Over the past forty years since the Jonestown Guyana massacre of November 18, 1978, there has been a wealth of information and analysis on the event. Scores of articles, books, documentaries, student research papers, films, and other treatments have been produced with the ostensible aim of explaining the “mystery” of Jonestown. Though Peoples Temple was a predominantly black church, and the majority of those who died in Jonestown were African American women, the sociopolitical and historical issues that compelled black women to emigrate to Jonestown have not received widespread attention. For example, only two books among the dozens of published book length works devoted to Jonestown on Goodreads were authored by black women.
In an era in which African Americans continue to struggle with religious idolatry against a backdrop of socioeconomic and political disenfranchisement, Jonestown illustrates the steep price black folks paid to pursue what they believed would be a path to liberation.
The “Jonestown industrial complex”, has been fashioned through a white, Eurocentric lens, with black folks and black women reduced to gullible spectators and voiceless victims, a colorful backdrop to the antics of evil yet charismatic white saviors. This erasure is reminiscent of the way black women have been written out of the history of the civil rights and Black Power movements, of the Women’s movement and LGBTQI liberation movements, both recast with a white face. Peoples Temple embodied the vitality and contradictions of all of these movements.
As an outsider looking in, I recognized my grandmothers in Hyacinth and Zipporah Thrash, early Temple members in the 1950s, who were part of the Southern and Midwestern diaspora of the Great Migration. Black women only a few generations removed from slavery, who believed California would be another promised land, a space of deliverance from Jim Crow terrorism and sexual violence. Women who tithed property, income and benefits to Peoples Temple and had their dream of self-determination shattered in Jonestown.
Dissatisfied by this erasure, Jonestown survivors Leslie Wagner Wilson, Yulanda Williams, and I decided to create the website Blackjonestown.org. Although by no means exhaustive, the site is designed to examine, reflect on, and memorialize the impact of Jonestown on African American people in general and African American women in particular. We’d like for it to be a platform for an evolving body of work on the black experience in Jonestown and Peoples Temple, in order to assert black agency within a narrative that has long been framed as deviant and pathological.
In an era in which African Americans continue to struggle with religious idolatry against a backdrop of socioeconomic and political disenfranchisement, Jonestown illustrates the steep price black folks paid to pursue what they believed would be a path to liberation. As with so many African Americans in the contemporary U.S., black folks in the California communities where Peoples Temple dominated were being massively displaced from their homes due to gentrification and “urban renewal” (once dubbed “Negro removal” by James Baldwin).
The African American community in Fillmore, San Francisco, the church’s base, was at the eye of this storm. During the post-civil rights, post-Black Power era of Jonestown, the so-called “California dream” was revealed to be a nightmare. Rife with racially restrictive covenants and apartheid-style policing, so-called liberal cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco were just as insidiously segregated as the Jim Crow South. Some church members viewed emigrating to Jonestown as a utopic escape hatch in a climate in which blacks were fighting to keep their homes, communities, and identities.
In the twenty first century San Francisco of Silicon Valley billionaires, skyrocketing rents and unaffordable homes black folks have been pushed out of the city and into the epicenter of the state’s homeless crisis. It is for this reason that Jonestown remains compelling to a cross-section of African Americans as both a cautionary tale and a troubling symbol of black struggle in a period in which traditional black cultural institutions like the church were perceived as either ineffective or MIA. Hence, Black Jonestown is an effort to both document and contextualize the contemporary relevance of Peoples Temple and Jonestown for the black diaspora in the twenty first century.
On the anniversary, a “Day of Atonement” commemoration will be held in San Francisco’s Fillmore community in acknowledgment of Jonestown’s lasting impact on African Americans. The event will be the first of its kind to be held in San Francisco, the former headquarters of Peoples Temple. At the end of November, the stage play adaptation of White Nights, Black Paradise, based on my 2015 historical fiction novel exploring the interlocking relationships, politics, and social histories of black women in Peoples Temple and Jonestown, will debut for a limited run at L.A.’s Hudson Theatre with a predominantly black female cast.
Black lesbian poet and activist Audre Lourde once said, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” Her words resonate deeply as we confront the living, breathing past of Jonestown.