The saga of Jonestown gets a fictionalized treatment
“Let me present to you a combination of Martin King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein …”
—Then California Assemblyman Willie Brown introducing the Rev. Jim Jones at a 1976 testimonial dinner.
America was conceived in discontent from the moment the founding fathers left the restrictions of European convention for the New World (and the chance to sow the seeds of their own intolerance). From there, dissatisfaction propelled western expansion in United States, and the possibility of a life suited to the quirks of the intrepid settlers in their quest for inner tranquility.
Blacks of African descent in particular had the incentive to seek out a better life in this uncharted territory, especially after emancipation, when so many freed slaves made the trek westward to Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma (as part of the historic trek dubbed the “Exodusters.”)
Of course, the racism that drove them westward did not end with the dawn of the 20th century. So, it was a contingent of disenfranchised Indiana church people most of them Black, who gathered around itinerant minister Jim Jones—who’d made a name for himself as a crusader for integration during the 1950s, establishing a flock that utilized a hodgepodge of doctrines including Communism, egalitarianism, and Pentecostalism under the name the Peoples Temple Christian Church Full Gospel. Jones moved his congregation first to Ukiah, Calif., then on to San Francisco in 1967 (another branch was located in Los Angeles) to escape the racism in Indiana, and his prediction of a nuclear war that would engulf the Midwest.
Jones’ charisma endeared him to such notables as Brown, First Lady Rosalyn Carter, Lt. Gov. Merv Dymally, Vice President Walter Mondale, San Francisco County Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone.
None-the-less, Jones’ disenchantment with the American way of life motivated him to move his church once again; this time to the South American nation of Guyana to set up a utopian settlement called “Jonestown.”
The settlement became infamous for the Nov. 18, 1978 deaths of 900 of its members from self-inflicted cyanide poisoning; the toxic administered via a red powdered liquid drink at their leader’s direction in a ceremony called “White Nights.”
Recently academic, activist, and author Sikivu Hutchinson published a fictionalized account of this tragedy titled “White Nights, Black Paradise” (Infidel Books, 2015). In it, she weaves a narrative exploring the attraction of the church folk to a White savior who “… began mining the language of Black power by referring to himself as ‘Black’ and inveighing against White supremacy and White racism.”
“Most of the literary portrayals of Jonestown have focused on White protagonists,” Hutchinson says, in spite of the reality that 75 percent of their members were Black women.
To ensure the authenticity of her story, Hutchinson engaged in copious amounts of research.
“I was able to interview several survivors from both the San Francisco and Los Angeles churches as well as attend a reunion of Peoples Temple members,” she recalls. Among her sources was Rebecca Moore, Ph.D., past curator of the Jonestown Institute at San Diego State University, and a relative of several victims of the massacre.
Black women were especially vulnerable to Jones’ guile, Hutchinson said, “… because we are among the most religious groups in the nation, due to our continuing economic disenfranchisement and the intersection of race/gender and class. The majority of the people who joined the church were interested in progressive social justice activism, integration, communal living, anti-racism/anti-sexism and acceptance,” Hutchinson said.
Central to her story are two African American female siblings, Taryn and Hy Strayer, who succumb to the aura of open-mindedness with which the church shrouded itself.
“As an atheist lesbian (Taryn) and straight agnostic (Hy), were attracted to Peoples Temple’s anti-racist ethos, secularism and seeming tolerance. Their diversity reflects the distinctive tenor of the church and forms the backbone of the novel’s mélange of voices,” said Hutchinson.
The Jonestown saga was notable for the death of Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Calif.), who was riddled with bullets when he traveled to Guyana to investigate the welfare of members of his constituency who where part of the commune. To date, he is the only member of the House of Representatives to be assassinated while in office. NBC News reporter Don Harris was also murdered with Ryan.
In this tale, Ryan is fictionalized as “Reardon,” in a technique Hutchinson also used with other actual characters along with the use of completely fictionalized personas to give “literary distance” to this mythicized event.
“White Nights, Black Paradise” is an intriguing departure stylistically for Hutchinson, whose previous nonfiction titles for publisher Infidel, “Godless Americana” (2013), and “Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Value Wars” (2011) all had overly academic tones. At 325 pages, the book isn’t for those with abbreviated attention spans, because the multiple characters, intertwining plots, and nonlinear storyline chronicling their path to oblivion can be confusing.
Hutchinson chose to end her tale with an open-ended conclusion. She leaves the fates of many of her protagonists uncertain, perhaps to reflect the conflicted decisions that these people of dissimilar backgrounds made to invest in this racial utopia, or “Black Paradise.”
Today like all tragedies, Jonestown has taken its place in the collective memory of the world. And yet, the specter of Jim Jones’ influence remains with us, as his methodology of keeping his minions under his thumb until their the deaths has entered the urban lexicon as a metaphor for someone following an unquestioned belief or directive, sometimes due to peer pressure.
One example, the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid,” can be used to describe those prone to blind allegiance or obedience without critical thought (the actual flavoring used to deliver the Jonestown ghastly libation was likely a cheaper competitor called “Flavor Aide,” a fact that Kraft Foods, the owner of Kool-Aid is quick to point out).
Those interested in this dark moment of Golden State history may take advantage of the website devoted to the People’s Temple and its expedition to Guyana, http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/ which is maintained by the Religion Department at San Diego State.