by Karl “Tony” Ginyard
I remember mom saying, “You know child, the trouble with the day you die is that it starts out just like any other day. Death just comes, like a relative you never wanted to see again.” She was good at stuff like that, coming up with phrases that captured the essence of a deep subject. It’s her words that I remember the most, not the way she looked, or the way she laughed, nor her cooking. Her words hold me.
Growing up in the Guyana countryside, I spent hours listening to her stories about her childhood in rural Alabama, how her family struggled scratching out a living in the segregated south, and how she spent hours asking God why he created separate water fountains for white and colored people. One time she said, “When I was about five or six, I used to wonder if God put something in the water from each fountain that would keep your skin white or black, you know? I would sit and watch the folks drink from each fountain, then think, ‘I bet that’s how God keeps people from changing colors. You have to keep drinking from the right fountain so you don’t change.’”
We would laugh at her tales. No matter how sad, or hurtful, she somehow always found a way to make them funny. One time she told a story about how the folks at the white church burned her Sunday school bus. She said, “For some reason the white folks didn’t like the fact we had a Sunday school bus just like their kids. Not sure why it bothered them so, but you could see it in their eyes. Every Sunday when our bus picked us up and drove past their church, they just stared at us, as if we stole their bus.” Mom would pause to wipe the tears away.
“One Sunday morning I waited for the Sunday school bus. I waited and waited and waited. After a while my mama came outside and said, ‘Aretha the bus ain’t coming this morning, honey.’”
“Why mama?” I asked.
“The white folks burned the bus, honey.”
“Why they do that? They hate our bus that much?”
Mama put her arms around me and said, ‘Well, honey, I don’t know.”
“Is it because of the water?”
“What water? What you talk’n ‘bout, child?”
“‘The white water from the whites only water fountain. I think the water made them burn the bus. The people who drink from the colored water fountain don’t burn buses.”
“Honey, it’s not the water. Water don’t have a color, at least not like that. Water is the color of God’s spirit. All of us just need to drink more of that type of water.’’
The memories of her experiences in the Jim Crow south made her feel less human, like some sort of alien being. But all of that changed when she moved to California and started attending the Reverend Jim Jones People’s Temple. There was a distinct shift in her tone and demeanor when she spoke about Reverend Jones.
“He would preach about how Jesus was a brown man, and all the people around Jesus were brown. I never heard that before. Hearing such things like that made me feel as though God really cared for me. Growing up in the south you went to church because your mama told you to, but I never thought God cared for black folks until I heard Reverend Jones preach. I was truly reborn when I started to attend his church.”
My father was not as enamored with Jim Jones in the end. However, at first he was enthralled with him. He was a white guy from New York, the only son of an abusive, alcoholic father, and a mother who tried her best to keep the family together. It was Jim Jones’s kindness that drew my father to his church. My father told the story of how he had never seen a man cry before he met Jim Jones.
“Growing up, my father would beat me if I committed the slightest wrongdoing,” he said. “And, if I cried while he beat me, he kept beating me until I stopped crying. He would say, ‘Shut up and take it like a man. Men don’t cry, you candy-ass kid.’ So, I would never cry. No matter how bad the beatings got, I never cried. I never saw the men in my neighborhood cry. As a result, I equated manhood with not showing emotions, no tears. But, the first time I attended Jim Jones’s church, I saw grown men crying. As the sermon came to a close I was so overcome with emotions that were bottled inside me. I lost control. I started to cry. It all came out of me like a dam that burst. I couldn’t stop crying.”
Though Reverend Jones introduced my mother and father to one another, and officiated their wedding, as time passed my father became disillusioned with him and the People’s Temple movement, so much so that he feared for our lives. I remember one night, after we completed our chores, Rev. Jones’ voice boomed over the loud speaker system. These late night diatribes, called “White Night Sessions,” were lectures to the faithful. Reverend Jones’s ramblings echoed throughout the northwest Guyana countryside like the sound of an oncoming storm. This particular night he sounded more paranoid than ever: “They’re all out to get us. The CIA, FBI, and the Brits with their MI5 spies, are all out to get us. We must be ready. We must be ready to do whatever it takes to stop them from destroying our paradise. Remember, paradise will follow us wherever we go, all the way into the afterlife.”
Once Rev. Jones had finished his speech my father turned to face my mother. “Aretha it’s time to go. There’s a man coming from Washington DC, a Congressman, who’s coming to help get us out of here. I spoke with a few other members and they’re ready to go, too.” As a senior member of the temple staff he had access to information most were not privy to. He continued, “Aretha, the man is a lunatic.”
“Shhh, the guards will hear you,” my mother said.
“I don’t care who hears me. He’s crazy. We’ve got to get out of here.”
“We’ve discussed this already.” My mother held her ground. “I’m not leaving, and the children are staying with me.”
“Like hell they are,” my father yelled.
“Keep your voice down. The guards will hear you.”
“Aretha, listen to me. I’ve found out what his real plan is. All this time I thought the suicide talk was just a way for him to test our devotion. But it’s real, he’s gonna force us to do it.”
My mother glared at him with contempt. “I don’t believe you.”
“It’s true. He keeps saying something about ‘putting an end to all suffering’ and ‘God has spoken to me and I am setting the wheels to motion.’ and ‘It’s time to welcome the Death Angel.’ He’s gone over the edge.”
Just as my dad was about to continue, Rev. Jones’s voice could be heard over the public announcement system again. “How very much I’ve tried my best to give you a good life. But in spite of all of my trying, a handful of our people, with their lies, have made our lives impossible. We’ve been so betrayed. We have been so terribly betrayed. It’s time to welcome the Death Angel. The book of Revelations is real, it’s here, it’s here.”
My father grabbed my mother by the shoulders. “You see, it’s starting! He’s planning to kill us all. We’ve got to get out of here. We have to leave with the Congressman.”
“Let go of me,” my mother shouted. “Nothing is going to happen. Reverend Jones is just saying those things to make sure no one falls for the Congressman’s tricks.”
“Aretha, I know you think this place is paradise; it’s not. It’s hell. You think the man was sent by God. No, no, no. The steps to hell are built with the bones of people who thought they were sent by God to manipulate others into committing horrendous things in the name of God.”
“You can say what you want, I’m not leaving. God has brought me here with my children. I don’t want them to grow up like I did—in a country with white water and colored water. They don’t know their skin color is an obstacle; all they know is that they are human beings, just human. You grew up with that freedom, the liberty of just being human, not an ethnicity. There’s a big difference between the two. Living here, I’m just human, not a color. And the only way I can keep it is by staying here with the man who helped me get here.”
A few hours later Congressman Leo Ryan and over 900 inhabitants of the Jonestown complex, including 304 children, were dead from cyanide poisoning. My two brothers and I were among a handful who survived.
As I grew older, I expected the images of all the children who had died to haunt me. I had known them. They’d been my friends. But instead, it was my mother’s voice which stood out, not those murdered children. “The Lord has put me here to show my children they are human, just human, not a color in a crayon box.” It was as if her voice was protecting me, shielding me from that horrific day.
It was my husband who made me realize those little children were there, in my head. I had said I wanted children. When we were dating I couldn’t wait to have a child. But, as time passed, my mother’s stories and the images of Jonestown grew more prominent in my mind.
“Why would I want to bring a child into this world?” I asked.
“Huh? What do you mean? You told me you love children,” my husband said.
“My children will be born into a world where the color of their skin will determine the cover of their book, not the pages inside. My mother lost her life in a place where people wanted to read her book, the pages of her life, not just the cover. All the mothers in Jonestown wanted the same thing for their children. Can you promise me people will see the pages inside my child and not just the cover of the book?”