The Jonestown We Don’t Know

An aura of contingency continues to surround Jonestown, so often portrayed as the tale of a lone madman, a charismatic crackpot who imploded in a random heart of darkness. In truth, as I have come to learn, Jonestown does not point to a singular erratic Svengali but, rather, to fundamental aspects of both my adopted and my home countries. About 70 percent of the community’s 914 dead were African Americans, whose precarious place in the country of their birth made them responsive to pitches to leave it. Their individual stories have been lost in the commemorations, an erasure that also obscures the systemic character of what unfolded. America in the 1970s was still so warped by the legacies of slavery that it inspired the followers of Jim Jones to dream elsewhere, and Guyana’s politics at the time made it fertile ground for their dreaming. 

Read more in my essay for The New York Review of Books Daily.