Sikivu Hutchinson has made a truly impressive fiction debut with her first novel, White Nights, Black Paradise. She has brought a unique perspective to bear upon the story of Jim Jones, the People’s Temple movement, and the tragedy of Jonestown, one which, though fiction, sheds considerably more light upon this history than the facile depictions of the People’s Temple as a “cult.”
Hutchinson is a feminist writer and activist who is probably best known as a secular humanist advocate whose book, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars (2011), was the first book on atheism to be published by an African-American woman. That work impressed me, not only because it criticized the Black church and detailed the emergence of black atheist and freethought activism, but because she also challenged the lack of racial diversity and attention to institutional racism in the mainstream secular and New Atheist movements, and critiqued their fixation on scientism at the expense of social justice. She also writes the blackfemlens blog and is a regular contributor to the LA Progressive. (She is also the daughter of writer Earl Ofari Hutchinson. Bias Alert: This old lefty fondly recalls seeing her father’s byline on a regular basis in the now defunct American independent leftist newspaper, The Guardian.)
Hutchinson’s work provides valuable insight into the personal, cultural and historical motivations for black women’s involvement in Peoples Temple and their emigration to Jonestown.
Hutchinson’s historical fiction frames Peoples Temple and Jonestown within an African-American perspective, a sorely under-explored aspect considering the fact that the majority of Peoples Temple movement was Black and 75% of the 918 people who died at Jonestown in 1978 were African-American; in particular she gives voice to the African-American women. With this approach, Hutchinson’s work provides valuable insight into the personal, cultural and historical motivations for black women’s involvement in Peoples Temple and their emigration to Jonestown.
While part Jim Jones’ appeal was certainly rooted in the deep-seated religiosity of so many in the African-American community, this only part of the story. The People’s Temple appeal must also be placed in the context on the ongoing African-American Freedom Struggle. The Temple movement’s initial embrace of progressive political activism and social justice organizing provided hope and home for many in the wake of the dissipation of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the 70s.
In the initial part of her novel (“Hinterlands”), Hutchinson deftly moves back and forth in time, stretching from the 70’s when the People’s Temple established itself in the Bay Area, back to 40’s in Indiana, exploring the roots not only of Jim Jones and his family, but also of one the central Black women characters, independent journalist Ida Lassiter, who is initially drawn to Jones but is quickly disillusioned with him and becomes an ardent adversary dedicated to exposing him.
In this way, Hutchinson not only traces the Temple’s historical arc in Indiana, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Guyana, but also the arc of these characters development. We are also introduced to sisters Hy and Taryn Strayer. At first Taryn, a lesbian atheist, seems the more well-grounded of the two, while Hy is the passionate seeker who is initially draws them into the circle of the People’s Temple. But as the story develops, Hy sees more clearly how the movement’s leadership is manipulating and exploiting the yearnings and weakness of the believers; she becomes the one wanting to break away.
Taryn gets a job as an accountant for a firm maintaining the books for the Peoples Temple; meanwhile, she falls in love with Jess, a therapist who eventually uses her knowledge and skills to help the leadership reign in and “reeducate” straying members. Taryn is no more taken in by the movement leaders than Hy is in the long run, but her love for Jess induces her to believe Jess’s initial reassurances that they are only staying on for self-interested reasons and will eventually strike out on their own, until it becomes too late to avoid the tragedy we know is coming when they reach “The Promised Land” in Guyana.
In addition to the time shifts, Hutchinson also employs shifts between first and third person, which allows her to give voice to plethora of voices and perspectives: School teacher Ernestine Markham, whose family fled Mississippi for San Francisco in hopes of greater opportunities, only to discover racism was no less virulent, only subtle and disguised. Latina transsexual woman Devera Medeiros, who comes to the Temple with her Mamí when they are displaced by “urban renewal.” We are even taken inside the minds of Jones’s sons, the Black adoptee, Jimmy Jr., and biological son, Damien, who are no less conflicted than many others by the developments within the movement, by the actions of their father and the largely white female leadership he has built up around him.
In this fashion, Hutchinson not only provides perspectives underrepresented in the history of the People’s Temple, she crafts a compelling piece of historical fiction that will grip you until the very end. As someone who has spent his life on the Left, I found chilling the invocation of the eerily familiar ultra-left revolutionary rhetoric used by Jones and the Temple leadership to justify their actions, an aspect of the Temple that I knew little about (“shades of the Cultural Revolution” I found myself thinking at one point).
Hutchinson has written a valuable work for anyone interested in the intertwined histories of religion, the Left, and the African-American Freedom Struggle in this country, one providing important insights for anyone concerned for the future of the progressive movement in America.
David A. Anderson