“Black” and “White” in Peoples Temple Discourse

In Jim Jones’ worldview, “blackness” was a concept to be celebrated, and that concept was embodied in the racial composition of his congregation. It was an opinion, he readily admitted, that was not universally shared. The skin color of African Americans was the sole reason for discrimination and prejudice against them, and no matter if they claimed otherwise, most white people could not get beyond that one simple fact to consider black people as people.

There were a number of reasons for this prejudice: blacks were brought over from Africa as slaves, and even after they were freed, they were still considered second-class citizens; that second-class status contributed to their second-class education, housing, and vocational opportunities; the consequent ghettoization of black populations, with accompanying higher levels of crime, turned them into a population to be feared.

But there was another factor at play. As Tim Reiterman and John Jacobs pointed out in their book, Raven, Jones was concerned about the connotation of the word “black” as evil or unsavory. The plague of the mid-14th century in Eurasia and Northern Africa was known as the “Black Death.” The black arts refer to witchcraft and sorcery. A blackguard is defined as thoroughly unprincipled person or a scoundrel. There are black marks, blacklists, black bag jobs, and the Black Mass of Satanism. In fact, as Jones saw it, almost every reference to “black” was negative.

So he changed it. In Temple parlance, extortion of money from a person with the threat of exposure of a criminal act was “whitemail.” An underground economy became a “white market.” One of Edith Roller’s journals – written while she was still in the United States – spoke of a meeting in which Jones said the powers-that-be “want to whiteout, white list and white ball us.”

Of course, the most well-known example of this practice was the description of a community in deep despair or crisis as bring in a “White Night.”

There were slip-ups, to be sure – such as self-correcting “blackmail” into “whitemail” at Q 738 and Q 741; or converting a “black market” into a “white market” at Q 298 and Q 991; and once on Q 259 translating “black lung disease” as “white lung disease,” even as Jones let the other references to pneumoconiosis stand – but as time went on, and the new terms became commonplace, they came more easily.

There are reports that Jones periodically referred to the president’s residence in Washington D.C. as the “Black House” – thereby flipping the use of black and white in the other direction – but this has not yet been verified in Temple documents or tapes.