Jonestown and Other Madness

[Editor’s note: Pat Parker wrote the poem “Jonestown and Other Madness” for her 1985 collection of the same name. Her reading of the poem is here.]

As a child in Texas
race education
was simple
was subtle
was sharp

The great lone star
state sharply
placed me
in colored schools
with colored teachers
and colored books
and colored knowledge

I shopped in white stores
and bought colored clothes
‘Keep the colors loud and bright
so they dazzle in the night
No matter where a nigger’s bred
they love yellow, orange and red’

I used colored toilets
and road colored buses home
I went to colored churches
with colored preachers
and prayed to a white God
begged forgiveness for Cain
and his sin
and his descendants
us lowly colored sinners
and the message
was simple
and sharp
there is a place for niggers
but not among good white folk

At home
race education
was simple
was subtle
facts gleaned
by differences

The white man
who jumped
in the sky
was quietly dismissed
‘white folks are crazy’
the white man
who turned
on Sports Spectacular skis
was quietly dismissed
‘white folks will do anything
for money’

the white man who
shot and killed his wife
and children
and then himself
received a headshake
and a sigh
and the simple statement
‘white folks are crazy’
And the messages
fell in place
white folks went crazy
and went to nut houses
Black folks got mad
and went to jail
white folks started wars
Black folks died in them
white folks owned America
Black folks built it

As I grew into adulthood
many messages were discarded
many were forgotten
but one returns to haunt me

Black folks do not commit suicide
Black folks do not
Black folks do not
Black folks do not commit suicide

November 18, 1978
more than 900 people
most of them Black
died in a man-made town
called Jonestown

Newscasters’ words
slap me in my face
people’s tears and grief
emanating from my set
and I remember the lessons
reheard a childhood message

Black folks do not commit suicide

I thought of my uncle Dave
he died in prison
the authorities said
“Boy just up and hung himself”
and I remembered my mother
her disbelief, her grief
‘Them white folks killed my brother
Dave didn’t commit no suicide’
and the funeral
a bitter quiet funeral
his coffin sealed from sighters
and we knew
Dave died not by his hands
some guard decided
that nigger should die

And I stare at the newscaster
he struggles to contain himself
it’s a BIG BIG story
and he must not
seem too excited

‘American troops made a
grizzly discovery today
in Jonestown, Guyana’
my innards scream as
the facts unfold
‘a communist preacher’
and I see old Black women
my grandmothers
communist NO
little old Black ladies
do not believe in communists

they believe in God
and Jesus yet,
the newscasters’ words
a commune
a media storm of
words and pictures
interviews with ex-members
survivors, city officials

the San Francisco Chronicle
had a problem with its presses
erratic delivery
of the morning paper
and in two days the Chronicle
publishes a book
Eyewitness Account
of a staff reporter
who survived
the airport attack
and the story grows bigger
Ladies and Gentlemen
have I got a tale
for you
we got these men
two men
a congressman & a preacher
& a supporting cast of hundreds
the congressman went
to investigate the preacher
and wound up dead
the preacher wound up dead
the supporting cast
wound up dead
and all the dead
are singing to me

Black folks do not
Black folks do not
Black folks do not commit suicide
My phone rings

the newscaster mistakenly says
Patricia Parker
not Parks
died on the airstrip
a friend
wants to know
are you alive?

I am here
not there
in a jungle
with bloated belly
not a victim
in a dream deferred
not a piece
in a media puzzle
not a member
in the supporting cast.

I am there
walking with the souls
of Black folks
and screaming


Black folks
why are you here
and dead?
tell me how you
willingly died
did the minister
sing to you
‘Kool-aid Kool-aid
tastes great
I like Kool-aid
can’t wait’

I see Black people
beautiful Black people
in lines in front of a tub
of twentieth-century hemlock
The guards with guns
why guns?

and the pictures
continue to flow
images of a man
a church man
he cures disease
he’s a fake
hired people
in treated liver
he loves God
he’s a communist
he talks many messages
revolution to the young
God to the old
he believes in the family
he destroys the family
fucks the women
fucks the men
and the media continues
to tell the tale

An interview with a live one.
Newscaster. ‘You were a member of People’s Temple?’
Man, ‘Yes, I was.’
‘Why did you join?’
‘Well, I went there a few times
and then I stopped going, but
Reverend Jones came by my house
and asked me why I quit coming.
I was really surprised.
No one had ever cared
that much about me before.’

No one had ever cared
that much about me before
and it came home
the messages of my youth
came clear
the Black people
in Jonestown
did not commit suicide
they were murdered
they were murdered in
small southern towns
they were murdered in
large northern cities

they were murdered
as school children
by teachers
who didn’t care
they were murdered
by policemen
who didn’t care
they were murdered
by welfare workers
who didn’t care
they were murdered
by shopkeepers
who didn’t care
they were murdered
by politicians
who didn’t care
they didn’t die at Jonestown
they went to Jonestown dead
convinced that America
and Americans
didn’t care

they died
in the schoolrooms
they died
in the streets
they died
in the bars
they died
in the jails
they died
in the churches
they died
in the welfare lines

Jim Jones was not the cause
he was the result
of 400 years
of not caring
Black folks do not
Black folks do not
Black folks do not commit suicide