A New Look at Grace Lee Boggs, American Revolutionary
| June 27, 2014
Activist and writer Grace Lee Boggs grew up above her father’s Chinese restaurant in Manhattan in the 1920s and 1930s. Her life changed at Barnard College when she read the German philosopher Hegel, whose ideas about dialectical thinking influenced Marxism. After graduating with a Ph.D. in philosophy from Bryn Mawr in 1940 and encountering signs saying “We don’t hire Orientals,” she moved to Chicago, got a job at the philosophy library at the University of Chicago, and started organizing neighbors in the city’s South Side to do something about their rat-infested housing. She married activist-auto worker James Boggs and moved with him to Detroit, where she got deeply involved in the Black Power movement; she was often the only non-African American and the only woman at meetings.
A new documentary about her life, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, not only chronicles Boggs’s extraordinary life and work, but also shows her unique way of looking at the world, as when she points out a crumbling auto plant and says she feels sorry for people who don’t live in Detroit. The film will air on PBS’s POV starting on June 30, three days after Boggs’s 99th birthday.
In an interview with Boggs when she came to San Francisco for the Center for Asian American Media Film Festival’s screening of American Revolutionary, everything about her—her engagement, her intellectual depth, and her radical past—came across as extraordinary. She kept pronouncing things “amazing,” smiled frequently, cited sources ranging from Starhawk to a book on feminism in China, and seemed delighted rather than overwhelmed by challenges, viewing them through a radical’s lens with hope for transformation.
“I think we have thought of revolution so much in terms of changing things and of increasing our economic growth, which has been the western concentration since the French Revolution,” she said. “To understand revolution is twofold—it’s not just changing institutions, it’s changing ourselves.”
Spending so much time with Boggs changed her, says filmmaker Grace Lee. She first met the activist in 2000 while making The Grace Lee Project, a movie about women sharing that name, and has been having conversations with her for more than a dozen years. She says Boggs’s unique views helped her figure out how to make this documentary, with its nontraditional approach that focuses on Boggs’s ideas as much as her biography.
“Every other sentence out of her mouth is something pithy and helpful in terms of making the film,” Lee said. “Grace, by not giving you straight answers, sometimes forces you to think—like when she says at the end of the film, ‘Is your imagination rich enough?’ O.K., is our imagination rich enough to deal with specific problems, like not having certain footage of Grace and Jimmy Boggs? It was a great philosophical journey for us as well.”
Boggs certainly has a rich imagination. Because of Detroit’s economic woes, she sees it as a place with great potential for change, and she says we need to stop focusing on prosperity.
“Our challenge for this time is to know how much economic growth has damaged not only our planet, but ourselves,” she said. “In order to achieve that growth, we enslaved a people and exterminated another people. We have to understand how that needs to change and how to do it.”
Boggs, who said her mother didn’t know how to read and write because there weren’t schools for girls in her town in China, thinks there’s an opportunity for feminism to involve more of the world. “My autobiography has just been published in China, and the Chinese editor says it’s going to have quite an impact,” she said. “It’s very amazing that up to now we don’t have any idea what feminism in China is going to mean.”
Boggs’s seven decades of activism have encompassed fighting for tenants’ rights, working with black auto workers against racist hiring policies, and helping to organize a civil rights march led by Martin Luther King, Jr., in her adopted hometown, as well as participating in the feminist and environmental justice movements. Her confidence in the power of evolution is striking, and over the years many people have wondered how she keeps her optimism after working for so many years in such difficult struggles. In the film, a teary young woman asks Boggs how she keeps from burning out. Boggs credits some of this to her deep roots in Detroit.
“I’ve been in the same house for fifty years,” she said in the San Francisco interview. “There’s a book by Vance Packard called A Nation of Strangers. He talks about how Americans move, and when you don’t move you think differently from someone who’s moving all the time. You have a sense of yourself as more meaningful.”
Boggs’s commitment to Detroit—and her belief in the need for young people to be involved—led her to found Detroit Summer, a community-based youth program, in 1992. She and her husband came up with the idea in response to then-mayor Coleman Young’s plan to bring casinos into the city to replace auto industry jobs. Just as sending young people to Mississippi energized the civil rights movement, they believed, getting youth involved in planting community gardens, holding arts and health festivals, and painting murals could energize Detroit. In American Revolutionary, we see Boggs working with the teenagers, who seem fascinated by how she listens to them and appears genuinely interested in what they have to say.
For them, as for her, Boggs is a sort of role model, said Lee, who was drawn by Boggs’s compelling story.
“She says in the film, ‘I’m not an Asian American icon,’ and that’s really appealing to me because it calls into question what that is,” Lee said. “In the film we talk about the Freedom Now party, this all-black political party she was a part of. To me that opens up what an Asian American movement person can be and also what the black movement was. So it’s kind of reframes how we look at movements and these kind of alliances.”
Tune in this weekend on WMC Live with Robin Morgan. This Saturday on CBS Radio WFJK 1580
Robin on George Will (again), the Islamist PM of Morocco, and Japan outlawing child porn(not!). Guests: Suey Park of #NotYourAsianSidekick, women’s quotations expert Rosalie Maggio, Megan Marshall, Pulitzer winner for her biography of Margaret Fuller.
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