I keep this one filed under my list of weird preoccupations and mild obsessions: Jonestown. Today is the 30th anniversary of the day members of the Peoples Temple drank the proverbial Kool-Aid. When it happened, I was 12, and it shocked and confounded me. It was all too bizarre and frightening. I grew up in the black community, was properly baptized at 12, just like Jesus, and the only white men who regularly had any direct say in our personal lives were insurance salesmen. At 12, the first thing that puzzled me about Jonestown was how a white man lured hundreds of black people to some strange country I had never heard of. As insular as my community was, we didn't have that kind of trust. And when Jonestown happened, I felt plenty glad of it. (I'm sure there's some kind of thesis here, something like, "Jonestown: The White Boogieman in the Black Imagination.)
This impression separated us from them; my black community from the black community who fell for Jim Jones. I took refuge in the belief that neither of my church-going grandmothers would take me to a church like Peoples Temple; they would know better.
I study Jonestown from time to time. Not often, but whenever there's an event that returns the public consciousness to the tragedy, like the Powers Boothe movie, Guyana Tragedy, or last year's PBS documentary, Jonestown, or a major anniversary, like today. Each time I delve a little deeper into the Zeitgeist of the times, the firsthand accounts of the insanity of life in the temple, and the pathology of Jim Jones. I have yet to come away feeling like, Yeah, this could've happened to me or my family, because it's rather like slavery -- was it Eddie Murphy who said people who try to claim that when Massa told them to do something they would've just said "Massa, kiss my ass" had no understanding of slavery? It's easy to look back based on the lessons learned from other people's trials and say how much more self-protective and unerring I would have been. But I can see this basket has a hole in its bottom.