ISSUE ELEVEN | FALL 2018
In the fall of 1977, Angela Davis made a phone call to express her support for a man she referred to as “my friend Jim Jones.” An attempt to ease Jones’s paranoia—sparked by a custody battle that culminated in a warrant for his arrest—and the subsequent shadow of fear that swept through the Jonestown community, Davis’s statement was an attempt to alleviate tension caused by the commune’s Six Day Siege during which Jones and his officials convinced the commune’s inhabitants that the Guyana Defense Force was actively seeking to destroy the politically progressive paradise they’d forged in the depths of the jungle.
Living miles away from their homes and loved ones in the United States, 68 percent of Jonestown’s residents were Black and 45 percent of its total population were Black women. Understandably, Jones’s followers yearned for a form of reassurance that the vision they shared with their leader was legitimate and worthy of all the sacrifices they’d collectively made in support of Jones’s utopian dream. Arranged by Jones’s wife Marceline, the phone call to Davis, along with an additional call to prominent Black Panther and political activist Eldridge Cleaver, was a frenzied effort to lift Jonestown’s spirits and cull the fatalistic paranoia of the cult’s leader. Although Jones told Marceline that everyone was “prepared to die” in defense of their beliefs, his wife was not ready to embrace this hypothetical end. Desperate to counterbalance Jones’s grim resolve, Marceline reached out to Davis and Cleaver. Through the voices of Black radicals, Marceline succeeded in delaying what would later become Jonestown’s infamously tragic legacy.
In Davis’s message, she referred to Jones’s disciples as her “brothers and sisters,” assuring them that “there are people . . . all across the country, who are supporting you, who are with you.” Like Jones, Davis knew what it was like to have a warrant issued for her arrest. She too had been viewed as a threat by her government and, as a result, became a fugitive. A living definition of what it meant to be a political radical, Davis’s biography and activism served as inspiration for countless members of Jonestown, Black and white alike. Conveyed via radio phone patch, Davis’s statement was, in many ways, an effort to remind the population of the People’s Temple that, despite the hardships they faced in the present, they were not alone, and there was a future beyond the anxiety of their current dilemma. Citing their support at “marches and demonstrations” along with the “thousands of petitions that were sent to government officials and circulated and signed” by Jones’s congregation, Davis assured her audience that she and the National Alliance Against Racism and Political Oppression empathized with their plight. “We are very deeply obligated to you for what you have done to further the fight for justice, to further the struggle against oppression, to further the fight against racism,” Davis said. “I know you are in a very difficult situation right now and there is a conspiracy . . . to destroy the contributions which you have made to our struggle. And this is why I must tell you that we feel that we are under attack as well.” For Davis, the plight of Jonestown was synonymous with the struggles and hopes of the Civil Rights movement. Jones and his devotees were, in a sense, comrades in arms.
“When you are attacked it is because of your progressive stand, and we feel that it is an attack against us as well . . . [and] we will do everything in our power to ensure your safety and your ability to keep on struggling,” Davis stated toward the end of her message, which was briefly interrupted by what an official transcript of her speech refers to as “loud ovations from hundreds of people.” After the applause subsided, Davis ended with impassioned assurance. “We are with you, and we appreciate everything you’ve done. And we know you are going to win, and, in the final analysis, we are all going to win.” One can only imagine how much Davis’s words soothed the fears of Jonestown’s residents and renewed their sense of hope.
By November 18th, 1978, the majority of the “brothers and sisters” with whom Davis expressed her solidarity in September of the prior year were no longer living, and the man she’d referred to as a friend was responsible for their deaths. In the years that followed, Davis’s support of Jonestown would become a footnote obscured by the cyanide and Flavor Aid-induced mass suicide that claimed the lives of over 900 members of the Peoples Temple and the death of the commune’s leader. Noted as the largest loss of American lives on a single day until the September 11th attacks in 2001, the Jonestown massacre has continuously haunted our contemporary culture, and yet it’s often forgotten that a man like Jim Jones was applauded by political visionaries like Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and Angela Davis. Too often, it’s forgotten that the majority of the lives lost on that dark day were the lives of Black Americans.
Within the pages of her 1974 autobiography, Davis writes that “the struggle was a life-nerve,” that fighting for progress was her “only hope for survival.” Like the biblical definition of faith, coalition and activism became the means by which she and those within her community were able to persist in an era defined by injustice. Similarly, the Black residents of Jonestown hoped that collectively they would not only bring about change, but that they could survive and ultimately thrive within the community they’d fostered alongside their leader Jim Jones. Although their method of resistance differed in various ways from Davis’s political praxis, their goals were similar. They yearned for equality and justice.
The predominantly Black community of Jonestown wanted what Black Americans had dreamt of for centuries: to live free and abundant lives. Like their predecessors, many of Jonestown’s residents found solace at the intersection of community, social justice, and religion. Like so many that came before them, religion and political coalition failed them in the end. The catastrophic breach of trust that occured in Jonestown and the way Jones exploited his followers and supporters like Davis is not an anomaly. It’s distinctively and tragically American.
When the hopes and faith of a marginalized community are exploited, and the depravity of leaders is undetected by even the most “woke” progressives, what can we glean from our inability to discern the true motives that often lurk beneath the warm and fuzzy promise of solidarity and coalition? If Angela Davis couldn’t detect Jones’s sinister interior, how can we detect the true motives of those who publically insist that their goal is to empower and uplift others? How many wolves are there among us, and how are we enabling them?
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From the infamy of Jim Jones to the prosperous yet ethically murky prominence of Father Major Jealous Divine and the overtly shady celebrity of televangelists like Rev. Creflo Dollar, religious leaders whose intentions are insincere often put followers within the Black community in harm’s way. When wolves are in the pulpit, religious communities become spaces defined by maltreatment and corruption rather than ones shaped by unity and support. Leaders with ulterior motives are hailed as admirable and praiseworthy changemakers for years and sometimes decades before going down in history as Machiavellian manipulators whose abuses of power put others at risk.
Before the toll of their tyranny comes to light, they are applauded by the public. They’re given awards for their efforts, photographed with influential figures, and considered the living definition of upstanding citizens. Beneath their cloaks of wool, these public figures conceal their manipulative greed and lust for power via photo ops and brand maintenance. The public adores them while those within their respective communities are gaslit into wondering whether the actions of the widely applauded leader are wrong at all. Perhaps their words were misinterpreted. Their followers chalk up their leaders’ behavior as a resulting symptom of fatigue, sheer ambition, or an isolated incident induced by stress. Those wronged stay silent out of fear or for the sake of preserving peace within their community. Those who speak out against the leader’s abuse of power are vilified, shunned, and viewed as the enemy to the mission and vision of the leader and the group as a whole.
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Would-be whistleblowers are labeled troublemakers and viewed as negative influences fueled by revenge. Dissent is silenced and the wolves in disguise continue to maim without consequence until it’s too late and the impact of their damage—psychological trauma, the loss of relationships, financial ruin, physical harm—can’t be curtailed. Within the religious community and elsewhere, it becomes difficult to determine who you can trust. Whether it be a prominent politician, an up-and-coming influencer, an artist, a celebrity, or an that activist you admire, we are all susceptible. Each of us is capable of mistaking a monster for a friend.
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In The Evidence of Things Not Seen, James Baldwin writes, “If I speak to you, I want you to hear me—to hear me—and to see me. Speech and language, however ceremonious, complex, and convoluted, are a way of revealing . . . and this revelation is, really, our only human hope. But this hope is strangled if one, or both of us, is lying.” Penned in response to the trial of Wayne Bertram Williams and America’s legacy of violence towards its underprivileged citizens, specifically those who are Black, Baldwin’s words serve as a warning as well as a road map for how we as a culture can defend ourselves and counterbalance the harm of corruption within our communities.
For Baldwin, violence begins with a lie and becomes doubly dangerous when amplified by silence and suppression. Whether it be exploitation beneath the heel of white supremacy or the violation of trust within a community of spiritually, culturally, or politically aligned believers, a lie—even when muzzled—can be lethal. Beneath the guise of allyship, solidarity, or communal uplift, wolves who hide in plain sight as innovators, trailblazers, and champions for historically disenfranchised communities are only empowered by our fear and unwillingness to expose their falsehoods with the light of the truth. If some of us are lying about ourselves and the wolves in our lives, for the sake of "keeping the peace" or out of fear, then how will the voices of those willing to confront the lie be heard? If we are willing to look away from the hypocrisy of others—and our own—how can we be certain that we ourselves are not hiding beneath a disguise of wool. Who will save us if we seek safety in silence? The antidote, as Baldwin suggests, is simple. We must learn to tell the truth. We must learn to spot a wolf before it bears its teeth.
Dianca London Potts earned her MFA in Fiction from The New School. She is a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee and a Best Small Fictions finalist for 2016. She is a Kimbilio Fiction fellow, the former prose editor of LIT Magazine, and the former online editor of Well-Read Black Girl. Her words have been featured in Shondaland, The Washington Post, The Village Voice, Lenny Letter, and elsewhere. Her memoir, Planning for the Apocalypse, is forthcoming from 37 Ink. You can follow her musings at @diancalondon.
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