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Marching Toward Identity: Lost in the USA: American Identity form the Promise Keepers to the Million Mom March.

Marching Toward Identity:

Lost in the USA: American Identity form the Promise Keepers to the Million Mom March

White, Deborah Gray

Urbana, Chicago, & Springfield: University of Illionois Press, 2017, 280pp, $24.95, paperback

When I was asked to read and review Lost in the USA, I immediately said yes. A good deal of the time and energy I've put into fifty years of organizing in the social justice and peace movements of this country have been focused on street actions, public protests, and mass mobilizations. My resume is dotted with references to my role in quite a few of this nation's largest marches and rallies. Lost in the USA sounded like a book I would want to read.

White looks at six major mobilizations during 1990s and into the first year of the new millennium, five in Washington, DC, and one in Philadelphia:

* March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation, April 25, 1993

* Million Man March, October 16, 1995

* Million Woman March, October 25,1997 (held in Philadelphia)

* Promise Keepers gathering, October 4,1997

* Millennium March, April 30, 2000

* Million Mom March, May 14, 2000

This is a relatively short book, but there is no doubt that the work was seriously researched and the material thoroughly documented: the 823 footnotes and the 25-page bibliography attest to that. And the length of the book doesn't mean it's sparse or short on insightful analysis or basic historical information. Just the opposite: the book is packed with data, quotes, and references to earlier moments in our country's struggles to secure a democracy that represents and serves its many diverse communities. White does a thorough job of explaining and documenting the economic and cultural shifts that unfolded in this country at the end of the twentieth century, and argues that these led to a search for meaning for people whose lives seemed to be, or actually were, up-ended by those shifts. She argues that the mobilizations she examines are examples of that search. But I was left wondering if the large shifts in the country were all that different in their impact from other times of significant realignment, which she seems to suggest.

White's focus is overwhelmingly on who was marching and what brought them into the streets. In her introduction, she explains,
All of the marchers were uncertain of who they were and nonplussed by
an America that had changed so much as to be unrecognizable and
uncomfortable. I realized that Americans were marching as much for
identity as they were to reify their identities. This book, then,
argues that beneath the surface of the prosperity and peace that marked
the 1990s, Americans were struggling to adjust and adapt to the forces
of postmodernity--immigration, multiculturalism, feminism,
globalization, deindustrialization, and the revolution in information
technology--that were radically changing the way they understood
themselves and each other. The marches/ gatherings were a symptom of
that struggle, and to examine them is to witness the changing
definition of freedom and the messy business of remaking American

She goes on to say,
Yet, the central point of this book should be clear. It is that
identities were in flux during the postmodern 1990s, and the mass
gatherings of the decade were therapeutic places where people did not
just express their identity but where they sought new identities as
well. People went to the marches and gatherings because they felt lost
and were seeking a more settled place in the country they called home.
Some found what they were looking for; others did not.

One additional point White makes in her introduction: her book is not about the politics of the marches.

Lost in the USA includes literally hundreds of quotes from people who participated in the six events, so we get a pretty good sense of who went and what motivated them, individually or sometimes as small groups. Yet, I came away feeling as if I still did not fully understand why so many people turned out for each of these gatherings. I kept coming back to the same questions: How did people learn about these mobilizations? What was so compelling about them that participants decided to make the trip to Washington, DC (or Philadelphia)? Did anything beyond their individual needs draw them into the streets?

I didn't find the answers to my questions, and for the most part they were not even examined. And this is the problem with deciding to not address the politics of the marches. The material White offers about these major events is useful. But it's not the whole picture.

As White correctly points out, most of the events she examines did not articulate specific demands on policy makers. Still, the individuals and organizations that spent so much time, energy, and money on organizing them had a clear understanding of their reasons for calling people together. Whether it is explicit or not, whether the people who attend are aware of it or not, whether the media reports on it or not, there is always a political component to these kinds of gatherings. And by "political," I mean the dynamics between those with power and those without it, and the struggle to alter those power relations. The book suffers for its failure to address this.

Almost three quarters of the book are about the Million Man March, the Million Woman March, and the Promise Keepers gathering. The relationship among these three events is fascinating and three major things jump out for me: first, the similarities in what motivated many people to participate in these events. While the relationship to race and racism was dramatically different between the Promise Keepers and the Million Man and Million Woman Marches, in all three, people were looking for a community that would nurture their own self-improvement. Second, all three of these events stayed away from articulating specific demands on any level of government and instead presented a clear message that changing one's self is the key to changing society more generally. White suggests that this makes sense, given the search for meaning and identity that many people and communities were engaged in as the world around them dramatically changed. And third, the central focus in all three of these events was on the need for men to change, and the support they need to do that work. Even participants in the Million Woman March were often motivated to be there because of their understanding that male behavior needed to change.

A discussion of race and racism, as well as gender and sexism, runs not only throughout these chapters but also throughout the entire book--one of its great strengths. Neither does White ignore the realities of class, thus adding another layer to the complexity.

She quotes a wide range of participants in these events, who explain why they went and what they hoped to get out of the experience. The Million Man March and the Promise Keepers gathering, in particular, were built on the premise that it was time for individuals--especially men--to change their behavior and take more responsibility. Maybe there is no way to know, but it was frustrating to not learn what happened after the events: did the men actually change?

While Lost in the USA offers insight into the complex realities of gender, race, and class, it falls short in other areas. For example, the issue of family comes up over and over, but White offers little by way of a challenge to traditional thinking about, or policy related to, the family--even though just about everyone seems to be marching because of their commitment to family, however they define it. Don't get me wrong! I love my family, and in my daily life I fully understand the positive ways families can function. But when I step away from my own story and look at the long arc of history, I must agree with feminist critiques of the so-called traditional family: the oppressive roles it forces women into; the sometimes damaging dynamics between adults and children; the relationship--or competition--between family and community.

Another missing piece is a sense of what actually happened at these gatherings: did folks march or just rally? Did the rallies go for two hours or five? Was it hot? Rainy? Did anything happen on the stage that was inspiring or moving or exciting? Were people able to get to where they needed to go? Was negotiating a strange city difficult?

Of course, when writing history it's impossible to cover everything. But in a work that focuses on people taking to the streets, it seems wrong not to mention several other major mobilizations that also took place in the 1990s: the two large marches against the Gulf War in 1991; the March for Women's Lives and the Save Our Cities! Save Our Children! marches in 1992; La Marcha, the first national march for immigrants' rights in 1996; and the days-long protest as the World Trade Organization met in 1999 (that one was in Seattle, not in Washington, DC).

In the end, I found reading Lost in the USA a mixed experience. I appreciated the research, and the quotes from participants are wonderful. Throughout the book White goes back to her core premise: that the 1990s were years of great upheaval, as people adjusted to a new, postmodern, reality. She does a good job of explaining the economic, social, and cultural forces that were changing daily reality for millions of people. But I lived through the 1990s, and it doesn't seem to me that people's struggles then, as they sought new ways to understand their identities, were any harder than at other times. Unfortunately, White fails to make a solid case for her central point.

Finally, the book is hard to read. It's not a page-turner, despite all the new things I was learning. It is an academic text, a kind of book I haven't read for many years. Others may have an easier time of it, and I hope many people do read it. And then, I hope someone will write another book that will fill the gaps in this one.

Reviewed by Leslie Cagan

Leslie Cagan has been a peace and justice organizer for more than fifty years. Among other things, her organizing skills have mobilized hundreds of thousands of people in public protests, including some of this nation's largest demonstrations.
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Author:Cagan, Leslie
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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