Tuesday, November 18, 2008

we hope we know better

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.

5 comments:

Catherine said...

I have long been fascinated with Jonestown. Did you watch the latest CNN special? It aired this weekend.

Anonymous said...

Innterrressting......I lived in the Caribbean then, don't ask how old I was, maybe I could do the math..LOL...
BUT
I never knew it was a white man who lured a hoard of black people!!!! I just thought (from the bits and pieces of info we got, and my imagination) that it was a group of religious fanatics. No one mentioned skin-colour back then!!! Damn, I wonder why?
Do you think the media had its reasons to downplay that bit?

Wouldn't have happened to me, my mother was always wary of church and anything of a religious nature.
Thanks to her.

Heather

woolanthropy said...

You do pose a very interesting question. The right amounts of charisma, idealism, and a compound, I mean, community who thinks the punch at the party is bad?

WineGrrl said...

I saw the CNN show mentioned by Catherine...Jones was a very charismatic yet disturbing figure, and in hindsight, it was easy to see how some people could be taken in by his message and not look too closely at what was wrong with that particular situation....

afrowalking said...

I saw Jonestown and remember thinking about how vulnerable, desperate and fearful the old black church ladies must have felt to have made that choice - abandoned by their families, no caretaker in their final years.

But ... a First Grandma is coming to the White House (!!) hopefully inspiring us to DO better.