A Cultural Biography

Just as a passport for a foreign traveler contains stamps from the various countries visited, it is my perception that each of us has some stamps reflecting our membership in the dominant culture and other stamps for membership in our subordinate or minority cultures. My dominant culture stamps show that I am white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, educated, middle class, with a professional occupation, being. Being Jewish is one – but only one – minority stamp in my passport. My political position during the war in Vietnam was that of a conscientious objector. I was also a member of Peoples Temple. Those are minority stamps as well.

My only living grandparent, my maternal grandmother, was a second generation Jew. During my childhood, I asked her about the Holocaust. She said her family didn’t have any relatives who died in the gas chambers. She did say, however, that sometimes European Jews trying to immigrate to the US would call certain people in the US and ask them to provide sponsorship, a pre-requisite for immigration. My grandmother mentioned a phone call she received once from some Jews with the same last name who claimed to be relatives. My grandmother refused to sponsor them because she had never heard of them and didn’t know who they were. I learned that these possible family members eventually relocated to Arizona.

I had several reactions when my grandmother shared this story. I scanned her face, but I didn’t see any sign of her feeling ashamed of having possibly betrayed or abandoned these European Jews during their hour of need. I don’t know how much money was required to sponsor an emigrating family. I do know that my grandmother was fairly poor growing up, but she could have inquired about the legitimacy of the phone call before refusing to help. I remember feeling ashamed for her and inwardly promising myself to be more available when people were desperate and appealed for help. I can imagine that, although my grandmother identified herself as Jewish, she was also married and had a middle class lifestyle, and didn’t have the courage to risk her dominant culture status.

I experienced my parents’ fear to stand up against injustice in 1960 when I was in sixth grade. My father, a life insurance agent, was a strong supporter of the Americans for Democratic Action which regarded itself as the liberal arm of the Democratic Party and which had had a role in nominating both Adlai Stevenson and later JFK for president. My mother, a professionally trained librarian, worked inside the home and raised four children while volunteering to help elect Democrats to the local school board in a heavily-Republican suburban town outside of New York City on the Hudson River in Westchester County. Our family’s mealtime prayer was to “help make the world a better place,” and I never doubted I would one day become a helping professional. My parents were well connected, the high school principal had been our neighbor, and the city attorney was a close family friend.

My parents’ dominant culture memberships included upper middle class socioeconomic status and employment in a professionally regarded occupation. But with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s ascendancy to power in 1952, their political identification as liberal Democrats put them in a new and frightening subculture. My father was scared. As a self-employed businessman, my father couldn’t afford to be singled out by McCarthy. My father’s first cousin, a Hollywood actor and author, had already changed his last name to hide his Jewish lineage. Hollywood continued to ostracize him though, and he committed suicide in 1952. My parents were the second Jewish family to move into our neighborhood; our neighbors, transplanted Southerners, were conservative Republicans. Our neighbors probably caused my parents to feel even more self-conscious.

When my sixth grade teacher began physically abusing my only African American classmate whom I sat next to, I pleaded with my parents to intercede. Our teacher would walk behind each of our desks while quizzing us about the homework. While standing behind my black classmate Everett, Mr. Walker would fiddle with his college ring and turn it upside down and hit Everett on the top of the head with the heaviest part of the insignia for every question that Everett didn’t answer correctly. My parents continually ignored my protests, and I eventually realized they were never going to listen to me. I understand now. it was their minority culture status as Jews and liberal Democrats that made them so afraid, that they could not risk helping my friend Everett.

During my freshman year at a Quaker college, the FBI came onto campus and handcuffed a student who had burned his draft card. A few months later during Spring break, some of us visited this student in a federal prison in Kentucky. While walking down the corridor to his cell, I fainted. The prison was built like a medieval dungeon and awakened within me a terror of imprisonment that lasted for several decades. I had wanted to protest the war as a conscientious objector after realizing that patriotism was a ruse, an appeal to testosterone-driven young men to support the military industrial complex’s agenda for acquiring Vietnam’s rubber trees and oil. This position as a draft resister became my second membership in the minority culture. Certainly my political perspective about the war positioned me way outside the mainstream culture at that time. Even my liberal parents disagreed with my position on the war.

As a child I realized subconsciously that if I were to work for social change, I would want to belong to a large organization that wielded political clout and offered emotional support because social change is hard work. Later as a college senior in San Francisco, knowing I was about to be drafted upon graduation, I saw a flyer for an ecumenical church and was impressed with its four points. The minister had adopted children from all races, he had taken a strong stand against the Vietnam War, Hubert Humphrey had endorsed him, and the District Attorney from Mendocino County was on the church’s board of directors. The minister was Jim Jones, of course, and the church was Peoples Temple. When I attended my first Temple service, though, I felt very uneasy about Jones for some inexplicable reason. I justified joining the church based on all the credible people who had endorsed him. I recognize how my decision as a child, affiliating with a large group to effect social change, contributed to my joining the Temple.

I had been aware of Clarence Jordan’s group, the Koinonia Cooperative in Americus, Georgia, as the only other interracial community in America. The Koinonia Cooperative seemed too vulnerable to the whims of the white power structure in rural Georgia, especially when compared to Jones’ church, which had twelve greyhound buses and large churches in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Mendocino County. In terms of political clout, local leaders attended the Peoples Temple several times a year for community events. Five years after I joined, San Francisco Mayor Moscone appointed Jones as San Francisco’s Housing Commissioner. Governor Jerry Brown was considering Jones as the Director of Corrections for the State of California.

For seven years, I worked closely with other church members who were primarily African American, but also Hispanic and Native American. I learned to recognize how White Skin Privilege functions as a series of assumptions I had acquired from my socioeconomic upbringing. The Peoples Temple church where I lived was a large three-story building and was located in a poor neighborhood known as the Fillmore district and shared the block with the Islamic Temple. My roommates were two men who were disabled and trans-gendered. As I learned to self- identify less as being white, college-educated, male, able-bodied, and heterosexual, I was able to connect meaningfully with church members who were elderly, African American, uneducated, illiterate, former convicts, former prostitutes and recovering drug addicts. I learned to work closely with all of these people on many church projects so that eventually I related to all of these people simply as my friends. I am reminded of the quote from folksinger Woody Guthrie who, upon being admitted to a hospital, was asked to declare his religious affiliation. He wrote, “None.” The admissions clerk told him that it was not possible to have no religious affiliation so he wrote, “All.” I learned to cherish my affiliation with many minority groups as a result of my seven years in the Temple.

Three years after Peoples Temple died in Jonestown, I relocated to my current hometown of the past 25 years and within a few months met my future wife. We dated for about ten years because I was nervous about her many connections to the dominant culture and my lack of connections to the same dominant culture. I knew I cared deeply about her and could talk freely with her about anything, but her family-of-origin filled me dread. Two of her uncles were conservative Baptist preachers. A third uncle, a corporate attorney, was a close friend of Jesse Helms. While attending her family reunions, I felt that these people and people like them had a long history of getting rid of progressive thinking people like me. I knew my wife’s family would perceive my being Jewish as clearly a minority affiliation. I had no professional affiliation; at the age of 33 I was a restaurant waiter. My relationship partner was 43, divorced with two teenagers, with a doctorate in psychology and a private counseling practice. After ten years – after I had established my professional identity with dominant cultural status as a human resources generalist – I was ready to marry her.

I visited with Everett from my sixth grade class during our twenty-fifth high school reunion. I had remembered him as quite hyperactive and as the class clown. He had been a star athlete on the football team during our senior year. Even though the team had had an undefeated season, I learned that the high school guidance counselor – who doubled as the town mayor – had never liked Everett and made sure that no college recruiters ever contacted him for college scholarships. Everett became an alcoholic and a pimp. Clean and sober for many years, he was actively involved in his own son’s high school football career.

Everett’s experience and my journey toward developing a multicultural identity remind me of The Lion King in which young Simba has to reclaim his power from the evil uncle Mustafa before he can assume his father’s throne as king. We who counsel and facilitate change for others have an opportunity to facilitate our clients’ healing process toward self- awareness and self-acceptance. We can accomplish this by modeling for our clients a message of hope, after putting our own demons to rest. And we can accomplish that by consciously recognizing where our lives intersect with the majority and minority cultures around us as we support our clients to achieve integrity as they navigate among the cultures they belong to.

(Andy Silver is a former member of Peoples Temple. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at andy@resolutionexperts.com.)