for rescuing me? That it?”
“It’s not about me. It’s about why you needed to prove yourself to that cracker in the first place.”
“I wasn’t trying to prove shit.”
Jimmy took a towel from his duffel bag on the ground. He reached over and wiped the sweat off Demian’s cheek, handing him the towel. “Didn’t want Sambo to upstage you. Right little brother? I forgave you that then. I forgive you now.”
Demian balled up the towel and threw it back at him. “Fuck off.”
“Before she died grandma used to say that we were the church philosophers, always in our heads thinking heavy, like it was us against the world. She loved that cliché, thrilled her when I took up for you.”
“Don’t trot her out to make me feel guilty.”
“Too bad she didn’t live long enough to see what we’re going to do over there. The bigger vision Dad has is partly because of her, she couldn’t do a fourth of what he’s done because society wouldn’t support a woman doing it. Dirt poor white woman, nobody gave a shit what her ambitions were as long as she popped out a son.”
“So now you want to hide behind her.”
“She thought that if someone so much as blew on you you’d float away.”
“You were the softer dreamier one in her eyes, more like Mom I guess. I defended you then, told her you could be counted on.”
Demian turned away from the court and spit. The Catholic kids had left. In the distance he could see cars flitting by across the spine of the Bay Bridge. He thought he saw someone scaling it, waving a white flag into the barreling headlights.
Jimmy followed his gaze, looking impatient then bemused. “There you go daydreaming again. C’mon, let’s go get something to eat.”
Black is surely Beautiful.
The signs from our classroom float in the air, curling from the heat, rain and dried blood.
We like to read. We like to play. We count down the seconds until recess. We tease and chant praise. We dance, doing disco, doing the splits, the poplock, all the crazy freestyle steps we brought from the States, strutting, showing off, running contests. We haven’t seen TV in months. Free from its pollution. It’s bad as doing smack Dad says. Even the show “Good Times”, ‘cause they always want to Stepin Fetchit, to zip coon a strong black man.
Our teacher is teaching us to see ourselves. Not just in the margins of halogen blond Jane and her accomplice little Dick. But fully, the way we were made. Before there were walls and nations and continents and we were all just scrambled cells, babysoft and naked, breathing underwater.
Not just the smart ones are encouraged to speak up in class. Our teacher makes even the slow ones participate. And naw, nobody is higher or better than anybody else. And naw, the blondies that were prettiest in the white American world ain’t nothing here. Dad said it’s the socialist way. Dad says everybody has a special gift to give. Anybody we see acting all big and bad we tell on them. Sometimes they get sent out to the jungle to get their attitude straight. Sometimes a hot pepper on the tongue does the trick. After that, they come back right in the head.
Mondays is science. Tuesdays is ancient civilizations of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Wednesdays is geopolitics. Thursdays is public speaking. Fridays is music, crafts and creative writing. The walls are filled with poems of this better world. The walls are filled with pictures of bombs dropping, ghost white mushroom clouds spreading over L.A. and the Fillmore.
We’re lucky to have escaped in time. Lucky when so many were left behind. We know it’s not right but we secretly pray for the left behind kids. We pray that they could be here with us in paradise. We know prayer is fakeness, magic and fairy tales. We know it’s a con and a lie but we’re scaredy cats, ‘cause what if there’s a god besides Dad.
The grown-ups are always watching for big breeches, big mouths, show offs. Any old grown-up can school you on the spot on what to do and what to be. We follow their lead, but have our own language for emergencies. We do youth council and speak in it just to rile them.
The white people rule, but everybody is equal. The white people say under the skin we’re all blood. The white people say cut us and it’s the same. Che pricked her arm with a paring knife to prove it to one of the mixed white girls who was talking smack. Girl with Laurie Partridge straight brown hair all down her back, trying to get out of slopping hogs like the rest of us claiming she needed novocaine for a sore tooth. Her little clique puts on a show acting black at the meetings in the pavilion to please Dad. When the grown-ups turn their backs they’re picking at us for weak spots, treating us like stepchildren.
There are Sesame Street books with singing rainbow kids and lessons on turning the other cheek. Every month we adopt a new country, imagining how the children live there, performing Indian or Chinese customs, showing off our Russian greetings to all the adults as a warm-up to Dad’s speeches. They clap and holler, bursting with pride. They raise the roof for an encore. Dad, Carol and the others are negotiating for us to move to Russia. Jamiah asks if there are black people there and is told to be quiet.
Later we read to the babies, sneaking in their favorite story about Grover the blue muppet before lights out and the bugs dive bomb every piece of naked skin.
There’s a monster at the end of this book, Grover says, as the patrols start up outside, rain drumming through the roof, into our mouths, making the sheets soggy.
There’s a monster at the end of this book, Grover whispers, batting his googly scarecrow eyes.
There’s a monster at the end of this book, Grover whines, toothpick arms flailing.
Each page we turn there is Grover warning us not to go any further.
Each page we turn Grover puts chains over them to keep us from turning another page.
We turn and turn until the last page and BOO there he is.
Grover, the monster.
The lights shut off and we scatter to our beds, waiting for the inspection. The guards pass, rifles clicking at their sides, snouts poking into the dorms on alert for the faintest stirring, a stray cough, fart or belch.
We are drifting, dreaming of the group of visitors coming the next day from America.
They will sleep good tonight, the guards say as they leave.
By Sikivu Hutchinson
From White Nights, Black Paradise
They say the darker the berry the sweeter the juice. But how can that be? When blood runs so dark and deep and bitter. I was never afraid of dying or the sight of blood. Not from me, an animal or another human being. The first time I saw another person’s blood was my mother’s flow, a crushed rose in the white panties she was trying to hide from me, hunched on the toilet reading the funnies and smoking her secret cigarette. We were the only house on the block with an indoor toilet, the stuck-up hoity toities looking down their nose at everybody else when the Depression was tearing up families. And me the bucked tooth silver spoon girl with a daddy who had a steady job at an accounting firm tending the books of companies that went belly up. He and mother were Republicans through and through until Roosevelt and our shining knight Eleanor.
We never had Negroes or colored working for us. Unlike some of the neighbors who were supposedly poorer and would scrape two pennies together for a day’s worth of laundry. I never had the gumption to call a black woman mammy, even as a child it was un-Christian to do so; those colored women who worked to the bone for whites were so majestic and dignified, balancing the world on their backs with barely a whisper of complaint. Or at least that’s how it seemed from the picture shows. The white women were long, lean, vexed and beautiful while the coloreds stood dutifully by their side. How any self-respecting white woman could have allowed that is beyond me. But I loved the picture shows just the same. Not the darkness, not the escape, not Hollywood, not the stories, but the proximity of colored up in the forbidden balcony.
Jim would make a hobby of sitting up there and passing for colored. With his slick black hair and high cheekbones he could have been half-breed anything in the dark to a kid usher lazing through the aisles with a busted flashlight. As a boy nobody cared about me no how no way, so why would they give a shit whether I was white or Negro, he said once, knowing full well that it did matter to the world.
I see a slip of him coming out of the infirmary. His mouth is ripe and hang dog indecent. His orderly uniform sags at the behind, vomit all over the front of his pants from a patient he had to restrain. I am a nurse trainee, stiff in my new white shoes, a little fascinated, a little scared of his ferocity. Besides schoolteacher nurse is the only right and respectable occupation for a middle class Indiana girl with a sliver of ambition. The other girls mockingly call him Geronimo preacher man, snickering about the laying on of hands he does in those holy rolling faith healing ceremonies for the destitute. We had always been people of science. Daddy and mother had followed the Scopes’ trial, taking his side when all the rabble screamed for blood. They hated the mouth foaming ignorance, the frenzy of the loon bible thumpers who stormed the courtyard in wolf packs demanding judgment day. We were people of faith but not fanatical, versed in the Bible but not blind. They got newsletters in the mail from the Ingersoll society, reading up on the latest discoveries and insights into the universe, nature and animal cultures. So when the word got around that this ruffian orderly was a faith healer who consorted with Negroes I was curious and disgusted. We knew the Pentecostals were way out there, whooping and hollering and carrying on and talking to god directly like he was their best friend. But the Negro part made sense to me; I could see what the attraction was because of their emotions, the struggle they’d gone through, the sacrifices they’d made living in a country that hated anything black. What kind of pain was that? What kind of things did a mother have to tell her child to make him grow up dignified?
I never wanted my boy to be taught to fear a white woman, to ingest it like poison, a waking nightmare every time he saw me. He was just a tiny brown ball of curious brilliance when we got him, old soul big dipper eyes and moxie for days. After we left Indiana I could see him start to come into himself; the natural terror of white people withering, the hardness in his gaze that he got when he saw them staring at us fading a little. In the market white children would run up behind us with bananas, at the hospital white society ladies would say prayers for the mute African orphan.
Forgive them Lord for they know not what they do.
We left because the threats got louder and more vicious. There were several every day, or so Jim said from the pulpit, building a case for relocation. What I did know was that our babies were being affected, their innocence ripped from them. What I did know was that an usher at first service had to have stitches after the white citizens’ league threw a rock in the sanctuary window. Jim was afraid Jimmy Jr. would be lynched, that the hatemongers would spare no atrocity tearing even babies like him from limb to limb to show us race-mixers what real “justice” was. We knew that nuclear holocaust was on the horizon. We believed that the West would be golden, would be safer. We didn’t flee with our tail between our legs like the town gossips said but with most of our congregation relocating as a unified family. Traveling satisfied my wanderlust. To see the rest of the country was a dream I’d never have been able to know on my own; married, a mother, pregnant shortly thereafter, trapped, all in dulling speed, expected to be at his beck and call, to be the channel for his monstrous designs.
I see a slip of him coming out of the infirmary. He has smeared his face with tar, with coal, with black crayon, and is walking toward me, cradling a cancerous liver in his arms like a newborn, pushing it at my breast expecting me to nurse it, his fly unzipped.
Early on I knew about the newspaperwoman and her hold on him. She was worldly and colored. What a fantasy for him to be desired by a real flesh and blood Negress who was so much older, who had standing among the coloreds. I knew that she had a child around Jimmy Jr.’s age. That she was separated from the child’s father, neglectful of it, holed up in that tiny office scribbling into the wee hours. What would the world have said about her honor and integrity as a race woman if it had known she was sleeping with a married white boy? A do-gooder parasite one step up from white trash fallen so low.
There are five of us in the sanctuary, hopped up on No Doz, peeing every minute. We have been up since dawn and there is still work to do as it nears midnight. There are change of address forms to distribute, donations to input in the bank ledger, hundreds of passport applications to check for accuracy. Mariah offers us fruit punch leftover from the community birthday party. Some of us are ravenous, others are too tired to even drink. The youngest brim and bubble with excitement about the prospect of the journey to the promised land in South America.
I snort inwardly when they call it that. Jim has become a buzzard with the bible, snatching pieces of dead flesh off it when he fancies a taste of religion. As the church grew he abandoned it more and more, making the original transplants, the devout old black ladies who came with us from Indiana, a little uneasy. Still I saw them kiss his ring, making allowances and excuses for him, as they would with any white man that showed them kindness no matter how small. We women are like that, lighting up like fireflies for any man who so much as glances our way, going sour just as quick with other women. Jim liked to flirt and fuss over the old ones because they were low hanging fruit. Miss Essex, a widow and blue chip money grubber, was one of his special pets from the first wave of families who followed us to California. Before we left she deeded us her house, a shotgun shack where she’d raised three kids and buried two husbands, scraping by as a seamstress when colored folk had to be off the streets before dark. Many were eager to help that way. Selling or signing over property they’d worked their entire lives to own to lift up our dream of a socialist retreat in the name of Jesus.
I see a slip of him coming out of the infirmary. He is carrying a copy of Marx’s Capital, brazen so everyone can see. It is the first time I think of him sexually. Tracing the outline of that mouth on my bed sheets. Ashamed inside, trying to smother them, force them back down, not because of my desire but the repulsion I feel hearing the rumors about his little animal farm. The other orderlies say that he does things with monkeys, befriending them, binding them to him, putting them in his bed, tucking them in like babies, a regular Dr. Doolittle. They sit in a corner in the cafeteria watching him as he thumbs through a stack of books from city college. The more he has the more it will shield him from them, the star of their dirty jokes and nasty stories.
I did not make him the center of my universe as some believed. If I bowed to him it was because I had a plan. My children had his name. My grandchildren and future generations would take this black mark to the grave.
After the first betrayal and defections, we sought refuge in the foundation we’d built. All the families we housed in communal apartments once slated to be torn down by the city. Jim advocated for them when he was appointed to the housing commission, getting below market and subsidized rents for units the city was eyeing for white college kids. We housed families that had never had a stable place to live, bringing malnourished children into our bosom, uniting cast-offs under the same roof with different parents, a beautiful thing this, an act of godliness, even though Jim would scoff at the comparison.
He has told our people to call him God.
It was my idea to start a free nursery for new mothers who wanted to work. It was my idea that every building we housed our people in should have one. It was important that adults be taught to look past the pettiness of biology. It was necessary that every child be viewed as family. I looked at my rainbow sons, my white birth son and black spiritual son, with pride; tall, strapping, star athletes who loved to rib and test each other, playing basketball long into the night to escape the harangues of their father. They were the best each race had to offer. It was blasphemous to think so. To favor any child over another was against our creed. Still, I tried to keep them close to me, away from Jim’s filth and the sinful parade of women he was sleeping with. The boys despised him for what he did to me, but their minds were too weak to resist.
“Sikivu Hutchinson’s vision of Jonestown, of the real people who left behind despair for what they thought was belief and hope, is a valuable one – her take is the one America hasn’t yet seen.” Susan Straight, author, Between Heaven and Here and Take One Candle, Light a Room
By Sikivu Hutchinson
“Ain’t no white sky daddy gonna save you. Are we Black, proud and socialist? What are we?”
Why did a powerful white man utter these words and why did hundreds of black people, the majority of them black women, follow him to their deaths?
In 1978, Peoples Temple, a multiracial apostolic socialist church once at the forefront of liberal San Francisco politics, self-destructed in a Guyana jungle settlement called Jonestown. Founded by the Reverend Jim Jones, a white Indiana-born misfit and self-proclaimed Marxist, the church became the focal point of social justice activism and racial solidarity for a diverse cross-section of political radicals, religious seekers and disenfranchised folk. Jones was the object of mass adulation and idolatry, cloaking a white savior mentality in a militantly blacker-than-thou charismatic public image. For many of his black female followers, he was Father and God—one of the only white men who could be trusted to affirm black people’s lives as valuable.
Fatally bonded by fear of racist annihilation, the community’s greatest symbol of crisis was the “White Night”; a rehearsal of revolutionary mass suicide that eventually led to the deaths of over 900 church members of all ages, genders, and sexual orientations.
75% of those who died in Jonestown, and the majority of those in the Peoples Temple movement, were African American. But most of the literary portrayals of Jonestown have been by white people
White Nights, Black Paradise, due in 2015, is a fictional account of three black women who were part of the movement but took radically different paths: Hy, a drifter and a spiritual seeker, her sister Taryn, an atheist with an inside line on the church’s money trail and Ida Lassiter, an activist whose watchdog journalism exposes the rot of corruption, sexual abuse and violence in the church, fueling its exodus to Guyana:
Word of the carnage in the jungle began to trickle in at breakfast. A special report blaring over the Muzak in the grocery store as I waited in line; a breaking news segment ruining my afternoon game shows and noontime grilled cheese. Watch the commentators’ supernatural gleam. Watch their lip smacking lust at being the first to be blessed with such a bonanza. See them crawl all over each other for the most lurid angle, unearthing low rent natives to lead their crews through the deep dark bush for blond white survivors. A dirty blue-eyed damsel to save from the horror, a Fay Wray gushing repentance for the delight and ad dollars of the modern Western world. The lucky few escapees will have to tread through the sludge of bodies every night of their lives, retracing their steps, mistaking the bug eyes of the dead for the living, deciding who to rescue or to leave behind in a split second. Wondering why God has forsaken them. Some deciding finally to save their own hides out of fear, cowardice, raw instinct; and who could blame them. There was no Nat Turner among them. Or had he been cornered and gutted in the communal latrine? Written up for a thought crime. Stuffed in a hot box and lit up with smack like the recalcitrant Negro children. Originally I had faith in the women. But this was misguided. Even though they’d been warned since birth, taught to be discerning, to take mental notes and ask hard questions, to keep their destinies in their own hands. They were rank amateurs, bush leaguers playing tiddly winks against a grand master, one of the best I’ve ever seen. The most devious to lie up in my bed and spin history. With the soft hands and gentle heart of the devil.
White Nights, Black Paradise is a riveting story of complicity and resistance; loyalty and betrayal; black struggle and black sacrifice. It locates Peoples Temple and Jonestown in the shadow of the civil rights movement, Black Power, Second Wave feminism and the Great Migration. Recapturing black women’s voices, White Nights, Black Paradise explores their elusive quest for home and utopia. In so doing, the novel provides a complex window onto the epic flameout of a social movement that was not only an indictment of religious faith but of American injustice.