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Remembering Jonestown: ‘White Nights, Black Paradise’ author Sikivu Hutchinson speaks

January 12, 2016

by The People’s Minister of Information JR

The Jonestown Massacre, where hundreds of Black people were murdered in the jungles of Guyana, is a chapter in Black Bay Area history that is not talked about enough. Many people did not know that the white preacher who was head of the People’s Temple, Jim Jones, had dealings, in the Bay, with the Panthers, Glide Memorial Church, prominent figures in the Bay Area Black press and San Francisco politician Willie Brown.

‘White Nights, Black Paradise’ cover, webAuthor Sikivu Hutchinson’s new novel “White Nights, Black Paradise” takes a fresh look at the People’s Temple through the eyes of Black women, considering that was the profile of most of the victims, but their accounts are not detailed in the many documented histories of Jonestown. Check out author Sikivu Hutchinson as she talks about her new book.

M.O.I. JR: What made you interested in talking about the history of what happened at Jonestown? What made you want to write a fictional narrative from the perspective of someone Black?

Sikivu Hutchinson: My new novel, “White Nights, Black Paradise,” is the first to focus on the Black women of Peoples Temple church and the 1978 Jonestown massacre. It is also the first to fully contextualize Peoples Temple and Jonestown within the context of racial and gender politics and the decline of the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power.

Seventy-five percent of the membership of Peoples Temple was African American, and the majority of those who died in Jonestown were African American women. Nonetheless, most of the literary portrayals of Jonestown have focused on white protagonists.

As a black feminist writer and researcher, this bothered me immensely. The Jonestown victims learn about appleton divorce attorneys and marginalized of agency and, in many respects, humanity. This erasure can’t be divorced from the cultural invisibility of Black women both within the historical record of Peoples Temple and American social history overall.

Seventy-five percent of the membership of Peoples Temple was African American, and the majority of those who died in Jonestown were African American women. The Jonestown victims have been demonized and marginalized – stripped of agency and, in many respects, humanity.

So my initial research was driven by what seemed to be one of the most basic and egregiously unanswered questions – where were the Black feminist readings on and scholarship about Peoples Temple and Jonestown?

There has been so much scholarly, historical documentation and analysis of Jonestown that I wanted to craft something that was totally different from the event’s “canon” of representation. Fiction allowed me greater creative and imaginative license to envision the lives, motivations, hopes, dreams and ambitions of the Black women of Peoples Temple inflected by social, cultural and historical themes, such as the failed promise of the Great Migration, urban removal, gender politics, feminism, Black female sexuality, internalized racism, the white savior complex and minstrelsy and 20th century Black liberation struggle.

M.O.I. JR: What was your creative process like? Did you write every day for a certain period of time?

Sikivu Hutchinson

Sikivu Hutchinson

Sikivu Hutchinson: I started by reading a lot of the Jonestown and Peoples Temple literature – books, articles, blogposts, reflections from survivors and scholars on the Alternative Considerations of Jonestown website, etc. – which allowed me to plug into the voices and interiority of my lead protagonists. Midway through my writing, I was able to interview a few survivors and attend a reunion of Peoples Temple members.

I also had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. James Taylor from UCSF about his research on Peoples Temple. I tried to maintain a regular daily writing schedule and wrote a few essays about Jonestown preceding the novel’s publication.

M.O.I. JR: What exactly is your story about and who are the main characters? A lot of Jim Jones’ movement was set in the Bay Area with notable social and political figures. Are those facts in the book?

Sikivu Hutchinson: The story traces Peoples Temple from its origins in Indiana in the 1950s to its transition to California, where Peoples Temple also established churches in Ukiah and Los Angeles, to its demise in Jonestown. It shifts back and forth in time and is told from multiple perspectives, in first and third person.

The characters, who are real, composite and fictitious, are a cross-section – they’re queer, lesbian, bisexual, trans, straight, African American, Latino, multiracial, white, age and class diverse and all over the map in terms of spiritual belief. African American sisters Taryn and Hy Strayer anchor the story with their at times turbulent relationship.

The book opens with the sisters’ transition to segregated San Francisco from the Midwest. As an atheist lesbian and straight agnostic, they’re 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.

The novel is also anchored by the character of Ida Lassiter, a Black female activist-journalist who becomes a conflicted Jones ally in the church’s early years. She eventually exposes the malfeasance within the Temple.

Each person joined the church, stayed with it or left for complex reasons that often reflected deep ambivalence and contradiction. For Black members, emigration to Jonestown embodied just another leg of the African Diaspora.

Far from being brainwashed dupes, some members actively collaborated in articulating the dream – and nightmare – of Jonestown. The church’s complex political and activist history is vividly represented in the book.

Each person joined the church, stayed with it or left for complex reasons that often reflected deep ambivalence and contradiction. For Black members, emigration to Jonestown embodied just another leg of the African Diaspora. Far from being brainwashed dupes, some members actively collaborated in articulating the dream – and nightmare – of Jonestown.

Important figures in the Peoples Temple-Jonestown saga, such as Sun Reporter publisher and physician Carlton Goodlett, one of Jones’ staunchest allies, Congressman Leo Ryan and early 20th century evangelist Father Divine are represented. The church’s involvement in the election of San Francisco’s late Mayor George Moscone is also depicted, as is its relationship with the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers.

M.O.I. JR: Where did you get the title of the book?

Sikivu Hutchinson: The title of the book is drawn from two metaphors – the term “White Night” signified a state of siege and persecution – ginned up by Jones – that Jonestown rallied around to protect itself. Members were told that racist terrorists were coming to invade the settlement and kill members.

Folks were required to patrol the compound and demonstrate their loyalty to Jonestown and the “cause” of “anti-white supremacist” communist solidarity. The phrase “Black Paradise” is a tragically ironic reference to the cultural hype Jones and his partisans created around the idea of the Jonestown settlement. The settlement was envisioned – and promoted – as a kind of “Promised Land,” a racial utopia and antidote to the white supremacist violence and dehumanization Black people experienced in the U.S.

The settlement was envisioned – and promoted – as a kind of “Promised Land,” a racial utopia and antidote to the white supremacist violence and dehumanization Black people experienced in the U.S.

M.O.I. JR: Now that we’re four decades past Jonestown, what lessons do you think were learnt from Jim Jones and his mass homicide of mostly Black people in the jungles of Guyana?

Sikivu Hutchinson: First, that white saviors aping the language and imagery of the Black liberation struggle are dangerous, especially when they have the imprimatur of Black leadership, as Jones did. Second, that turbulent times can drive people of color to make seemingly desperate choices, especially where religion, family and economic wellbeing are concerned.

Third, that Black women – 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 victimization – are especially vulnerable when it comes to investment in organized religion and charismatic movements. That said, a large part of the appeal of Peoples Temple was its standing in the Fillmore community: the programs it provided, its involvement in social justice issues like the anti-apartheid movement, affirmative action and fighting the homophobic 1978 Briggs initiative, as well as its professed solidarity with Black organizations like the Panthers and Glide Memorial Church.

A large part of the appeal of Peoples Temple was its standing in the Fillmore community: the programs it provided, its involvement in social justice issues like the anti-apartheid movement, affirmative action and fighting the homophobic 1978 Briggs initiative, as well as its professed solidarity with Black organizations like the Panthers and Glide Memorial Church.

Some of the members felt that traditional Bay Area Black churches had failed them and that Peoples Temple was a progressive, culturally and politically engaged antidote to the social conservatism of their local churches. Significantly, the Temple became involved in challenging the racist mass removal and dispossession of African American residents in Fillmore during the 1970s.

It provided housing, health care and job opportunities for members in a climate in which the San Francisco African American community – shades of its current day marginalization and dispossession – was literally under siege. Given this climate, it’s important to stress the complexity of Black folks’ involvement with Peoples Temple, their motivations for emigrating to Jonestown and, ultimately, their participation in the murder-suicide.

Suicide rituals had been practiced by Peoples Temple since the 1960s, so this was not some unknown outlier that Jones sprang on the community out of nowhere. In the final moments of Jonestown, many were coerced into taking the cyanide-laced Flavor Aid cocktail, including over 300 children.

However, some also chose to take the poison for a variety of painfully complex factors. The novel explores these levels of complicity and resistance – going beyond simplistic theories of brainwashing and mind control toward a more complex rendering of the members’ agency.

Some chose to take the poison for a variety of painfully complex factors. The novel explores these levels of complicity and resistance – going beyond simplistic theories of brainwashing and mind control toward a more complex rendering of the members’ agency.

M.O.I. JR: How have the survivors and families of the victims of the Jonestown massacre responded to your story?

Sikivu Hutchinson: I got a positive review in the Jonestown Institute review by Dr. Rebecca Moore, whose sisters and nephew died in Jonestown. Dr. Moore and her spouse, Fielding McGehee, were extremely helpful in my research process. The book was released in mid-November, so I haven’t gotten feedback yet from more survivors.

M.O.I. JR: How has the public responded?

Sikivu Hutchinson: The novel has been received positively thus far. Most readers were unaware of Black women’s key role in Peoples Temple and were largely familiar with the problematic “drink the Kool-Aid” stereotypes about Jonestown. Black women readers relate to the vivid characters as well as the cultural, gender and socioeconomic themes presented in the book.

In addition to the Jonestown Institute review, I’ve received a strong review in the L.A. Progressive and a write-up in Religion Dispatches.

M.O.I. JR: Do you have any book signings in the Bay soon? Are any Black bookstores carrying the book?

Sikivu Hutchinson: I’ve contacted Marcus Books about doing a signing. I did a signing in December at Eso Won bookstore in Los Angeles and the book is being carried there.

M.O.I. JR: How could people get the book online?

Sikivu Hutchinson: The book is available at Amazon.

The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com.

 

 

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