Are We Black, Proud and Socialist?

why did so many black women
White Nights, Black Paradise: A Novel

“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.

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Prophet Zeke: White Nights

jones black women jpg
By Sikivu Hutchinson

Early on as a small child I had the visions, the supreme gift, and it was recognized. Supposedly it ran in the family, through what they called the matrilineal line, but some quirk in blood gave it to me. Early on it helped me and mine stay ahead of the white people, to read them before they could read me. The dull-witted, the weak amongst us were always running, always staying hunted, prisoners of the natural world and its evil. Even as an infant swimming in piss buckets, gurgling like a clubbed seal with no words a human could understand, I had the vision greater than any adult three times my age. And this was my solemn curse; to be cut in two, a mortal black body with the spirit of a god, expected to bow and scrape and genuflect to the ignorant masses of thieving white crackers.

There was no college for us but the trades, the Negro agricultural leagues that would work you half to death to earn the slave wage of a sharecropper, or the industrial schools that teetered on bankruptcy. I took a few courses from Roebuck Templeton Industrial and learned how to build ships. I had a knack for it, an inner talent that the old vain fool of an instructor I took carpentry class with was jealous of. He named me black Sinbad. As if that would be enough to cut me down and make me kneel to him. As though my ambition would whither on the vine from his naked jealousy. Whatever shit he threw at me I threw back at him; subtle so he wouldn’t notice at first until the whole class was laughing at his bare behind. He tried to run us like a military regiment, all cock and balls and do what I say not what I do. Just a frustrated tiny little meek little ant pile of worthlessness. And all of the boys, some grown men from the chain gangs, even the more ambitious ones from the tenant farms, the ones that could barely read and write, let this ant pile run them into the ground.

That was my first up close and personal glimpse into the unchecked petty tyranny of the common spook, the garden variety nigger with no sense of history or culture. This country Negro who was just as black and poor as me. Who itched with every marrow of his being to be a white man with real power. When I finished the class with the highest marks out of everybody I gave Countryified a white rose dipped in cow shit, told him to look me up in the Aegean on the black Sinbad. A decade after I’d founded Elysian Fields Temple and built it up from the ground I saw him in Indianapolis lying out in front of a speakeasy rattling a tin cup begging. He’d got hit in the head with a drill bit and blinded. I threw a quarter in his cup, told him that one of my men would be by to take him to our Sunday healing service if he wanted to be saved. He was crying like a baby at my sermon on Second Corinthians about why God’s children must walk by faith not by sight. He’d shriveled up into a raisin, a snapping turtle, jowly skin flapping like a trash bag around a face that women had once swooned over. And now it was a steep dive from the beauty of youth. I say beauty ‘cause he was as vain as a little girl in a new Easter dress primping for Bible study. Back in the day when he stood in front of that classroom you knew he believed that sepia pretty boy shit gave him an advantage over the little backwoods boys scared of their own shadow and insecure about how to handle women.

There’s nothing mysterious about the way the Lord works with me. This punk, who was once so high and mighty and riding us like an overseer lit up with rot gut, became one of my prize lapdogs. The deacons set him up with a room of his own in one of the convalescent homes. He got three square meals a day and his clothes washed once a week by the sisters. And when I wanted a mascot, a cherry on top of a hard two hour truth-telling, I trotted him out on a leash at the end like the monkey he was. For a while he was still too dumb and conceited, too happy to have his thumb up his ass smelling his shit, to realize who I was. He would’ve needed the whole book of Revelations to school him.

Because I’ve been blessed with the vision I say I have a complicated relationship with the Lord. It’s what the scientists call symbiotic. He gives me a taste of the future, a sliver of a glimpse, and we conspire on how to shape it for moral profit. One day I was driving down the street in a pissing rain and I saw a fat little white boy coming out of Samuel’s, the last Negro bookstore standing after the riots of ‘24. I was on the way to a deacons’ meeting but naturally I was curious about why a white boy was patronizing one of our Negro stores. You learn early on that a white child no matter how small unleashed in our neighborhood meant danger. If a Negro woman were looking after one she’d have to be extra careful about what she said and what she did. Because any misstep could be collected as intelligence. Because the tiniest white child’s word against hers could be sudden death.

That fat little white boy Russ Reed devoured every bit of Negro-bilia he could get his mitts on. Was one of those soft sadity kinds with a quick wit and even quicker tongue, a viper masquerading as a wallflower. He’d done a tour of all the local white churches, found them wanting, dull as dirt, then stepped foot in Ezekial Baptist one day and got sucker punched. Bright eyes got swept up in all that sanctified hoodoo and voodoo and marathon singing and praying like he had a front row at his own private circus freak sideshow. Maybe that’s when the germ of a plan came to him; to infiltrate the world of the poor Negro, become more Negro than the Negro and watch as he self-destructed. I’d had a few missionary ofays join Elysian for a month then set sail when they’d wrung enough spook juice out of their sojourn into the jungle. It became a spring ritual, regular as birds migrating to the South from cold weather. They’d heard one of my radio broadcasts or read about me in the international syndicates. They were fresh out of seminary, Rust Belters who took odd jobs to survive, traveled in packs of twos or threes as if there were safety in numbers. As if it was us that was the threat, that was the eternal savages. When all of history, the real record, the one that ain’t in the history books, is the story of how the ofays brought death and destruction to every civilization known to mankind, small, medium or large.

This was the universal rule, the way they locked up history and made it over, counterfeited it in their own image. The Negro was just a bit of entertainment for them, like a wind-up toy monkey or pop goes the weasel. When I was preaching the gospel I could see them from the pulpit getting high on curiosity. They could’ve flown right up to the rafters with Icarus they were so high on the honey of my voice, my command of the English language; finally freed up from that bootleg Baptist gibberish Ezekial was trying to sell them. But a murmur started going through the congregation, a ripple of doubt. All these hush-hush questions about why Prophet Zeke let these Philistines into our sanctuary, our family. In committee meetings with the church board I would tell my people to be calm, to steel themselves. There was a reason, a purpose for the interlopers’ presence. I had the vision and the vision told me that ultimately they would be useful to us. My lieutenants, Murray and Cosmo, were straight up race men, served as teenagers in World War I when Negroes were sneaking in underage. They were my radar; always on alert, my Alabama eyes and ears guarding the temple and everything around it like it was a vault holding state secrets. They advised me about appearances of favoritism. Said I was letting bright eyes fly too close. They were older with solid heads on their shoulders but there is a reason now brothermen why ya’ll remain foot soldiers and not generals in God’s here army. The Lord spoke in my ear and said I’m never going to let you be even 1/10th of a nigger. Not 1/10th, 1/16th or any particle of your being. When the police lynched our organist Lynetta Mae’s boy in the county jail and sat up half the night playing black jack on his back He was testing me. When the government tried to come after me for mail fraud and the so-called corruption of a minor, a fifteen going on fifty little harlot-in-training, He was testing me. And when He guided my vision to Russ Reed it was a supreme test too.

Prophet Zeke has nothing to hide, nothing to cover up, nothing to shuck jive or apologize for.

After the IRS tried to shut us down I watched Russ Reed come in with nothing but the white skin on his back and leave with a fortune, a multi-millionaire dripping gold with a doctoral degree in Negro-sophy. That old nigger Countryified was his first charge. I gave him to Russ to work on due to his punk love, his secret reverence for white boys. He would lick the shit off that white boy’s toilet seat and say it was vanilla ice cream he loved him some Russ so much. And the feeling was mutual at first, bound and determined as Russ Reed was to make old Countryified see and read John 9, where Jesus heals a blind man by rubbing spit and dirt into his eyes, right there in front of the congregation. After Bible study on Wednesdays he’d stay behind and practice his preaching in the basement. Shy and quiet at first, awkward about delivery, about how to move his body, project his voice, tongue-tied with scripture. He discovered quick though that some Negroes would give a white boy every benefit of the doubt; every second, third and fourth chance to prove themselves before they fell flat on their face. Even then some would offer up their asses to carry them across the River Jordan. That Negro blindness was a white boy narcotic. A 100 proof potency drug like glue, candy, gasoline and moonshine all mashed up together. He played on it when his shit was faltering, when he confused verses, couldn’t remember a sequence, was winging it through the slurp of a breath mint. Then the sister women washing dishes in the kitchen would stop to prop him up, baby him, fawn and drool with clucks of encouragement that they should’ve saved for their own children, running their fingers through that toothpick straight tar pit colored hair of his.

I tried to break my people of that instinct through my preaching, my healing, my radio spots, my vision for an Afro-Asiatic world ministry with a black face and not the shucking weakling simper of a minstrel. Through my word and deed I tried to instill them with a healthy dose of skepticism, a way of busting out of the mental chains locked on them by the material world. But servitude is like a virus, a fungus, always lurking, always looking for new hosts and moist dark places. No matter the villainy, the outright desecration the peckerwood terrorists committed right here under our noses, in our own neighborhoods, sometimes in our own beds, there would always be an appetite among rudderless Negroes for the blond angel on the soap box hiding its devil horns.

Russ Reed barreled through his “apprenticeship” at Elysian like a runaway freight train. Like any good pupil trying to please a school marm every waking moment was a learning one, an opportunity to prove himself. Learning was oxygen to him. He finagled his way into being one of my junior operatives through his discipline, but I kept him at a distance. If there were errands to be run to our vendors, or basic plumbing to be done or a letter to be typed when the church secretary was out sick he magically appeared. He figured out that Prophet Mother had an affinity for those nasty little rat toy dogs and brought her one as a present. He saw that our choir’s lead soprano needed infusions of tea with lemon to hit the high notes and he started brewing that smelly shit during rehearsal breaks. Any whining child cutting up in the back of the sanctuary would be calmed by one of his mangy menagerie of vermin, offered as a gift after service. He became the church pet store and vet, doing his first healings and miracles on mutts he dragged in from Lord knows where. This two-bit Tarzan of the dogs.

After the war ended a lot of my people got laid off. The women who’d gone to work in the factories making more than they could cleaning up after white ladies—all ritually canned. Our men who’d fought in the Negro regiments coming back with lost limbs, damaged souls and the worst shell shock like layers of their brains were being peeled off. They weren’t worth shit anymore to America. Got handed a mop or a broom or a shoeshine box and told go buck-dance. White soldiers snapped up all the jobs in the rubber and metal plants and bought themselves big cars and new homes and worked overtime to keep their blocks nigger-free. But Russ Reed stayed up under me, went to college in the day to study philosophy and tore through scripture at night, constantly asking why and what if, playing wide-eyed innocence to the bone. But even in his zeal I sensed resistance. My own sons were jealous of him. Smeared castor oil on the lunch meat in his sandwiches, glued the pages of his bible together, poured red ants on him at the church picnics. They seemed to believe that there was a succession plan for Russ Reed and that kept them hungry. But that was a good thing, because all the privilege they had as my sons, as the black princes of Elysian, made them soft, entitled, unable to see ahead without their mother or my operatives, the deacons, the sanctified men entrusted to protect us, walking behind them with a tissue wiping their asses. There’s nothing like comfort and a father king to smother ambition. And with none of those things Russ Reed had a compass, his father a falling down drunk, a reprobate, a blasphemer, a failure in everything he touched. Because Russ Reed was white trash and came from nothing, less than nothing, and nothing to the nth power in the white world that was the fire that burned under him.

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Godless Americana: Provocative, Infuriating Feminist View

From the Humanist Magazine

By Norm Allen, Jr:

“Godless Americana is an incredibly provocative book, containing something to infuriate practically anyone who reads it. And I suspect that the author wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Sikivu Hutchinson is an author and activist who promotes a progressive—and aggressive—conception of humanism that is at once feminist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-classist, and anti-imperialist. She has no patience for nontheists who focus primarily on church/state separation, evolution, and other issues that, in her view, are being promoted particularly by white males within the secular movement. In response, Hutchinson asserts that humanism will only appeal to the masses of “people of color,” women, LGBT individuals, and other historically oppressed groups if it addresses structural and systemic causes of poverty and oppression.

Godless Americana is an impressively researched book that deals with a number of subjects that most nontheists rarely, if ever, discuss at their gatherings or in their literature. For instance, the book makes the case that many white humanists tend to blindly, even proudly, embrace scientism. While noting the importance of science, Hutchinson calls attention to the fact that racism exists in science and in medicine. Moreover, she challenges the notion that black girls aren’t interested in science due to hyper-religiosity. Rather, she states that the contributions of scientists of color are simply not touted in textbooks and lesson plans.

In her hometown of Los Angeles, Hutchinson acknowledges the lack of Advanced Placement (AP) courses for black and Latino high school students. However, students taking these courses are much more likely to earn degrees in hard sciences and engineering. Hutchinson writes:

In 1999, students from the Inglewood Unified School District in Los Angeles successfully sued to get more AP courses at their schools. The suit charged that black and Latino students were systematically denied access to college preparation courses that were standard fare at white schools in Los Angeles County.

In a related story from Bartow, Florida, sixteen-year-old student Kiera Wilmot mixed together toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum foil in a science experiment at her school earlier this year. As a result, there was an explosion. The Bartow Police Department, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, and Bartow High School pressed two felony charges against her. Feminists and civil rights activists protested vehemently, claiming it was just another example of the cradle-to-prison pipeline that exists for African Americans and society’s failure to encourage black girls to pursue science…More @ The Humanist Magazine

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The Racial Politics of Atheism | RD10Q | Religion Dispatches

The Racial Politics of Atheism | RD10Q | Religion Dispatches.

Interview with Sikivu Hutchinson on the themes and issues explored in her groundbreaking new book.

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Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels

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God’s Body, Good Christians & the Black Other

From Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels

By Sikivu Hutchinson

It’s a good time to be Christian in America. The dark dirty era of persecution has receded and being Christian, shouting it loud and balls to the breeze proud without the possibility of rebuke, is sexy. Ads from Internet dating sites like Christian Singles beckon during prime time, the Christian catch phrase “I’m blessed” has become a national bromide, and pop culture serves up Americana holiness in one big 14 carat crucifix. The hippest chicest celebs don’t leave home without megawatt crucifix bling, network TV dramas crown wayward white women “Good Christian Bitches,” and superstar mega preachers command 24-7 branding platforms on slick cable TV shows that hawk their latest motivational pap. Of course, there is nothing new about the latter; in the 1980s prosperity pimps like Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and Pat Robertson parlayed TV evangelism into a multi-billion dollar industry. But twenty first century pimping is distinguished by its ubiquity, fueled by the Internet and a glut of religious cable stations that are more accessible to mainstream viewers. In the age of Barack Obama, the brute force revivalism of the Religious Right has made once benign issues like birth control partisan and even gotten the yellow-bellied mass media shrieking about the right’s “war on women.”

Still, the Religious Right has been practically virtuosic in its 2+2=5 mass doublespeak; convincing mainstream America that Christians are the new minority and that commie pinko “secular progressives” (Fox News talk show host Bill O’Reilly’s preferred “smear”) are at the helm of a socialist conspiracy. During the 2012 presidential race GOP candidate Rick Perry repeatedly played the Christian victim card in a desperate bid to remain relevant with the very same white evangelicals that courted him in the early stages of his candidacy. After flubbing the presidential debates his numbers plummeted and white evangelicals ditched him for Rick Santorum. Prior to the Iowa Caucuses Perry ran a series of ads boldly declaring that he was not “ashamed” to say he was a Christian. The most campy one was entitled “Strong” and featured Perry striding through the grass in full blown alpha male mode, inviting viewers to admire his impeccably feathered seventies soap star helmet hair and Iron John jaw. Perry blasts Obama’s “war” on religion, the indecency of allowing gays to serve openly in the military, and the prohibition on prayer in schools. Tellingly, the narrative that Christianity and Christian values are under siege by the first Black president is one of white evangelicals’ favorite fairy tales. Because of his blackness Barack Obama could no more be a legitimate Christian than Fidel Castro. During the campaign Rick Santorum even went so far as to vilify Obama as a suspect Christian touting a “phony theology not based on the Bible.” None of this vitriol accompanied Bill Clinton’s presidency. Clinton could be as raunchy a philandering cracker as he wanted to be and still be God’s child, a good Southern Baptist with only a symbolic connection to his faith.

When it comes to religion and faith, white outsider status can’t compete with the black Other. I was reminded of this legacy when an African American and a white teacher got into an argument about whether or not the U.S. is a Christian nation during one of my teacher training sessions. The school where the workshop was being held is predominantly black and Latino, with a high dropout rate and a low four-year college going rate. After a high profile incident in which a gun in a student’s backpack accidentally went off in a classroom, the school was widely stereotyped by the local media as a dead end repository of lawless black and brown youth. Nonetheless, there are many students at the school who are achieving and showing leadership, contrary to the stereotype. During the discussion, the African American teacher staunchly defended the notion that the U.S. is a Christian nation. The white teacher, who is notorious for making racist paternalistic comments about students (as well as homophobic slurs about a colleague), swaggeringly proclaimed his non-belief and declared that the U.S. has always been defined by the separation of church and state. It was clear that the “outsider” white man had no fear about being ostracized for his renegade views in a fight with a preachy black teacher. The reality is that even the most abject disreputable white non-believer doesn’t suffer any racial consequences for his non-belief. There might be political consequences; but even disreputable white men don’t surrender their universal subject status over a little matter of heathenism. You might be a Godless “freedom-hating” flag burning pinko commie infidel but you were still human and still a citizen until proven otherwise. And this has been the paradox for African American non-believers. Historically, being Christian has been a de facto pathway to becoming moral, to becoming American, and to becoming a provisional citizen.

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Reader Praise for Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars

“I just finished reading your book “Moral Combat” and I wanted to thank you for writing it. I am an atheist college professor teaching sociology (mostly criminology and globalization) and while I enjoy reading “New Atheist” folks like Dawkins and Hitchens I was always disappointed in their lack of context (you wrote about that beautifully). There is virtually no sociology in their writing, and you brilliantly argue that humanists should be more concerned with racial, gender and other forms of social justice; and that other secular voices need to be (genuinely) heard.”

Dr. Nathan Pino, Department of Sociology, Texas State University

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