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The Jonestown We Don’t Know

Matthew Naythons/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
The Evans family, who survived the Jonestown massacre by walking out of the camp on the morning of November 18, saying they were going on a family picnic, United States, November 30, 1978

This past November marked forty years since Jonestown, shorthand for the collective suicide of more than 900 Americans in a South American jungle settlement named for the pastor who led them there, Jim Jones. As the greatest loss of American life in a single incident before September 11, 2001, it deserves a significant place in our historical memory. The commemorations, however, have unfortunately tended to focus on the aberrant behavior of Jones, who sometimes claimed to be God and sometimes a reincarnation of Lenin and sometimes the Buddha reborn.

Jones preached in a prophetic evangelical style, while wearing sunglasses, from his People’s Temple pulpit, as the church migrated from Indianapolis to California’s Redwood Valley to San Francisco’s Fillmore District. His dark glasses allowed him to steal surreptitious glances at cheat sheets bearing intel on his congregants as he staged sensational healings; in a performance with many reprises, Jones would pass off raw chicken liver as a tumor shed by a cancer patient spontaneously cured during his service. Many of the books and films produced about the tragedy bear his image, as if he were posthumously still promoting the personality worship he cultivated among his followers, who called him Dad or Father. He stands at the deranged center of these accounts, which linger on the grisly details of the deaths and on Jones’s charlatanism, his infidelity, his use and abuse of drugs and corporal punishment, his childhood obsessions with funerals and Adolf Hitler.

The “Cult of Death,” as Newsweek and Time Magazine dubbed Jonestown in cover stories illustrated with images of flocked corpses decaying in the tropical sun, came to its macabre conclusion in 1978 in the fledgling postcolonial republic of Guyana, where I was born. I was living there, in a coastal village some 250 miles away from the settlement, when the Americans killed themselves. I was only three. Within a decade, my family and I would ourselves be Americans. Like many other Guyanese, we fled the country’s economic and political mayhem for the United States. Growing up outside New York City in the 1980s, it was hard to escape the infamy of Jonestown. Often, when I revealed my birthplace, the response would be some riff on: “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid, right?” As an immigrant kid, I did not much enjoy being placed on a map of associations with a seemingly inscrutable and eerie spectacle of death. I bristled at the implication that Jonestown had anything to do with Guyana or the Guyanese.

In this, I had something in common with Guyana’s ruling elite. Eager to disavow responsibility, they depicted their country as merely the incidental backdrop to the tragedy. It was as if, in the words of a Guyanese government statement cited by journalist Jeff Guinn for his 2017 book The Road to Jonestown, “a Hollywood movie team had come here to shoot a picture on some aspect of American life. The actors were American, the plot was American. Guyana was the stage, and the world was the audience.” 

An aura of contingency continues to surround Jonestown, so often portrayed as the tale of a lone madman, a charismatic crackpot who imploded in a random heart of darkness. In truth, as I have come to learn, Jonestown does not point to a singular erratic Svengali but, rather, to fundamental aspects of both my adopted and my home countries. About 70 percent of the community’s 914 dead were African Americans, whose precarious place in the country of their birth made them responsive to pitches to leave it. Their individual stories have been lost in the commemorations, an erasure that also obscures the systemic character of what unfolded. America in the 1970s was still so warped by the legacies of slavery that it inspired the followers of Jim Jones to dream elsewhere, and Guyana’s politics at the time made it fertile ground for their dreaming. 

Jones, the estranged son of a Ku Klux Klan member from small-town Indiana, had built a robust black following in Indianapolis through a ministry focused on social justice; by taking his parishioners into the pews of white churches and into whites-only restaurants in the 1950s, he also emerged as a leading force for integration in the city. He and his wife were the first white couple to adopt an African-American child in Indiana. But even as the political establishment there and, later, in the Bay Area wooed him for his influence with African-American voters, critics noted that his trusted inner circle, who made up the temple’s leadership, was predominantly white. 

Fewer than ninety of the nearly 1,000 People’s Temple members present in Guyana during the suicide ritual escaped it. Most did so because they were in Georgetown, the country’s capital, rather than in the rainforest settlement with Jones when he ordered everyone to kill themselves. These survivors, broadly defined, belonged to Jonestown’s white elite stationed in Georgetown as emissaries to the Guyanese government or were members of the settlement’s basketball team, including Jones’s faithful bodyguards and his sons, who happened to be in the capital to play a game against the Guyanese national team. Others who emerged alive had defected from the settlement earlier that day under the protection of California Congressman Leo Ryan, who had visited to investigate charges that people were being held there against their will. Ryan’s visit ended in a dramatic armed attack by Jones’s enforcers at a nearby airstrip that claimed five lives (including Ryan’s) and precipitated Jones’s decision to activate his long-plotted suicide plan. 

In the wings of this great drama were the unseen. Hidden in the rainforest where the violence was staged, in the eerie aftermath of the tragedy, were three people whose stories cue political contexts in both the US and Guyana crucial to understanding how and why Jonestown may have happened.

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Cards and pictures found at Jonestown made by children of members of the People’s Temple, Guyana, November 22, 1978

Literally unseen that fateful night, to her great good fortune, was Hyacinth Thrash, a seventy-six-year-old African-American woman born in the Jim Crow South who had crossed decades and distances with the preacher, from Indiana in 1957 to Guyana in 1978. On the night of the suicides, she did not respond to the loudspeaker summons to the settlement’s central pavilion where her sister Zipporah, along with the rest, would either drink or be injected with a lethal purple brew of Flavor Aid, cyanide, and tranquilizers. Thrash, who used a cane, wasn’t feeling up to the walk. That night, unaware of what was unfolding, she stayed in bed. For an unknown stretch of time, perturbed by noises outside, she crawled beneath her bed. She was either hidden under it or camouflaged in sleep, with the covers pulled over her, when Jones’s deputies came through the senior citizen dormitories delivering the poison to those too frail or weary to make it to the final ceremony. The next morning, she awoke to stillness and the epiphany that she was the apparent sole survivor, “The Onliest One Alive,” as the self-published book that relates her story—a little-known oral history collected and edited by a white Presbyterian church elder in Indiana—is titled. Thrash, it turned out, was one of four people actually at the settlement that final night, in the physical thrall of Jim Jones, who did not die. All four were black.

Yet, of the many books about Jonestown published by People’s Temple attorneys, defectors, survivors, members, or their relatives, in no case was the author an African American. There have been more than seventy-five published accounts of Jonestown—by People’s Temple insiders as well as US reporters, several canonical West Indian novelists, a Caribbean historian, a medic sent to the scene, a San Francisco radical poet, a ghostwriter for televangelists, and a child safety expert (a third of the dead were children). The “survivor” accounts were written by white people, although most of the dead and all of the survivors were black. Indeed, the historiography around Jonestown would seem to confirm Thrash’s observation about her education in a small town along the railroad tracks in segregated Alabama. “Books,” she said, “were cast-offs from the white school. Stories was all about white children. History was all white.” 

Some narratives have explored what Jonestown says about America’s dysfunctional approach to race. A few have also noted that Jones misappropriated Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton’s concept of “revolutionary suicide,” which called for targets of racist violence at the hands of the state to be willing to lay down their lives in the fight against it. It’s hard to say how aware or free Jones’s followers were when they killed themselves; several survivors have argued it was more murder than suicide. Jones drugged his followers, controlled some through manipulative and transgressive sex, blackmailed others with damaging confessions signed under duress, demoralized many and destroyed family bonds––but he also reinforced their distrust of the US government. For his elderly African-American congregants, their lives had certainly given them ample evidence of state-sponsored racial persecution. 

Thrash’s own encounter with institutional racism began with her childhood in rural Alabama. In her small town, whites attended school nine months a year; for blacks, it was only four. Nor could her parents, an illiterate domestic worker and a small-time farmer who supplemented his income as a cook on the railways, exercise the vote. Surrounding “sundown” towns barred blacks with, effectively, a curfew. Thrash’s family believed that her grandfather had been killed for violating such an ordinance. When they moved north as part of the Great Migration—though only as far as Indiana, a stronghold of the Klan—the discrimination took other forms. The department store where she worked as an elevator operator paid its black employees less than whites. She and her sister bought their own house in a section of Indianapolis vacated by white flight, and their white neighbors spurned them, going inside whenever the sisters sat on their porch. Thrash observed: “Sometimes I think whites didn’t want to come close to us ’cause they’d find out we weren’t so bad.”   

It was Jones’s promise to heal such wounds and rejections that first attracted Thrash and her sister Zipporah to him. The Bible had so suffused their upbringing that they played at baptizing chickens as children, and Zipporah bore the name of the wife of Moses, who led the Israelites out of bondage. Zipporah never did become anyone’s wife, but when she first saw Jones preaching on television, she was smitten by his good looks and by his integrated choir. In The Onliest One Alive, Zipporah emerges as a true believer to the last, rushing into the cottage where her sister rested, obliviously, to change into a special red sweater before responding to Jones’s call to death.  

As for Thrash, she had once believed that Jones cured her of cancer and had the charisma to reunite her with her ex-husband; but her account, published in 1995, bristles with skepticism at all levels about Jones. She wonders if he was less like Moses than a demagogue accusing others of racism to mask his own prejudice and “making fools of black folks,” especially the gullible and the propertied. (Over the years, Jones took $150,000 in tithes, houses, and Social Security checks from the sisters.) In the oral history, Thrash criticizes him for betraying his wife and the Bible (the settlement, for instance, scandalized her by using a shipment of Gideon Bibles as toilet paper). Instead of praising God, she says, his sermons morphed into “ranting and raving about the FBI and the CIA coming to get us.” As early as his ministry in Indiana, he had warned his parishioners of threats to kill them. In a landscape dominated by the Klan, this was not far-fetched, just as it was perhaps not far-fetched, in the long arc of lives marred by discrimination, to buy Jones’s final prophesy: that after Congressman Ryan’s murder, US government forces would soon descend on Jonestown to destroy it, and it would be far nobler for his followers to take their own lives before that happened.

But Thrash’s testimony—the only instance of an African-American survivor speaking in her own words to posterity—suggests a growing cognitive dissonance about Jones among his followers. “When Jim started acting up, I had double feelings,” she admits. “Sometimes, I thought I’d never get out, sometimes I did. I was ready to walk through the jungles to escape; then I’d get resigned to dying there.” She went so far as to devise a getaway plan: on a trip to the capital to see the dentist, she would defect to the US Embassy. Jones’s paranoia, cruelty, and hypocrisy had disillusioned many, she reports: “Got so folks said they’d just as soon take their chances with the enemy. Folks were getting more scared of Jim than the enemy.” She heartbreakingly recounts that, toward the end, he had the elderly residents (one third of Jonestown’s population was senior citizens) arm themselves with picks and shovels and stand guard. “’[C]ause the US army was coming to get us! Huh!” she tells the church elder in The Onliest One Alive. “The US wasn’t even thinking of us! They didn’t even know who we were or where we were.” Even as she doubts Jones, her sense of being unnoticed by the powers-that-be in the country of her birth is visceral, sharp.

*

Unseen, too, was Kalinyas, a chief of the Caribs, the indigenous group that has long lived in the high-canopied tropical rainforests in Guyana’s far northwest, edging its border with Venezuela, where Jonestown’s settlers built their farming cooperative on 3,000 acres of ancestral Carib land leased exceedingly cheaply from the Guyanese government. “(F)or the short season they were here, I saw them without being seen,” Kalinyas told his grand-nephew, the writer and intellectual Jan Carew. “I was there the afternoon death surprised them, just as the sun was going down. They chanted and clapped hands for a while, and then there was a terrible silence. With candle flies in bottles to light the way, I walked amongst their dead. They’d died in circles, like worshippers around invisible altars.”

The Carib chief complained to the writer that “they [the Yankees] wrote so many words about Jonestown, but they wrote about themselves. For them, we were invisible.” Carew, perhaps best known for his novel Black Midas, was a BBC broadcaster in London and a professor of African-American Studies in the United States. He relayed his great-uncle’s grievance in an essay that appeared in another self-published account, the 2016 anthology A New Look at Jonestown: Dimensions from a Guyanese Perspective. Guyanese perspectives are usually missing from Jonestown narratives, a gap that obscures its place in histories of colonization.

As Carew walked, many years after the incident, with his elder relative, through the wreckage of what had been Jonestown, the old man recounted singing Carib death-songs among the suicide victims. The elder explained that he was calling on the homeless spirits of the Americans to reconcile with the ancestral Carib dead, because they had never asked for permission to share the land. Jonestown was built in the Kaituma region, heartland of the Caribs, who had dispersed to various islands from their historical homeland in Guyana over centuries. Named after the river running through it, Kaituma means Land of the Everlasting Dreamers. Traversing the ground there that Jonestown occupied, the writer and the Carib chief found it still littered with the abandoned shoes of the dead, overgrown with wild flowers and bromeliads. A sapling had lifted a child’s patent leather shoe off the ground like “strange fruit that some rare and exotic plant had produced.” Carew reflected that if anyone understood mass suicides, it was the Caribs, whose mythology marks sites across the Caribbean islands where they jumped from cliffs to their deaths rather than accept slavery at the hands of European colonizers. 

Jim Jones had nurtured in his followers a paranoia framed by fears of a standoff with reactionaries and a sense of themselves as martyrs persecuted for their faith, anchored less by orthodox Christianity than by declarations of socialism and interracial brotherhood. But apart from their self-annihilating fate, how does their story echo the struggles around colonization? The answer is twofold. For Pan-Africanists in the twentieth century, the fight for civil rights in the United States was intertwined with battles for independence across the colonized world, from Africa to Asia to the Americas; as they imagined it, blacks constituted a colonized people within the United States as well. 

That raises another aspect to what unfolded that often goes untold. Jonestown was one in a history of ventures—beginning with the American Colonization Society in the early nineteenth century—that explored and pursued futures for African Americans outside US borders, for various political reasons. What became Liberia, for instance, was formed in 1822 as a West African colony in a slavery-era scheme to resettle free American blacks elsewhere, out of the way. During the same period, in 1840, “free colored” congregations in Baltimore dispatched two envoys to Trinidad and Guyana, then still British Guiana, to determine which was the better Mecca for their lives and labors. The delegates recommended Guiana, describing it as a paradise with its best land lying fallow, simply awaiting enterprising workers. “[L]et us imagine,” the envoys reported, “a large and extensive country, with the most luxuriant soil, capable of producing everything that grows in a tropical region.” They advertised, if not the utopia suggested by the name Land of Everlasting Dreamers, then certainly a land of plenty.

More than a century later, Jones would claim to have seen in Guyana both natural abundance and an invitation to reimagine society. Before stamping the People’s Temple acres there with his own name, for years previously, during which the mission to grow subsistence crops in a self-sustaining socialist commune was an idea without a location, Jones had called it the Promised Land. He borrowed this name directly from the farm that his role model, Father Divine, the son of a slave, had established in upstate New York in the 1930s to feed his communes housed in hotels. Jones had sought out and cultivated Divine, a prominent, flamboyant, and unorthodox religious leader whose Peace Mission was celebrated by some as an idealistic social reform movement and denounced by others as an ascetic cult. 

Exodus motifs course through African-American religion and history, and both Jones and Father Divine tapped into them to market their visions. Every exodus needs a promised land. And it helps if the officials overseeing that land are invested in peopling it. For Baltimore’s “free colored” in 1840, that official was a British colonial governor anxious to provide sugar and coffee planters with field laborers, two years after slavery ended in the British empire. In the case of Jonestown, in the 1970s Guyana’s prime minister, Forbes Burnham, was promoting agricultural cooperatives as a way to develop his country’s vast interior. He pitched his country, the only black-led nation in the Western hemisphere with a non-black majority, as a refuge for African Americans.

Jones made that pitch, too, sometimes crudely. He contended with unruly teenagers by punishing them with beatings and solitary confinement in a black box or by encouraging them with the promise of supremacy. As Hyacinth Thrash recalled, “He’d say, ‘This is Black Town. You might be Prime Minister some day.’ The boys was all tickled to hear that.”

Neal Boenzi/New York Times/Getty Images
Coffins awaiting shipment to the US after the Jonestown mass suicide, Georgetown, Guyana, November 23, 1978

Also watching on Jonestown’s final night, but hidden in the jungle some thirty miles northwest, where he was farming and breeding parakeets, was Abdullah Abdur-Razzaq, formerly Malcolm X’s right-hand man at the Organization of Afro-American Unity in the last year of the assassinated leader’s life. Disillusioned with the United States, heartbroken, and afraid that he was being watched after Malcolm X’s killing, Abdur-Razzaq had been living in Guyana’s remote hinterlands for two years when the Jonestown suicides occurred. He did not wish to be seen. The government surveillance that Jones trained his followers to suspect was a fact of life for Abdur-Razzaq and several other Black Power figures, targets of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, who found a haven in Guyana during the 1970s. When Abdur-Razzaq spied planes carrying US officials and soldiers descending from the sky in the tragedy’s aftermath, “he was so isolated,” his son told me, “that he thought the US government was swooping down on him.” In fact, Abdur-Razzaq was so fearful that he disappeared from his farm and hid in the bush for an extended period of time.

Abdur-Razzaq went to Guyana as part of an agricultural mission started by the Brooklyn-based black nationalist community group and arts organization The East, which scouted out Guyana’s northwestern rainforest at the same time the People’s Temple did. With black nationalists deriding Jones as a “white savior” who cynically exploited the anxieties and woes of African Americans, the two groups didn’t have much interaction. Yet they brokered the same deal, as part of the same government program, with Guyanese politicians. In 1975, in The East newsletter Black News, a pioneer at the group’s Kaituma cooperative described a daily regimen for working and living there that mirrored Jonestown’s, including rules against leaving without permission and nightly classes on Guyanese history. The East’s leader, in a pitch to recruit more Brooklynites to “return to the soil,” explained that the group “wanted to live and progress outside the US’s influences and tentacles.” 

Abdur-Razzaq, who lived in Guyana for a total of more than twelve years, had wanted to take his family with him, but his wife objected. In cassette-tape dispatches he mailed home, he compared himself to the ancient Spartans who sallied forth into battle but ultimately returned home. His wife would argue with the tape recorder. The Spartans, she would say, got new families where they did battle. She unspooled and destroyed his missives.

So few of the accounts of Jonestown have bothered to examine searchingly why it happened where it did. Overwhelmingly, the books and movies fail to acknowledge the fundamentally intertwined relationship of the United States with this tiny republic in its sphere of influence. This entwining is such that a Guyanese national song usurps Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” swapping “the Redwood Forest” for “the greenheart forest”—as some 1,000 People’s Temple members, in fact, did when they moved from California’s Redwood Valley into the dense mass of Guyana’s famously impenetrable greenheart trees. The entanglement is built into the very structure of the relationship: Guyana’s independence was midwifed by covert CIA agents and American labor union emissaries, who placed Forbes Burnham in power. 

Burnham was a leader unique in the Caribbean for beckoning, not banning, Black Power exiles. Other politicians in the region, who feared the potentially dissident influence of Black Power on their electorates, governed in societies with black majorities. By contrast, more Guyanese were of Asian-Indian than African origin, and their voting proceeded along ethnic lines; Burnham, who was black, had rigged elections to maintain power. Given his nation’s volatile, frequently violent ethnic politics and his own insecure hold, Burnham found it useful to make appeals based on race. He also wanted to change his country’s demographics and understood the role that migration might play. An Indian-Guyanese exodus to America alongside a black exodus from America would help his cause. When Jonestown’s chroniclers speak of Guyana’s interests in welcoming Jones and his followers, they repeat the government line that it was geopolitically strategic to settle 1,000 Americans along the disputed border with Venezuela, as a buffer against attack. Another, largely unexamined piece of the puzzle was that the Guyanese government had been successfully courting African-American settlers, through offers of jobs, political asylum, and cheap land, for nearly a decade when the suicides occurred.  

*

Jim Jones Jr., the preacher’s black adopted son, recently spoke at a screening of Stanley Nelson’s Jonestown documentary at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where I am currently a fellow. An audience member asked how Guyana, as a country of black and brown people, could be duped by a crazy white savior like Jim Jones Sr. The film’s editor insisted that the Guyanese government couldn’t be held responsible for the holocaust. Invited to draw lessons from the tragedy, Jones Jr. asserted that his father’s demagoguery was alive in the presidency of Donald Trump. It was, however, a different, chance encounter at the Schomburg that best captured for me how Jonestown still echoes in the present.

A stranger, an African-American man in his fifties who introduced himself as Mr. Tinsley, overheard me tell a librarian that I was doing research on Guyana. His ears pricked up because he was, too, in advance of his first trip there in a dozen years. He told me that he owned 478 acres in an isolated swath of the country that had been home for two centuries to a downriver penal settlement and for two billion years to a majestic tabletop mountain that had incited the imaginations of both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (inspiring his 1912 novel The Lost World) and Sir Walter Raleigh (who searched for the mythological city of gold there). 

Mr. Tinsley, an unemployed former limo driver born and raised in Harlem, said he bought the land for $10 in 2005, soon after his father died. That’s when he lost the property on Frederick Douglass Boulevard where his family had lived and run a construction company for decades. Gentrified out of his inheritance, he fixed his gaze instead on the distant horizon of Guyana. A Jonestown survivor who was a family friend had made him aware of the country. “From what he told me, what was down there (could) show people what this place could do for the world,” Mr. Tinsley whispered, as if sharing a potentially lucrative secret that he shouldn’t. “They’ve got so much natural resources.”

“Guyana is still really an untapped world,” he pronounced, adding that its natives had squandered its plenty and needed guidance. In his first venture there, as a rice farmer, he had found his Guyanese rivals “couldn’t get their acts together” or transcend their pride and squabbling. I found it hard to picture the paunchy, life-long city-dweller reaping paddy. The rice farm had been a failure. Next time, he planned to grow fruits and vegetables for export, but Guyana signified more to him than a business opportunity. He suffered from kidney disease, and he saw the country’s interior as an exotic oasis with the power to heal. Had I not seen the film The Medicine Man, which casts Sean Connery as a scientist hunting for a cure to cancer in the Amazon? 

I was astonished by the lofty hopes he had projected onto the very place that my own family had, after all, fled. Guyana’s landscape, especially its vast, undeveloped interior, has long invited fantasies of riches and peopling, from Raleigh’s conquistador visions of it as “El Dorado,” or the realm of gold, to an abortive proposal to resettle Jewish refugees there during World War II. It also had a specific hold on the African-American imagination that seems still to live. Mr. Tinsley’s tale draws on a black radical tradition of investing Guyana with the glittery allure of an imagined homeland, a tradition that Jim Jones Sr. exploited to build his promised land gone horribly awry.