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Racializing The Jonestown Tragedy

By Dr. Darron Smith

Black Americans have wanted, for many generations, a nation where equality of opportunity was the law of land, a place where dreams could come true regardless of skin color. Jim Jones, known by many of his followers as “father,” created the Jonestown commune—The Peoples Temple—in the Guyanese jungles of South America in the 1970’s with this premise in mind. His mostly black followers, consisting of nearly 1000 American expatriates, believed that in Jones and Jonestown, they would get a fair chance to have some version of their “American dream,” as opposed to merely existing in the overtly racist and unequal society of the United States.

It is often assumed that followers of cult-like figures like Jim Jones are as equally deranged as their leader, but this could not be further from reality. These men and women simply wanted justice for themselves and their children, which is extraordinarily sane. They believed in a society of equality so badly that they were willing to take risks to assume that narrative for themselves and their families. Compared to the actuality of U.S.-based abject poverty, increasing drug infested neighborhoods, high levels of black unemployment and many other social ills that are all proponents of self doubt, Jonestown must have sounded like the “promise land” for many of its black victims.

And in all his efforts to preach racial equality, the irony was that even in the face of impending doom, it became obvious that the white folks in his commune still had racial and class privilege on their side, including holding the positions of power as “high-ranking” Temple members, which made it easier for a few of them to attempt escape. Meanwhile, the black contingent stayed behind, either led by pure hope or the shear terror of limited opportunity that awaited them should they successfully escape the fast approaching ”revolutionary suicide.” Interestingly, the African Americans of Jonestown chose to stay, preferring death and the messianic belief through Jones over the opportunity of returning to live in an unequal and racist society. The notion of living in such a disparately unjust society once again was so great that it became unbearable. And yet these innocent victims were seen as “crazy” for following this belief of justice and equality. Thus, when they died—these same black folks were ostracized as “foolish” in death, much the same way they were ostracized in life.

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