Karin Smith

About Karin Smith’s Thesis Project

Karin Smith

A Taxonomy of Jonestown

This thesis examines the cultural memories surrounding the Peoples Temple, founded in the 1950s by Reverend Jim Jones, and how the formation of this predominantly African American congregation was conditioned by the enduring trauma of slavery. The Peoples Temple was clearly an American phenomenon, one rooted in the postslavery economic stagnation of the African American community and its reliance on faith for guidance. Due to the lack of political leadership after the Civil War, black churches came to the forefront as community organizers. By the 1970s in the Bay Area, however, these churches were more invested in social status and reputation, distancing themselves from members of the community considered to be of lower social rank and importance. Individuals forsaken by these traditional communities of faith found a sense of family and belonging in the Peoples Temple.The media coverage of what became known as the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana in 1978 unflinchingly portrayed the victims’ bodies as repulsive specimens for scrutiny, recalling the dehumanizing racism of the supposedly scientific examination of African bodies by Eurocentric eyes under colonialism. Yet despite the fact that some 75 percent of the Peoples Temple and 90 percent of Jonestown was African American, there was, and has continued to be, a surprising silence on the part of the black community regarding the disparaging and inherently racist nature of massacre-related mass-media imagery. I argue that this silence is due to the complexity of negotiating negative cultural stereotypes while desiring the creation of a new black identity. This psychological trauma inevitably pits African Americans against themselves. As the stereotype of “weak-minded” and “weak-willed” blacks was played out in Guyana, the mainstream African American community back in California feared being connected to Jonestown through race. In order to counter these harmful cultural assumptions, one must interject back into the conversation the humanity of the individuals who died and reinterpret their lives and deaths as meaningful and worthy of mourning.

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