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.