African-American Women Find Voice in New Jonestown Novel

(Rebecca Moore is Professor Emerita of Religious Studies at San Diego State University. She is currently Reviews Editor for Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions and Co-Director of The Jonestown Institute. Her other articles in this edition of the jonestown report are Jane Smiley Character Dips into Peoples Temple and The Stigmatized Deaths In Jonestown: Finding A Locus For GriefHer complete collection of articles on this site appears here.)

Sikivu Hutchinson’s first novel, White Nights, Black Paradise (Infidel Books 2015), offers a new and refreshing look at Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Imagination and fact seamlessly blend together in this work of historical fiction. But what is most significant in this novel is its strong black voice and presence. Given the fact that Peoples Temple black membership approximated 90% in California, and that two-thirds of those who died in Jonestown were African American, White Nights, Black Paradise makes a welcome contribution by telling a story rarely heard. Written from the perspective of a black feminist scholar, the book seeks – in the words of the author – “to creatively illuminate (and problematize) what is still a turbulent and evolving historical record and signal event in the ‘psychic space’ of African American migrations.”

The prose is lively and engaging, as the author follows the lives of several different characters. The African American sisters Hy and Taryn; Mariah, a young white woman; Jim Jones himself, as well as his adopted black son Jim Jr; and others fill the pages with their stories. The characters are believable, including Jim Jones, whose charisma comes through in a natural way. The author makes it clear why Jones and his message of social justice appealed to so many people, especially to African Americans.

The relationship between Ida Lassiter, a stately black woman journalist, and Jones is especially fascinating, as Lassiter probes and challenges the Temple leader’s motives, strategies, plans, and identity. Though they become lovers in Indianapolis, Ida eventually sees Jim simply as needy and manipulative. She appears throughout the book as the voice of black skepticism about this white-led movement.

While Marceline, the long-suffering wife of Jones, remains an enigma for most analysts, Dr. Hutchinson presents a plausible picture of her as Mother Mabelean. Ida Lassiter thinks that, “As a person she was simply of no consequence; only ghosting up unbidden in the grocery store when I walked past shelves of hair dye.” I think that is how many think of Marceline: ghostly. Yet the chapter titled “Mother Mabelean: A White Woman Speaks,” and other places Mabelean / Marceline appears bring this ghost to life.

Peoples Temple purists – those who want a strictly accurate and historical account – will undoubtedly find fault with White Nights, Black Paradise. Hyacinth, or Hy as she prefers to be called, is a young black woman, not an elderly black lady; the Eight Revolutionaries left the Temple in 1973, not 1977; Father Divine is transmogrified into the Prophet Zeke and lives in Indianapolis, not Philadelphia; and there never was an Ida Lassiter. I welcome these new and composite characters, however, because they serve to emphasize the fictional, rather than documentary, nature of the work. The book is an interpretation of Peoples Temple and Jonestown from a black perspective. It’s not eyewitness news.

The book ends during the mass deaths of 18 November 1978. I would like to see Dr. Hutchinson’s next book pick up where this one leaves off: what happened to the African American survivors? what happened to the black community in the San Francisco Bay Area? how do they carry on? This is a good first novel, one that offers a fresh look at the Temple. A second would bound to be stronger and could address the profound impact that the Jonestown deaths had on African Americans.