"The last time an African American lesbian
was the protagonist in a novel was in
Ann Allen Shockley’s 1982 “Say Jesus and
Come to Me.” What shocked and awed
readers about this main character is that
she is also an itinerant minister."
emigration to Jonestown in Guyana, South American represents another
leg of the African Diaspora, but this time black bodies are stolen and
killed not by the hands of white slave hunters, but rather by a
religious rhetoric that pimps and profits on the racial, economic, and
The last time an African American lesbian was the protagonist in a
novel was in Ann Allen Shockley’s 1982 “Say Jesus and Come to Me.” What
shocked and awed readers about this main character is that she is also
an itinerant minister. While crusading against street vice in Nashville
the Reverend Myrtle Black meets world-famous R&B songstress Travis
Lee who joins the crusade. Their girl crushes on each other are both
profoundly spiritual and powerfully sexual that neither can ignore. And
neither could readers ignore the author’s apt and scathing critique of
the Black Church’s misogyny and homophobia. For decades Shockley’s
novel was every black lesbians Bible - myself included.
But the book leaves you with the following queries to do more than
merely prayer about: Should the Black Church continue to have such a
central role in the lives of African Americans given its very toxic
androcentric ecclesiastical paradigm that systematically still
bars many of us-straight or LGBTQ-ascendency to the pulpit? Can
African Americans find liberation in the ever present accommodationist
phase of the black church that sells out its social gospel message of
justice for conservative faith-based initiative dollars?
Whereas Shockley’s fictional tale give - especially African American
LGBTQs-unproved reasons and unfed hope to stay in the Black Church,
other than its familiarity, Sikivu Hutchinson’s historical gothic novel
“White Nights, Black Paradise” gives us all reason to leave religion
For centuries, the paradigm of leadership in the African-American
community has been the Black Church with its homophobic and sexist yet
charismatic gay preacher, (i.e., Bishop Eddie Long). Hutchinson’s novel
disturbingly shows the complexity of a repackaged and unexamined black
religious idealism espoused from the mouth of a white megalomaniacal
messiah alongside the harsh reality of a supposed utopia. Based on the
true and horrifying story of the charismatic Reverend Jim Jones, the
Peoples Temple and Jonestown massacre, Hutchinson novel is both a
reckoning and remembering of the lives lost -the largest religious
murder-suicide in American history.
Over 900 members of the People’s Temple, an African American
multiracial church with Pentecostal roots, died in the Jonestown
massacre in 1978.
Approximately, 75 percent of Peoples Temple congregants were African
American, 20 percent were white and 5 percent were Asian, Latino and
Native American. The majority of its black congregants were women,
while its core leadership was predominantly white as too is the
historical records and visual optics of the event. And as in the Black
Church, black women were “the backbone” of Peoples Temple. Sadly, the
majority of Jonestown’s victims were African American women,
too. And the haunting question is why did so many black women die?
"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, particularly given the global appeal
that 24/7 prayer movements and charismatic Pentecostalism have for
women of color,” Hutchinson said.
"The widening wealth gap between blacks, whites and Latinos, coupled
with the downward mobility of the black middle class, only amplifies
the role of religion in black life. Because charismatic faith movements
thrive in the presence of socioeconomic and political turbulence black
religiosity is flourishing.”
The title “White Nights, Black Paradise” is drawn from two metaphors.
The phrase “White Night” signified a state of siege and persecution
Jonestown rallied around to protect itself from white racist attacks,
and “Black Paradise” refers to Jonestown settlement as a kind of
“Promised Land,” and racial utopia.
The characters in the novel are a cross-section of the American
populace - “queer, lesbian, bisexual, trans, straight, African
American, Latino, multiracial, white, age/class diverse and all over
the map in terms of spiritual belief, “ Hutchinson explains.
Whereas one of Shockley’s main protagonist, Reverend Myrtle Black, is a
lesbian and Christian, raising eyebrows for many in the African
American community, one of Hutchinson’s main characters, Taryn Strayer,
is an atheist, and her sister Hy Strayer, is an agnostic - both causing
a disruption and dis-ease in how African Americans have seen, read,
accepted, and envisioned themselves in the African American
The sisters’ religious beliefs are born from too many unanswered prayers.
“In third grade she learned the unreliability of the Lord. She called
on him to annihilate the cackling, drooling pinheads who wanted to see
her fuck up. What was the Lord God Almighty good for if he couldn’t
pull off a small favor after a week’s worth of goodness from her?, ”
author referring to Taryn.
The book opens with the sisters’ migration to their surprise segregated
San Francisco from the Midwest, conjuring up for me Isabel Wilkerson’s
groundbreaking and 2010 historical bestseller “The Warmth of Other
Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.”
Wilkerson’s book is about the migratory patterns—The Great Migration
between 1910 -1930 and Second Great Migration between 1941-1970—of
African Americans from the South to all points the hell out of it. To
the Northeast, Midwest, and West between 1915 and 1970, which the
sister’s journey is one of many stories.
Their emigration to Jonestown in Guyana, South American represents
another leg of the African Diaspora, but this time black bodies are
stolen and killed not by the hands of white slave hunters, but rather
by a religious rhetoric that pimps and profits on the racial, economic,
and gendered disenfranchised.
We know how the Jonestown massacre happened. “White Nights, Black
Paradise” seeks to answer the “Why?” and ask “Could it happen again”?
As I read Hutchinson’s book I thought of “Those Bones Are Not My
Child,” a fictional rendering of the 1979-1981 Atlanta child murders.
Toni Cade’s magnum opus that Toni Morrison depicts as a “novel that
leaves us with an enduring and revelatory chronicle of an American
nightmare.” Similarly, Hutchson’s novel does, too. Sadly, however,
Bambara’s book, in my opinion, went away from the public eye as swiftly
as it came.
But Hutchinson's won’t because for those who dare to remember the Jonestown massacre these questions still linger:
why is it that the African American community then and now, refuse to
stand still and acknowledge the gravity of what took place that fateful
day? Why aren’t African American ministers of the cloth, churches and
communities not setting this day aside to remember the tragedy that was
the People’s Temple?”
Defiantly, many are still waiting for a response.
BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member and Columnist, The Rev. Irene Monroe, is a religion columnist, theologian, and public speaker. She is the Coordinator of the African-American Roundtable of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry (CLGS) at the Pacific School of Religion. A
native of Brooklyn, Rev. Monroe is a graduate from Wellesley College
and Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University, and served as a
pastor at an African-American church before coming to Harvard Divinity
School for her doctorate as a Ford Fellow. She was recently named to
MSNBC’s list of 10 Black Women You Should Know. Reverend Monroe is the author of Let Your Light Shine Like a Rainbow Always: Meditations on Bible Prayers for Not’So’Everyday Moments. As an African-American feminist theologian, she speaks for a sector of society that is frequently invisible. Her website is irenemonroe.com. Contact the Rev. Monroe and BC.
| is published every Thursday
David A. Love, JD
Nancy Littlefield, MBA