Surviving Survival:
A Review of Back to the World

by darlene anita scott

In early 1979, when Eugene Smith returned “back to the world” from the Guyanese jungle, my father had made his return “back to the world” more than a decade before, following his completion of a tour in the Vietnamese jungle. When he first returned, my dad was a 22-year-old husband and father of one – like Smith upon his return. Smith’s wife and one child, however, were not waiting for him, nor were they with him; along with Smith’s mother, they had died in the jungle with over 900 other members of Peoples Temple.

By the time Smith returned, my father was raising four more girls with my mother. Unlike my dad, Smith did not go on to parent any more children. My father was hardly done “surviving” in 1979, which I’ve spent my own lifetime watching him do and continue to do at 77 years old and now as a grandfather of eight. In Eugene Smith’s memoir we find him, at age 61, similarly surviving as series of ongoing, conscious decisions, not the singular event we often treat survival as.

My dad also uses the term made famous by Curtis Mayfield’s song from which Smith’s memoir takes its title – Back to the World – to describe his landing in the States and what followed. It had been a hostile world for Black men daring at hope when my dad deployed, and was still so when Smith immigrated to Guyana years later, both men betting on hope and possibility. When they returned on their separate occasions more than a decade apart, the hostility was compounded because they were considered undesirables who were party to, and cause of, the deaths of innocents.

Drawing these parallels happens often in this memoir – Smith even evokes Vietnam – like between the social climate from which Peoples Temple evolved and the one in which we’re living. Through them, Smith helps expand the notion of survival. The memoir reinforces that survival is not a singular event by going back and forth – never in a straight line – between his early community and school life, his politicization, and his experience of the eerily similar past and current racialized climate for Black and brown people in America.

Moving between time and space like he does provides natural opportunities “to bring you into” the experience of Jonestown and to impart the wisdom he earned with parable-like appeal. Importantly, this approach contextualizes the main “survival” – surviving the massacre. That survival is more than a flashpoint in this memoir. Yes, Smith was in Guyana at the time of the mass deaths, and sure, he “survived” (because he was working in Lamaha Gardens away from the community where his loved ones were dying). But while that may be the survival readers come to the book to read about, Smith goes beyond that fateful evening to weave it into a fabric of several survivals Smith “survives,” as he calls it before, during, and after his time in Guyana.

“Survival” can be a loose, even lazy, term that pretends a finite resolution. Hardly does “survival” ever provide one, and Smith illustrates that here with consideration and honesty.

(Poet darlene anita scott is a regular contributor to this site. Marrow, her collection of poetry honoring the Jonestown dead, will be published in March 2022. Her complete collection of writings and poetry for this site may be found here. She can be reached at darleneanitascott@gmail.com.)

Originally posted on September 12th, 2021.

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