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Listening to the voices silenced by the Jonestown Massacre




Members of the Peoples Temple at the Jonestown settlement in Guyana.
Members of the Peoples Temple at the Jonestown settlement in Guyana.
Photo courtesy of the California Historical Society

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On Nov. 18, 1978, more than 900 people perished in a settlement in Guyana known as Jonestown. Almost all of those that died that day were members of the Peoples Temple — a church which once had a branch right here in Los Angeles. The tragedy lingers in American history as an example of faith gone horribly wrong.

1366 S. Alvarado was once used by the Peoples Temple in Los Angeles.
1366 S. Alvarado was once used by the Peoples Temple in Los Angeles.
The Jonestown Institute, http://jonestown.sdsu.edu

But behind the mass suicide, the brainwashing and the cult’s maniacal leader Jim Jones, there are stories of real people who joined the Peoples Temple in the hopes of building a community of equality and racial diversity. In fact, African-American women made up one of the largest groups of the people who died at Jonestown.

In her new novel, “White Nights, Black Paradise,” author Sikivu Hutchinson tells a fictional story of the Peoples Temple, but she’s based it on some very real people whose voices have so far gone unheard.

Sikivu Hutchinson

Off-Ramp contributor Robert Garrova went to 1366 S. Alvarado, once home to the L.A. branch of the Peoples Temple, to speak with Hutchinson.

We all have blurry images in our heads of the Peoples Temple, maybe from news coverage or a documentary, but what was it in the ‘70s?

In the ‘70s it was part of the progressive, social justice, activist movement. And many people know about the infamous downward spiral of the church in Jonestown, Guyana, in November of 1978 where over 900 members perished as a result of a cyanide cocktail. But I underscore in the book that Peoples Temple was an extremely rich and vibrant movement. It attracted a cross-section of, again, multi-racial congregationists, African-American migrants from the South and the Midwest and the West, young white folk who were progressive in political orientation, ex-hippies, Vietnam vets, gay, lesbian, trans and queer worshipers. So Peoples Temple really extends beyond the mainstream caricatures and stereotypes that have been foisted upon it within the mainstream media.

Children at the Peoples Temple settlement known as Jonestown.
Children at the Peoples Temple settlement known as Jonestown.
Photo courtesy of the California Historical Society

You've pointed out that there are some very real, human stories behind what everybody thinks of as just “Jim Jones.”

Absolutely. And even if we look at the final moments of Jonestown, there were a lot of conflicting perspectives on whether or not the suicide that Jones was exhorting everyone to do was in the best interest of the community. And so there’s been this canard circulating within the historical record that, well, it was either an outright murder or it was an outright suicide, that people wholeheartedly “drank the Kool-Aid.” And, of course, that’s a misnomer, because it was Flavor Aid and not Kool-Aid. So I attempt to foreground all of those conflicting and nuanced strands at the end of the novel. Where you had a person like Christine Miller, who was valiantly and singularly standing up against Jim Jones and saying there must be another path towards socialism and freedom.

This is the woman who is on tape, in what’s known as the “Death Tape”? 

Yes, her name is Christine Miller. An older African-American woman from the L.A. [Peoples Temple] church who was the only person to actively critique Jim Jones during the final discussion and debate about whether or not the colony should commit mass suicide.

You’re circling back around to re-visit Peoples Temple and the events at Jonestown — albeit in a fictional way — but why is that? Why did you write this book now?

I was intrigued by the fact that, in most of the representations I encountered, there was no black female voice. There have been two memoirs published by African-American survivors. But beyond those two representations, the vast sprawling canon of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, has more or less marginalized black women’s voices and black women’s subjectivity. And so I felt that it was important to try and capture the nuances and the complexities and the richness of what compelled African-American women to become invested in Peoples Temple, what compelled them to emigrate to Jonestown, Guyana. How was it informed by African-American social history and black women’s cultural identity and black women’s solidarity with organized religion and faith institutions. So all of these strands are woven into the fictitious portrayals within the novel... We need to look at the full scope of what happened in Jonestown and not make these reductive condemnations about what was occurring to real human beings engaged in what they believed to be a life and death struggle when it came to the humanity and the self-determination of people of color.