By Guest Contributor Sikivu Hutchinson; originally published at Religion Dispatches
Thirty-five years ago, on November 19, 1978, 73 year-old Hyacinth Thrash awoke to a nightmare in the jungles of Guyana. Nine hundred and eighteen people from her Peoples Temple church lay dead before her eyes, poisoned by a lethal cocktail of cyanide and fruit punch. The images from this gothic scene of carnage have become indelible. Bodies stretch into the distance in rows, face down on the ground. They are overwhelmingly black bodies, clad in simple workaday clothing. Rendered “anonymous”, they represent complex extended families of children, elderly women, young women, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and nieces. They came to Jonestown, Guyana from communities all across the U.S., drawn by the utopic promise of life in a communal settlement envisioned by a charismatic white messiah as a socialist refuge from American racial apartheid. One of the most haunting scenes from the massacre’s aftermath is that of an adult with their arm around a child, protective in the throes of death. Thrash was the sole survivor on the premises.
Although the gruesome final snapshot of Jonestown is burned into the American popular imagination, the prelude to the massacre is not as well known. Founded by the Reverend Jim Jones in the 1950s, Peoples Temple was a multiracial Pentecostal congregation with roots in Indiana. Over the course of two decades the church would establish operations in Ukiah, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In the late 1970s Jones relocated the bulk of the congregation to Guyana, ostensibly to avoid government persecution for its radical views. The Jonestown massacre has been dubbed one of the largest murder-suicides in world history. About 75% of Peoples Temple members were African American, 20% were white and 5% were Asian, Latino and Native American. The majority of its black members were women, while its core leadership was predominantly white. As per the cultural cliché, black women like Thrash were “the backbone” of People’s Temple, the primary victims of Jonestown, and the population with the deepest investment in the philosophy, ethos and mission of the church.
It is troubling that of the scores of book length personal accounts, critical analyses and sociological appraisals on Peoples Temple and Jonestown only a few are by black women (the best of these have been compiled at the “Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple” site). Thrash and Leslie Wagner–Wilson are currently the only two black women survivors to publish books on their experiences. Wagner-Wilson managed to escape Jonestown before the massacre with several of her family members. As early African American members of the church when it was based in Indiana, Thrash and her sister tithed 20% of their income to Peoples Temple. Thousands of dollars in property sales, Social Security, disability, and welfare benefits from Temple members were funneled into the church’s empire. Despite being elderly and infirm, Thrash and her sister followed Jones from Indiana to Ukiah, San Francisco and Guyana. Eventually Thrash became disgruntled with the divide between Jones’ rhetoric of racial equality and the white-people-first reality of church leadership but stayed put nonetheless.
Unpacking why so many black women died in Jonestown requires taking a critical look back at the racial underbelly of the Jonestown age. It demands confronting hard truths about the dangerously gendered seductions of organized religion; especially given the global appeal 24/7 prayer movements and charismatic Pentecostalism have for women of color.
According to a 2012 Kaiser Foundation/Washington Post poll, black women are among the most steadfastly religious groups in the nation. Only 2% said that being religious was not important to them at all (compared to 15% of white men), while 74% said that it was extremely important. Numerous surveys have touted the decline of American religiosity within the past decade. Yet, in an era of black economic depression, the need to be devout or churched up has not diminished for most African American women, despite the patriarchal, heterosexist orientation of the Black Church.