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In this book, John D’Emilio takes us on a friendly, companionable walk through his career and his wide-ranging thought. As an amelioration of varied interests, the collection is a refreshing overview of this storied academic’s professional career infused with a vigorous analysis of people and events as he considers multi-dimensional changes in the LGBT community since 1960 and how these have impacted the United States.
D’Emilio is a living national treasure: a scholar-activist, LGBT historian and cultural critic. As a pioneer in queer studies and a native New Yorker, he became one of the first gay professors at a Southern university whose direct experience embraced coming of age during the Civil Rights Movement; the era of Sixties activism; the gay liberation rebellion of the Seventies; the wrenching crisis of AIDS and deeper issues of what, exactly, it means to be gay as issues shift and strategies of activists and political figures adjust to altered realities.
In a New Century is more a mosaic than organized work leading to a defined conclusion. The long introduction is part autobiography, part career reflection. Topics covered in the book’s ensuing three main sections range from the end of outright oppression (e.g., anti-sodomy laws) and subsequent legal recognition of same-sex marriage, to the ways that such disparate figures as Bayard Rustin and Richard Nixon impacted a country evolving at warp speed in ways here-to-fore considered unimaginable. Even the tone of the component elements ranges from the congenial and collegiate to the rigorous and structured, from the conversational to the academic/scholarly.
At times, the pogo stick pacing seems arrhythmic. Essays such as “Let’s Dance” are two pages long; others are twenty pages, or more. Equally, in his positing of Nixon as a “gay liberationist,” the logic seems specious since Nixon’s self-declared policy of “benign neglect” had more to do with preserving an orthodoxy than encouraging social progress, a shift which only happened when the Democratic lock on Chicago politics was upended. But D’Emilio’s teaching career was at the University of Illinois. As such, the book tends to look at U.S. social change and LGBT development from that angle. It’s a valid window, although we now recognize diverse factors such as an evolving global balance of power; the effect of decreased U.S. economic cloud aligning with the evangelical right; and the changes brought about by social media as intrinsic to the upheaval in the era. But as they aren’t his chosen focus, one cannot fault him for placing his emphasis on the subjects he’s chosen to highlight.
One person singled out in this penetrating work is Bayard Rustin. In D’Emilio’s appraisal of the African-American Quaker responsible for educating Martin Luther King about Gandhi’s principles of non-violence, he draws a clear, connective line between personal consciousness, activism, its ensuing social and political impact and the transformation it wrought in our society. Though Rustin was forced out of Dr. King’s inner circle because of his homosexuality, the dynamic change arising from his personal convictions is clearly stated. Indeed, it’s impossible to contemplate the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency without factoring in that history and drawing the necessary lessons from it.
The life of a scholar/historian is the life of the mind and ideas. The arena of a cultural critic is one of causal relationships. This entails stringing together disparate elements, making connections which might not seem immediately apparent. What John d’Emilio has done is offer a collection of ruminations on our past and indicate future possibilities. As such, In a New Century is a repository of sorts: a warm and generous sharing of an elastic intelligence in a provocative and engaging stroll with an illumined guide. The final gestalt is of association with one who isn’t only knowledgeable and insightful, but who is as committed to education as he is to the application of wisdom. That makes this book very special and highly recommended.
In a New Century: Essays on Queer History, Politics and Community Life
By John D’Emilio
University of Wisconsin Press
Paperback, 9780299297749, 275 pp.