Wed | Aug 16, 2017

Jonestown: Race, Murder, and the Betrayal of a Nation

Published:Sunday | March 27, 2016 | 3:00 AM

Title: A new look at Jonestown: Dimensions from a Guyanese Perspective

Publisher: Carib House, Los Angeles, USA

Author: Eusi Kwayana

Jonestown offers a fresh perspective on the 1978 tragedy that left the world befuddled, searching for answers. Decades have transpired but the jarring wounds are slow to heal. Today, survivors, politicians, social activists, academicians, and theologians still grapple with the events that unfolded that fateful day.

Much has been said about Jim Jones, the charismatic preacher who fused socialism, mysticism and apocalyptic theology. Jonestown, his social experiment, a respite for disaffected blacks in the US, also attracted liberal, progressive whites - determined - in a proverbial sense to absolve the generational sins of their fathers. Jones' magnetism and his Faustian ability to persuade are vividly captured by P.D. Sharma: "I caught a student of mine, who was noted for his athletic ability, in a horizontal position, literally swimming on the heads of people to get closer." And Jones, exploiting reverse psychology, exhorted the: "Touch me not; it is faith that will heal you, Believe and you will be cured."

In Jan Carew's Jonestown Revisited, there is an unmistakable injection of the occult. The people of Jonestown were doomed from the beginning, like those who preceded them; that the spirits of the Caribs will not allow sacrilege. "The prime minister couldn't give our land to Jim Jones, because he didn't own it in the first place," we hear from a descendant of Guyana's indigenous people.

Throughout, we are drawn by the raw authenticity of these recollections. Moreover, we get a sense of political betrayal at a national level. And we are weighed down by the burden of a people still vulnerable to the ghosts of colonialism.

Eusi Kwayana summons the most resourceful of contributors, each painting a disturbing picture of 1970s Guyana, where good governance is sacrificed at the altar of immediacy, entitlement, corruption, and concupiscence. We read from a former member, "They [Guyana government officials] even slept with some of the women, the white women [of Jonestown]. They had a thing for white women. They thought that it was gold. We had beautiful black women, but they would never gravitate toward them."

Kwayana delves far deeper. To understand Jonestown, we must understand racial dynamics in bygone America.

Jones' vision, according to the author, was subliminally tied to the World Peace Mission of Father Divine, a New Thought movement that attracted disillusioned blacks in the 1930s. Father Divine claimed to be God in flesh. Jones, no doubt studied this equally compelling figure, fashioning his model after Divine's' 'heavens' or housing accommodations for black across the US. The principal difference was that Jones moved his dream overseas.

The Jonestown Plantation by Drs Lear K. Matthews and George K. Danns lends another layer to this narrative. While cooperative socialist experiments were not alien to the economic culture of Guyana, the People's Temple Agricultural Project was a foreign transplant that was unique and dissimilar to the norm. Matthews and Danns argue that "Jonestown was an atavism, a recreation of a slave plantation with similar characteristics. The master and his white lieutenants came to Guyana similar to the transatlantic journeying of earlier white coloniser," where blacks were "made to sublimate their passions and orient their behaviour in accordance with the austere demands of Jim Jones ... . The community of Jonestown residents, like slaves on the plantations, did not own anything except their individual labour power."

And although short on details, they added that, "not only were the CIA and American embassy more informed about People's Temple than were local military officials, but the latter were ostensibly prevented from investigating that 'isolated community' until after the tragedy."

A HAND-PICKED FEW

These sentiments are echoed by P.D. Sharma in the People's Temple and the Guyana Government. His questioning of Prime Minister Burnham's relationship with Jonestown is suggestive, even rhetorical. He writes, "That the CIA helped Burnham get into power ... is now a grudgingly accepted fact." Sharma raises the stakes: "Perhaps the most disturbingly secret act about Mr Burnham was when in 1966, ... he entered into a military agreement with the US government, the terms of which some legal authorities claimed, surrendered the country's newly won territorial sovereignty." The implications are enormous.

The late Dr Walter Rodney's Jonestown: A Caribbean and Guyanese Perspective focuses on the abrogation of state responsibility and the subversion of its political and judicial duties. The alienation of the people by the state, more specifically, a hand-picked few is not only a Guyanese problem, but a pervasive pathology in every so called Third-World country. That the state is used as a means to material power has created pauperised nations ravaged by corruption, graft, and nepotism.

In a riveting lecture, his words reverberate beyond his native land: "I would say least of all of the post-colonial society, a feature which they have not shed since colonial days is a certain type of welcome ... it is a welcoming spirit which, in some cases, is worthwhile, is credible, and personable, but it also opens these societies to be being conned."

On many levels, he concludes, Jonestown was preventable.

Kwayana's revelatory essays, in particular, 'Father Divine and Rev Jim Jones, and Race and Gender in the People's Temple', present a piercing look at race, history, and the phenomenology of sexual exploitation of Jim Jones, he writes: "His sexual activity impinged on the governance of Jonestown." He agrees that Jones and a narrow circle of white women managed Jonestown. "This small band would, therefore, have great influence with him ... . Had the most trusted advisers not been bed intimates of Jones and loyal and devoted to him, being under his spell, then a number of influential colleagues, men or women, might have swung White Night (mass suicide rehearsals) proceedings away from the apocalypse."

A new look at Jonestown is an elucidating, mesmerising read that transcends Jones' captivating, precipitous slide into madness. It is a call to prudence and responsibility on a personal and national level. The sanctity of life and human dignity must never be compromised, but we are warned repeatedly that the wiles of political agents - domestic and foreign, are ever-present.

Ratings: Essential

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