A religious utopia turned into a nightmare for African-American women

A religious utopia turned into a nightmare for African-American women

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. 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 pray 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 gives – 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 entirely.

For centuries, the paradigm of leadership in the African-American community has been the black church with its homophobic and sexist yet charismatic gay preachers, (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’s novel is both a reckoning and remembering of the lives lost in the largest religious murder-suicide in American history.

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.”

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