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News & Ideas

Pat Parker Reads “Jonestown and Other Madness”

Pat Parker Radcliffe
Pat Parker on stage reading Mosley, Leigh [photographer] 1978 November 6

African American feminist lesbian poet Pat Parker (1944–1989) published her first book of poetry, Child of Myself, in 1972.

In 1978 Parker became director of Oakland's Feminist Women's Health Center and in 1980 she founded the Black Women's Revolutionary Council, a group of revolutionary feminists intended to educate people about the effects of racism, classism, and sexism. Her other works included Womanslaughter (1978), Movement in Black: The Collected Poetry of Pat Parker, 1961–1978 (1978), and Jonestown and Other Madness (1985).

In this recording, Parker reads the title poem from Jonestown and Other Madness, which alludes to the mass murder-suicide that took place at the People Temple Agricultural Project in Guyana in 1978 at the behest of charismatic cult leader Jim Jones. About 70 percent of the number of victims in Jonestown were Black. 

Listen to audio of Pat Parker reading “Jonestown and Other Madness”

For research tips and additional resources, view the Hear Black Women's Voices research guide.

[start of track]

[Pat Parker speaking]

This next poem is a title poem for my next book, which will be called Jonestown and Other Madness.

[noise from audience]

This poem is the title poem from my next book which will be called Jonestown and Other Madness.

And depending upon

[pause]

what I feel about a contract that's in my briefcase, and what they feel about the rest of the poems that are included in the book, it will probably be published by a local women's press that has the same initials as I do.

[laughter, applause]

Now did y'all figure that out?

[laughter]

As a child in Texas
race education 
was simple
was subtle
was sharp

The great lone star 
state sharply 
placed me 
in colored schools 
with colored teachers 
and colored books 
and colored knowledge 

I shopped in white stores
and bought colored clothes
‘Keep the colors loud and bright 
so they dazzle in the night
No matter where a nigger’s bred 
they love yellow, orange and red’ 

I used colored toilets 
and road colored buses home
I went to colored churches 
with colored preachers 
and prayed to a white God 
begged forgiveness for Cain 
and his sin 
and his descendants 
us lowly colored sinners
and the message 
was simple 
and sharp 
there is a place for niggers 
but not among good white folk 

At home
race education 
was simple
was subtle 
facts gleaned 
by differences

The white man 
who jumped 
free-fell 
in the sky 
was quietly dismissed
‘white folks are crazy’ 
the white man 
who turned 
somersaults 
on Sports Spectacular skis 
was quietly dismissed 
‘white folks will do anything 
for money’

[laughter from crowd]

the white man who 
shot and killed his wife 
and children 
and then himself 
received a headshake 
and a sigh 
and the simple statement
‘white folks are crazy’ 

And the messages 
fell in place 
white folks went crazy 
and went to nut houses 
Black folks got mad 
and went to jail 
white folks started wars 
Black folks died in them
white folks owned America
Black folks built it

As I grew into adulthood
many messages were discarded
many were forgotten
but one returns to haunt me

Black folks do not commit suicide
Black folks do not
Black folks do not
Black folks do not commit suicide

November 18, 1978
more than 900 people
most of them Black
died in a man-made town 
called Jonestown

Newscasters’ words 
slap me in my face
people's tears and grief 
emanating from my set
and I remember the lessons
reheard a childhood message

Black folks do not commit suicide

I thought of my uncle Dave
he died in prison
suicide
 the authorities said
"Boy just up and hung himself" 
and I remembered my mother
her disbelief, her grief
‘Them white folks killed my brother 
Dave didn't commit no suicide’ 
and the funeral
a bitter quiet funeral
his coffin sealed from sighters 
and we knew 
Dave died not by his hands 
some guard decided 
that nigger should die

And I stare at the newscaster
he struggles to contain himself
it's a BIG BIG story
and he must not 
seem too excited

‘American troops made a 
grizzly discovery today 
in Jonestown, Guyana’ 
my innards scream as 
the facts unfold
‘a communist preacher’ 
and I see old Black women
my grandmothers 
communist    NO 
little old Black ladies 
do not believe in communists

[laughter from crowd]

they believe in God 
and Jesus yet,
the newscasters’ words 
a commune
a media storm of 
words and pictures
interviews with ex-members
survivors, city officials

the San Francisco Chronicle 
had a problem with its presses
erratic delivery 
of the morning paper
and in two days the Chronicle 
publishes a book 
Eyewitness Account 
of a staff reporter 
who survived 
the airport attack 
and the story grows bigger
STEP RIGHT UP
STEP RIGHT UP
Ladies and Gentlemen
have I got a tale 
for you
we got these men
two men
a congressman & a preacher 
& a supporting cast of hundreds 
the congressman went 
to investigate the preacher 
and wound up dead 
the preacher wound up dead
the supporting cast 
wound up dead 
and all the dead 
are singing to me 

Black folks do not 
Black folks do not 
Black folks do not commit suicide

My phone rings 
the newscaster mistakenly says 
Patricia Parker
not Parks 
died on the airstrip 
a friend 
wants to know 
are you alive?

Yes 
I am here 
not there 
festering 
in a jungle 
with bloated belly
not a victim 
in a dream deferred 
not a piece 
in a media puzzle
not a member 
in the supporting cast. 

Yet 
I am there 
walking with the souls 
of Black folks 
crying 
and screaming
WHY

WHY

Black folks
why are you here 
and dead?
tell me how you 
willingly died 
did the minister 
sing to you
‘Kool-aid Kool-aid 
tastes great
I like Kool-aid 
can't wait’

I see Black people
beautiful Black people 
in lines in front of a tub 
of twentieth-century hemlock
The guards with guns 
guns
why guns?
 
and the pictures 
continue to flow 
images of a man 
a church man 
he cures disease
NO 
he's a fake
hired people 
in treated liver
he loves God
NO 
he's a communist
he talks many messages 
revolution to the young 
God to the old
he believes in the family
NO 
he destroys the family
fucks the women 
fucks the men
and the media continues 
to tell the tale 

An interview with a live one. 
Newscaster. ‘You were a member of People's Temple?’ 
Man, ‘Yes, I was.’  
‘Why did you join?’ 
‘Well, I went there a few times
and then I stopped going, but 
Reverend Jones came by my house 
and asked me why I quit coming. 
I was really surprised. 
No one had ever cared 
that much about me before.’ 

No one had ever cared 
that much about me before 
and it came home
the messages of my youth 
came clear
the Black people 
in Jonestown 
did not commit suicide
they were murdered 
they were murdered in 
small southern towns 
they were murdered in 
large northern cities

they were murdered 
as school children 
by teachers 
who didn't care
they were murdered 
by policemen 
who didn't care
they were murdered 
by welfare workers 
who didn't care
they were murdered 
by shopkeepers 
who didn't care
they were murdered 
by politicians 
who didn't care
they didn't die at Jonestown
they went to Jonestown dead 
convinced that America 
and Americans 
didn't care

they died 
in the schoolrooms
they died 
in the streets
they died 
in the bars 
they died 
in the jails
they died 
in the churches
they died 
in the welfare lines

Jim Jones was not the cause 
he was the result 
of 400 years 
of not caring

Black folks do not 
Black folks do not 
Black folks do not commit suicide 

Thank you.

[loud applause and cheering from audience]

[end of track]

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