Yo, y’all! It’s Grace Lee Boggs’ 97th birthday—yes, ninety-fucking-seventh year here with us—so we’re going show her a bit of love here at the R’s Tumblr!
A prominent activist her entire adult life, Grace Lee was born in Rhode Island in 1915, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. She studied at Barnard College and Bryn Mawr, receiving her Ph.D. in 1940. Her studies in philosophy and the writings of Marx, Hegel, and Mead led not to a life in academia teaching others to question themselves and those in power, but rather to a lifetime of social activism and collaboration with others.
For Lee, it began in Chicago, where she joined the movement for tenants’ rights, and then the Workers Party, a splinter group of the Socialist Workers Party. In these associations, as well as in her involvement with the 1941 March on Washington, Lee found her niche as an activist in the African-American community, focusing specifically on marginalized groups such as women and people of color. In 1953, Lee married black auto worker and activist James Boggs and moved to Detroit, where she remains an activist today, writing columns for the Michigan Citizen. James died in 1993.
Grace Lee Boggs embraces a philosophy of constant questioning – not just of who we are as individuals, but of how we relate to those in our community and country, to those in other countries, and to the local and global environment. Boggs has rejected the idea of the stereotypical radical as one who only views capitalist society as something to be done away with, believing more that “you cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.” It is in smaller groups, working together, that positive social change can happen, rather than in larger revolutions where one group of power simply changes position with another. That is why, in 1992, she and her husband founded Detroit Summer, a community movement bringing people of all races, cultures, and ages together to rebuild Detroit - a city Boggs has described as “a symbol of the end of industrial society…buildings that were once architectural marvels, like the Book Cadillac hotel and Union Station, lie in ruins…and in most neighborhoods people live behind triple-locked doors and barred windows.” Working literally from the ground up, Detroit Summer’s activities include planting community gardens in vacant lots, creating huge murals on buildings, and renovating houses. There is a Center set up in honor of Grace Lee and James Boggs,http://www.boggscenter.org, which fosters their ideas and encourages independent thinking and leadership.
In her own words (from a 2012 Hyphen Magazine interview):
How do you think being born a Chinese female has impacted your outlook on your life and your activism? (Boggs was born in 1915 in Providence, RI to Chinese immigrant parents).
I think being born a Chinese female helped a great deal to make me understand the profound changes necessary in the world. My mother never learned how to read and write because she born in a little Chinese village where there were no schools for females.
Because I was born in the United States, there was more opportunity for women in the United States that was very different from China. And as a result, she felt very envious of me for the opportunities that I had and this created a lot of tension between us. I don’t know whether that exists for Chinese or the Asian families that are coming here to the United States today. So that being born Chinese was not so much a question of being discriminated against because I was Chinese, though there’s some of that, but a sense that I had a different outlook on life. I had the idea, for example, from my father that a crisis is not only a danger but also an opportunity and that there is a positive and negative in everything. Being born Chinese meant a big deal to my life, I think.
I did not join any movement that was Asian because there was no Asian movement. There weren’t enough of us. There were so few of us, we were almost invisible until very late in the 20th century. I can remember when the idea of being Asian was born. Until the late 60s, we were Chinese or Japanese or Filipino. The idea that there was an Asian identity only came about at the end of the 1960s. We began to see ourselves more in numbers than in the past.
Did you form any friendships with other Asian activists since the 60s?
I was very fortunate here in Detroit, that we formed a group called the Asian American Political Alliance, which is made up of some Chinese, some Japanese. Some of the Chinese were born here, and some born in China. This gave us a sense of the diversity among Asians and also of an Asian identity. I think that was very important in my political development.
How did your parents view your marriage to an African American man, and your involvement in a mostly black movement?
Well, by the time Jimmy and I got married, I had been living away from home a long time. So they weren’t very much involved in my marriage. Toward the end of his life, my father lived with us for a while and he and James were very, very friendly and very close. My mother was living in Hawaii most of the time. I did not see her very much. By the time I left home, left New York in the middle 50s, my mother lived either in California or in Florida or in Hawaii with my brother so I did not see very much of her.
How do you maintain your Chinese identity over the years?
I’m not sure whether I maintained it. I don’t have only a Chinese identity. I see my identity as more that of an activist, as more that of a person who has worked with many different people, who has been a philosopher. I think that the ethnic identity has been useful and helpful and part of who I am but not what I am predominantly.
How do Asian Americans carve out a space in a country that still mostly sees race issues as black and white?
The opportunities are enormous for Asian Americans to be integrated or co-opted into the system. Fortunately, there’s been an Asian American movement that has sought to align itself with all people of color … The Asian American movement has an enormous amount of promise. But you have to make choices. You have to decide whether you’re going to take advantage of your ability to be cooperative with the system, or see how profound the contradictions in this system are. The challenge is, how do we create a more human society, how do we ourselves become more human?