- Lost in the USA: American Identity from the Promise Keepers to the Million Mom March by Deborah Gray White
With Lost in the USA, Deborah Gray White (a distinguished professor of history at Rutgers University) makes an important [End Page 430] contribution to the scholarship of the 1990s. During this period, Americans marched in any number of protests. Instead of presenting the marches as a string of isolated political issues to be resolved through legislation, White effectively shows their cultural significance to an American public navigating the transition between modernity and postmodernity.
White argues that despite economic growth and the lack of a major foreign war, Americans felt unsettled by the advent of postmodernity, and that mass marches gave participants a sense of belonging and renewal. She focuses on the Promise Keeper gatherings and their Stand in the Gap March of 1997 organized by Christian men; the 1995 Million Man March and the 1997 Million Woman March, held by black men and women, respectively; two LGBTQ marches—the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi-Equal Rights and Liberation and the Millennium March; and the Million Mom March of 2000 that highlighted gun violence. By focusing more on the participants of the marches than the leaders, White is able to demonstrate their need to feel nurtured and express their anxieties in a safe space.
White provides engaging historical context that demonstrates the promising yet unsettling nature of postmodernism, whether because of the global economy, postfeminism, postblackness, the sexual revolution, or cultural fragmentation. Her greatest strength is her empathy with the march participants, and ability to go beyond the stereotypes reported at the time. For example, she demonstrates that Promise Keepers were not "angry white men" reacting against postmodernism, but genuinely searching for ways to be better husbands and fathers as more women entered the workforce and gender norms faced revision. Her strong comparative analysis brings out the commonalities and differences between the marchers in ways that show how their different histories impacted their march experiences. She cogently shows the divisions between "radical" and "assimilationist" LGBTQ activists, as well as those between white and black women when thinking about gun violence. [End Page 431]
Despite her empathy toward the participants, she can be too harsh on the compromises the march leaders made. For example, she likens Donna Dees-Thomases's decision, in deference to conservative women, to change the Million Mom March's slogan from "commonsense gun control" to "commonsense gun laws" to "the decision made by suffragists to accept the disenfranchisement of black women in return for Southern support of woman's suffrage . . ." (p. 178). Likewise, she argues that assimilationist LGBTQ activists alienated radicals by stressing bourgeois nature of the movement: i.e. the desire to marry, adopt children, and serve in the military, without acknowledging how the expansion of LGBTQ rights positively impacted the radicals as well.
Lost in the USA complements other scholarly works such as Habits of the Heart (1985) and Bowling Alone (2000) that explore Americans' feelings of isolation during this period, as well as their search for meaning. White's work is an interesting twist on the concept of "therapeutic culture;" scholars often point to the rise in self-help books, radio and television talk shows, and the increase in professional therapists and counselors. White calls the mass gatherings of the decade "therapeutic places" (p. 5). She asserts that in some ways the marches exacerbated the divisive nature of identity politics. However, she makes a strong case for the restorative and healing nature of the gatherings, thus adding to our understanding of the role of mass marches in American political culture in the 1990s and beyond. [End Page 432]
EMILIE RAYMOND teaches history at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is author of Stars for Freedom: Hollywood, Black Celebrities, and the Civil Rights Movement (2015)