The Erasure (and Re-Inscription) of African Americans from the Jonestown Narrative

By Moore, Rebecca | Communal Societies, December 2018 | Go to article overview

The Erasure (and Re-Inscription) of African Americans from the Jonestown Narrative


Moore, Rebecca, Communal Societies


Four decades after the disaster that occurred in Jonestown, Guyana, it is worth asking if there is anything more to be learned or discovered. Articles, books, films, and documentaries have told and retold the story of the mass deaths in the jungle. Dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of writers have assessed the impact of Peoples Temple--the religious movement behind Jonestown--and its members. Yet a major part of the narrative remains ignored: the narrative told from the perspective of African Americans, who made up the majority of residents of the Jonestown community.

This article looks at the ways in which the African American experience in Peoples Temple has been erased from public consciousness. The presence of African Americans looms large but always in the background--behind all the books and headlines, behind all the photos and documentaries. This article plans to bring their story into the foreground.

I first introduce the subject of erasure: What exactly do we mean by that? What are the implications of a people, or a history, being erased? I then consider the facts of the erasure of African Americans from narratives about Jonestown, discussing who lived there, who died there, and what we know about them. The article next outlines the contours of re-inscription--that is, the way that people of color are retelling the Jonestown story and giving the black members of Peoples Temple a voice. Finally, I close with some conclusions that note potential pitfalls in overcorrecting for erasure.

Erasure

What do we mean when we speak of erasure? We know what it means to wipe the slate clean, to blot out an error, or to white out a mistake. Racism is institutionalized throughout American society. It exists in the very structure of our lives: our schools, our legal system, our political organizations, and our labor, health, and environmental institutions. It's everywhere.

Erasure signifies the conscious and unconscious ways in which we ignore these facts of life. Thinking we can be colorblind in a racially structured order denotes erasure. Some educators in composition classes today call race an "absent presence" and racism, an "absent absence" among their students. (1) In the field of political theory, one analyst has identified a "politics of extinction." (2) By this she means that the academic majority either ridicules, dismisses, or neglects the voices of advocates of critical race theory and feminist theory. These voices are extinguished. That's erasure.

In a groundbreaking study conducted in 1984, the legal theorist Richard Delgado conclusively demonstrated the existence of a tradition "of white scholars' systematic occupation of, and exclusion of minority scholars from, the central areas of civil rights scholarship. The mainstream writers tend to acknowledge only each other's work." (3) Delgado showed that despite the progress made through civil rights legislation, white scholars continued to dominate the field of civil rights law.

We don't have to look very far to find examples of erasure in our nation's history. My students at San Diego State University did not know that African immigrants made up nearly 20 percent of the population in the thirteen American colonies, and in some Southern colonies, that figure approached fifty percent. I always had a few students in my classes who had never heard of Japanese internment during World War II. This surprised me, given the fact that the Manzanar internment center was located just three hundred miles away. And literally no one knew that close to a million Mexican Americans--most of them US citizens, many of them children--had been deported to Mexico during the Great Depression. They were simply shipped back under orders from President Herbert Hoover. That's erasure, the obliterating of a people's history.

Erasure is not the same as merely forgetting. Erase is a transitive verb--it has an object. Something is erased by someone or something else. …

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