A new author of my very close acquaintance is writing a new book about Jonestown, child and destroyer of Peoples Temple. The author begins by taking all the concerned parties at their word and then goes on to examine how possible it was for those parties to live their words out in the Temple and in its extension, the Promised Land, Jonestown.
From all indications, the author was born in Guyana and was certainly there during the whole period before and after the duration of Jonestown. He has views of the political complexities of the Guyana society that seemed to allow, permit and impel the association between Prime Minister LFS Burnham and Rev. Jim Jones. The author claims his views which are emphatically not based on a referendum of opinions. Where others speak, they do so in their own right and voice where they choose, and sometimes – at rare times – in their own name. Members of Guyana’s ruling party of 1978 hold themselves far less free to speak on these matters in their own name than do members of Peoples Temple, who speak with commendable lack of fear.
The author proposes to share glimpses of class, race, gender, and authority or power as they intersected, not only in Guyanese society but in Jonestown and the Temple as well, relying heavily on a lived experience of Guyanese society and political developments.
The new book reviews in passing relevant aspects of books previously written, mostly in order to rely on, or disagree with their judgments and in a few cases their findings. It includes a post mortem or autopsy, not of the bodies of those who unfortunately perished, but of the real estate of Jonestown, after the fact when the tell tale ruins were carefully noted and guesses were made about their significance in the life of the community.
The plight of the African American members of Jonestown was dramatized for the author when at a recent gathering of survivors and a few others, a niece of one of the women who perished described how her aunt joined the leavers for Jonestown with its non-segregated atmosphere, and how her remains were brought back to be buried in a segregated cemetery in Louisiana. Her story appears here in this edition of the jonestown report.
The author also directly or indirectly reveals the sharp division in the moral aspirations of the two societies most principally involved – the Guyanese and the US – and finds that although in one women flaunted sexual freedom as an aspect of their liberation, the other did not retain an ancient burden. In effect, the author says, it was males who determined that conditions and real scope of women’s freedom in both societies.
The public face (non face) of Peoples Temple in Guyana was its founder Leader, selfdom seen in public. For this reason, PT in Guyana remained a closed sub-society, failing to establish in either the African or East Indian mass populations the kind of bonds that could have precluded the final collapse. Nor were the Amerindians in the ambit of Jonestown really as yet involved.
Jim Jones emerges again as the main Doer and Undoer. His praxis – the way he lived his revolutionary philosophy, or proclamations – is critically, though hardly fully examined. The book takes the political and social thought that seemed to see Peoples Temple apart as a church and takes from survivors their attachment to its ideals and their sense of great loss. Very few texts have dared to see this dimension, focused as they are on the horrors of the last days. The author also treats Jonestown by comparison, not only with an ear to other small scale attempts by African Americans to find a home in Guyana, as well as other settlement groups, but also with another political church, the House of Israel, led by an African American whose victims were mainly but not entirely outside of its ranks.
The book is enriched and relieved by an artistic seance by a famous Guyanese and international writer with a deep interest in the hemisphere’s indigenous peoples and the offspring of the enslaved. in the hemisphere.
The long posed question whether and in what manner the Jonestown experience affected Guyanese life will be answered, at least in part by this book.
The author is still receiving from credible sources in the USA a description of place and the extent to which Peoples Temple entered the movement for change from a Black Panther point of view. Finally, the author experiments with examining Jim Jones from the point of view of the crossroads in Trickster theory.
(Eusi Kwayana is a Guyanese national who was a key figure in his country’s struggle for independence from Great Britain during the 1950s and 1960s.)