In 1978, Peoples Temple, a Black multiracial church once at the forefront of progressive San Francisco politics, self-destructed in a Guyana jungle settlement named after its leader, the Reverend Jim Jones. 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. White Nights, Black Paradise focuses on three fictional black women characters who were part of the Peoples Temple movement but took radically different paths to Jonestown: 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, racism and violence in the church, fueling its exodus to Guyana. 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 social justice, home and utopia. In so doing, the novel provides a complex window onto the epic flameout of a movement that was not only an indictment of religious faith but of American democracy.
White Nights, Black Paradise
Ida Lassiter, Witness, 1963
The last Sunday service brought out all the rubberneckers. The ones who thrilled at a car crash on the horizon, slowing down, salivating as they neared the blood, guts and gore. If they were going to get saved that week then 4 p.m. at Peoples Temple was their last chance. The church band and the choir were always crack, egging on audience members who’d gotten the spirit, accenting Jim’s pulpit exhortations about apocalypse with a horn blast, drum roll or flute trill. Nuclear holocaust is a’coming, he screeched, and the only ones gonna get saved would be the Temple faithful.
This is what his visions told him, thrashing in his sleep with his thumb in his mouth and the night light on. The cowardice. The mama’s boy shipwrecked in his own head.
I sat in the back pews and watched the afternoon’s last dance of surrender. The musicians were black, white, mulatto, shiny untapped talent from the train track neighborhoods and bedroom suburbs, some barely out of high school, some recent drop-outs hot with disillusion; a fierce junior league hungry for the next breakneck chapter in their parched lives.
Jim called on me every month at the office with some new scheme for collaboration. The hotel strike years ago had galvanized him, raising his local profile as an audacious nigger lover with a jackleg church and a silver tongue. I could see him growing out of his puppy-hood as he got more confident. I could see him smelling himself, reveling in his youth, his novelty, his supernatural recall of the most obscure face and tortured personal history.
At night, the glimmer of something in him tugged at me, under the leaden waves of dream, a lamprey attaching in my sleep.
Elders from the white Pentecostal congregations sought him out as a whiz kid who could talk CIA spying one minute and the healing power of prayer circles the next. Jim began to ham it up, adopting a southern cadence in his confessional sermons, dropping g’s, playing to the small throng of white women who hung on his every word and stayed after hours to clean up the church.
They were a grasping quintet which secretly jockeyed for dominance. Carol was the alpha who kept the assembly line of all the Temple’s programs moving. She and Mabelean criss-crossed each other warily, avoiding duplication, maintaining a strict division of labor. Carol played the enforcer, supervising church finance. Mabelean channeled the Virgin Mary; sweet talking, soothing, her honey dipped voice soaring over Jim’s during the hymnals.
The other white women, Sherie, Deb, the rest, monitored prospective converts. They tended to the curious who came for the faith healing, coordinating outreach letter campaigns to reel in ambivalent white seekers cockeyed about the Negro deacons hovering at the good Reverend’s side.
On weekends Jim plowed through our neighborhoods with his two little salt and pepper boys in tow. He dragged them to all the church picnics and summer ice cream socials, Easter egg hunts and autumn carnivals, talking integration and Moses beating back the Pharaoh.
“For example, just look at my little man Jimmy Jr. Top of his class and a genius in science and mathematics but them school board savages done barred him from the school his own brother goes to.”
Outraged, the women in my historical society took up a collection for Jimmy’s school supplies. More donations poured in after the feature story I ran in The Gazette. When it came to the beneficence of white folk some of us could out Tom Uncle Tom. Even the smallest, most perfunctory white gesture toward Negroes was deemed to be sympathetic. When they heard that Jim and Mabelean had been the first to adopt a Negro child in the state of Indiana they gushed with gratitude. These were the same ones who’d never lift a finger to help the boy’s mother before she had to give the child up for adoption; the same ones who railed about loose morals and those triflin’ country Negroes up from Tennessee spitting out babies in the slums. Forced sterilization should be provided at these clinics they go to for their birth control, one white-gloved Bethel Baptist steward told me. God bless that Jim Jones for doing what’s right and setting a Christian example.
A small groundswell of Negroes joining Peoples Temple started. Some came after Jim’s neighborhood canvassing. Some came after reading my articles on the church’s work. Some were inspired by the hot spring of ‘58, when all the white homeowners’ associations in the area tried to run a black doctor out of his new house on Cranston Street, and Jim participated in a meeting I set up with the family and the mayor.
I had made it a habit to go to the church once a month when I wasn’t on deadline.
“When are you going to stay for an entire service?” he asked me one afternoon at the office.
“Sundays are work days, quiet time. This place shuts down and I can take advantage of a whole afternoon.”
He leaned forward in his chair, stretching his hands over the worn knees of his pants, a leg hitched up to reveal the hairy scruff of his leg, the fat calf thick from walking the city, from running up stairs to lay hands on bedridden prayer patients. Outside in the common area Harrison grunted his departure, sweeping up the mail imperially as he doffed the colorless hat, coat and gloves he wore regardless of whether it was thirty or one hundred degrees.
“I’ve lost the yen for listening to preachers. It’s tiring, dealing with intermediaries giving you their filtered version of the Lord’s word.”
“It’s not out of vanity that I want you to stay. I’d just like some advice on whether I’m giving my people enough.”
“You think I’m being impertinent?”
“You sound like you want them on a leash.”
“I want all of them, everyone, to feel like they have a home with The Temple.”
“Home should be natural, not imposed.”
“Where do you get that impression from anything I’ve said or done? The church should be a provider and I’m doing that.”
“The way you said your father wasn’t?”
“What gives you the right to judge him?”
“Boy, you’ve only taken me into your confidence for the past decade now. There’s very little I don’t know about you.”
“I’m not a boy and I highly doubt I’m that much of an open book.”
“No? You lap at black people’s heels for approval and patronage. What kind of backbone is that showing?”
“Is that how you see me? As a lapdog?”
“Then how? How do you see me?”
I paused. The building drained of life around us. What should have been an hour of release and contemplation was sullied by his grasping, desperate presence. I had a paragraph left on a story about the mayor’s latest capitulation to housing terrorists, then several hours of editing ahead of me, each wasted minute a squirming albatross on my neck.
He twisted a hangnail off his thumb, rubbing the scab beneath. I pulled out a bandage from my desk drawer and handed it to him. He smoothed it on, feigning absorption as he awaited my verdict.
“I grind my teeth at night,” he said, “from the worry.”
“And what do you worry about Reverend?”
“About building this congregation, about doing right by the community. You think because I’m a white boy I wasn’t properly called—”
“I think no such thing. Let me see your thumb.”
He stretched out his hand bashfully, blood encrusted under the bandage.
“You’ll strip your fingers to the bone doing that. All that laying on of hands is giving you blisters. What is it that you think you’re doing with that voodoo superstition?”
“People have legitimate ailments that need to be cured if they can’t get to a doctor or aren’t rich enough to afford one.”
“You go to Seminary for that? You have a degree in hoodoo-ology? A doctorate?” I lowered my voice. “You’re not a medical doctor, Jim. I know some of the effect is psychosomatic for folk. But the Lord will strike you down if you’re pulling a con on those people.”
“Oh will he?”
“I’m a healer. I don’t pretend to have any special schooling or phony degrees. But what I will say is that there are men and women walking around right now who are cured of cancer, who can see, who are ambulatory for the first time in years because they went to The Temple.”
“All because of you?”
“Because of God working through me.”
“You don’t really believe that.”
He hesitated. “I do. I have to. How else do I build an alternative society and confront the endless war against working people and the Negro? Look at how they follow Dr. King. How they worship the ground he walks on. All because The Spirit moves in him, because he’s called, walks the righteous path for justice. Come see us this Sunday. Stay the whole time. We’ve got a boy in the choir, a foster child, He’s got a voice like an angel. Right out of the Sistine Chapel. S-say you’ll come.”
“I have deadlines and a paper to run.”
He got up from his chair and knelt down in front of me, running his fingers through his hair, black strands falling.
“Say you’ll come.”
Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Imagining Transit: Race, Gender, and Transportation Politics in Los Angeles, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels and White Nights, Black Paradise. She is a contributing editor for The Feminist Wire and a Visiting Scholar at USC’s Center for Feminist Research. She is also the founder of the Women’s Leadership Project, a feminist humanist high school mentoring program based in South L.A.
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This interview is excerpted from Religion Dispatches
What was your motivation for writing a novel on the People’s Temple and the Jonestown massacre?
I wanted to frame the People’s Temple, its social justice trajectory and the initial involvement of African-American women, all the way from its beginnings in the Midwest. I wanted to explore what compelled them to get involved, stay involved and in some instances, go down with the ship.
I see Jonestown as a cautionary tale in terms of why black women are so invested in and indebted to organized religion. I hadn’t seen that in any of the existing literature. I wanted to convey the complexity of their political alignment and the fact that you had African-Americans who were more Civil Rights-oriented, who were coming from the black church, social justice organizing perspective and the Temple represented that aspect for them. And you also have a revolutionary element of secularist, nonbelievers who were disillusioned by the fade-out of the Black Power movement.
I wanted to know how the People’s Temple became validated within black people’s perspectives. Because that’s really what anchored the movement. It was the investment of everyday working-class and middle-class African-Americans but also the investment of black politicians, of black power brokers, of black activists.
You have said that Jim Jones fashioned himself as the “ultimate white savior.” Why do you think he felt this draw to proselytizing African-Americans, black women especially?
Part of his personal lore was that his father was a Klansman, and he would tout that as his motivation for trying to align himself with African-Americans—and ultimately even identifying as African-American. He was the first white person in the state of Indiana to adopt a black child. He always had people of color around him in the early days, and he was quite vocal about pushing back against Jim Crow ideology. He was an orderly in a hospital that refused to treat black patients, and he protested against that. He also desegregated several theaters in Indianapolis. He was also very much opposed by the white Pentecostal power structure for bringing in African-Americans.
All those elements were integral to how African-Americans were brought into the movement and why they stayed—because they saw this white man going to the barricades for them, identifying with them, having family members who looked like them and constantly making racial inclusion a part of the superficial cultural propaganda of the Temple. When the People’s Temple moved to San Francisco in the 1970s, black communities were being disempowered and displaced. A lot of parasitic development was going on, and people were being pushed out of the city.
So the Temple was at the forefront of organizing around those disruptions and pushing back, providing programs and social services to the community, needs that African-Americans felt black churches in the Bay Area weren’t meeting. The People’s Temple not only fills the breach created by the decline of the black church—as far as it being a movement organizer in social justice and a provider of social welfare—but also the breach caused by the decline of the Black Power movement and Civil Rights movement.
There was also the family dynamic that the People’s Temple fostered where there would be several generations of a family connected to the Temple. You had all of these elements pushing African-Americans into the movement and anchoring them there—and that made it more difficult for people to leave the movement when all the abuse, harassment, and terrorism was occurring.
Despite the fact that the majority of the People’s Temple membership was black, Jim Jones choose mostly white women for leadership roles. Why did this happen?
Had there been prominent African-Americans who exercised real power in the church, then there would have been a lot more questions raised about the funding apparatus—in addition to the cult of personality that he had developed.
Jones was a predator who preyed on people sexually but also mentally and emotionally. To reel them in there would be the evocation of the benevolent white man bucking the power structure of white supremacy, wholly invested in and identifying with blackness. He’s telling them we’re going to take all these Social Security payments, the property, the welfare benefits that our members are providing as part of their tithing and say we’re building this black nation, that that’s the ultimate goal. This was something that was internalized and accepted by a lot of the African-American members.
You’re careful to never describe the People’s Temple as a cult. Why is that?
It’s a demonizing term. It strips religious ideology of its complexity. It’s a term that relies on a dichotomy where the established religious orthodoxy is correct, and then there’s a certain set of religious beliefs, practices or movements that are somehow corrupt and debased because they are not coming from an Abrahamic tradition. And being an atheist, I question the Abrahamic traditions. Just because those are thousands of years old, just because they’ve been validated by scholars and religious leaders, that does not give them infallibility.
Why has it been so easy for society to erase the memory of race with regard to the People’s Temple, to think of it as more or less a white movement?
The truth of Jonestown has been lost because it’s been demonized to a certain extent. The impression was that you had these “zombie-esque acolytes running over there and bowing down to this white man.” It just creates a very sordid and unsavory picture. Also, it took place in San Francisco, a city that has always been mythicized as a white space. You had a white pastor, so many white bohemian liberal-to-radical members involved quite prominently and that becomes a big part of the ethos. That this is a “free love” church, that it was a new age-y kind of confab, when it’s really coming from the heart of Pentecostal, charismatic spirituality.
Black women were then and still are one of the most religious segments of the population. How is the white Jesus paternal figure they’re presented with in mainstream Christianity different from how Jim Jones presented himself?
The picture was different because Jones was very conscious about articulating his opposition to biblical dogma and rhetoric around the inhumanity of African-Americans and African bodies. He was up front in saying that the Bible is problematic when it comes to enfranchising and humanizing Africans. He was aware of the terrorist past of race relations in the United States, that Judeo-Christian reign within the United States has always undermined black agency and self-determination. So that was the key difference.
He was also very vocal about his atheism, although that atheism was qualified over time. He began to say he was the true god, that he was the real deity and all those others were false deities that were racist and white supremacist. So he presented himself as an antidote to that, saying he loved the black people, he worshiped blackness, he had a black son, he was rooted in the black community with all these black politicians validating him. So he used all this as armor against the claim that he was just another white savior trying to hoodwink these downtrodden African-Americans.
On the other side of the coin, you have the increased visibility of the black atheist community. Is that growth we’re seeing today influenced by the way the Bible was historically used to justify the degradation of black people?
I absolutely think that is the motivation for many African-American nonbelievers. That the whole Curse of Ham lore, the justification of slavery, the justification of rape and commodification of black women’s bodies— all of that plays a big role in the embrace of atheism and secular humanism by African-American women.
I believe that black atheism is expanding and getting more visible, certainly in terms of the virtual sphere. What remains to be seen is whether that is going to turn into anything broad or movement-based as far as African-American nonbelievers and secularists interfacing with other political movements.
Do you feel this moving away from churches as authority figures is represented in the Black Lives Matter movement?
Absolutely, you can see some of that in the “nones” demographic. There’s been an emergence of those folks who are not explicitly aligned with organized religion, aren’t involved in a church, aren’t coming from that traditional background of black church dogma—but who still explicitly identify as spiritual.
Could a tragedy of Jonestown’s scale still happen today?
The seeds of Jonestown are still there underneath the surface and given the grip that religiosity and charismatic spirituality have on scores of people, it could absolutely happen again. The severity of economic injustice and political disenfranchisement that really motivated black folks to get involved, stay involved and in some instances, decide to die, those conditions still exist and could still facilitate that kind of tragedy.
Sikivu Hutchinson will be hosting a talk about White Nights, Black Paradise on the USC campus on November 24th. You can RSVP here.
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