Grace Lee Boggs, who has spent much of her life advocating for civil rights and labor rights, became such a noted figure in Detroit’s Black Power movement that people assumed she must be partially black. In some of her FBI files, Boggs, who is Chinese-American, was described as “probably Afro Chinese.”
(We’ll let that sit with you for a moment.)
And that’s not the only assumption she’s defied. For almost a century — she turns 100 today — she’s challenged how people think about their own activism.
Many people — in and out of Detroit — have been honoring her life this year. Her own organization, the Boggs Center, hosted events and lectures all this week to celebrate her life; the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center shared a hundred of Boggs’ best quotes for each of her years; and the James and Grace Lee Boggs, a charter school she helped start a few years ago, threw her a birthday party.
The Start Of Her Revolution
Born in Providence, R.I., to Chinese immigrants in 1915, Boggs studied at Barnard College and went on to earn her Ph.D., in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College. For years, she pored over the work of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Polanyi and Karl Marx, and even translated three of Marx’s essays from German to English. She was transfixed by the process and challenge of thinking through complicated ideas.
After finishing grad school, Boggs struggled to find work — any work, she told a group of students in 2012. “Even department stores would say, ‘We don’t hire Orientals,’ ” she recalled. So she moved to the midwest, where she found a job with the University of Chicago’s philosophy library. It paid only $10 a week, a stipend so low she was forced to find free housing in a rat-filled basement.
But even the rats had an upside. One day, as Boggs was walking through her neighborhood, she came across a group of people protesting poor living conditions — which included rat-infested housing. This, Boggs recalled, connected her with the black community for the very first time.
“I was aware that people were suffering, but it was more of a statistical thing,” Boggs said. “Here in Chicago I was coming into contact with it as a human thing.”
A few years later in the 1940s, she moved to Detroit to help edit the radical newsletter Correspondence. There, she met a charismatic auto worker and activist named James Boggs.
“When he rose to speak his mind, he would speak with such passion, challenging all within hearing to stretch their humanity… he would often bring down the house,” Boggs wrote in 1998 in her autobiography, Living For Change.
They married in 1953.
Together, the couple became two of the city’s most noted activists, tackling issues related to labor and civil rights, feminism, Black Power, Asian Americans and the environment. In 1974, they wrote Revolution And Evolution In The Twentieth Century; in 1998, she published an autobiography, Living For Change; and in 2011, she co-wrote The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism For The Twenty-First Century with Scott Kurashige, a professor and author.
A Human Experience
Though many of the Boggs’ ideas centered around revolution, her personal philosophies were guided more by human experience — and the individual’s own ability to transform his or her world — than overthrowing a system.
In 2012, she gave a lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, with the activist Angela Davis. A group of students applauded her when the conversation turned to using non-violence — which Boggs endorses — in protest.
Boggs, who pairs her heady intellectualism with a wry humor, was quick to interject.
“All of you who are clapping, I suggest you do some more thinking,” she told the crowd in a gently mocking reprimand.
She suggested they react with reflection, instead of an automatic response.
“It’s a philosophical question — it’s not just a tactical question…. As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that philosophy has to do with how we value ourselves as human beings, and how we look at ourselves, and how we relate to reality.”
Boggs has helped shape the thinking of generations of activists, including Tawana Honeycomb Petty, a writer and community organizer who also serves on the Boggs Center board.
“There isn’t a go-along-to-get-along [attitude],” Petty says. “She invites and challenges and provides us opportunity to share what we’re thinking, and we can struggle back and forth.”
James Boggs died in 1993, when Grace was 78. After her husband’s death, Grace became even more active in Detroit’s activist communities.
“I was still trying to figure out what I was going to do on my own or, indeed, whether there was any ‘my own.’ That is what often happens when you lose the person with whom you have lived and worked closely for decades,” she wrote in Living For Change, her autobiography. “Especially if you are a woman, you need time to re-create yourself, to discover who you are.”
In 2005, she began writing a weekly column for the Michigan Citizen, a Detroit-area newspaper, until she was 98. Two years ago, keeping in line with her dedication to working with young people, she helped start the James And Grace Lee Boggs School, a charter school that weaves Detroit — and its issues — into its curriculum.
Boggs, who is in hospice care and was unavailable for an interview, has talked publicly about aging — and the changing waves of activism she’s been through. In the documentary American Revolutionary, which was about Boggs’ life, she acknowledged that she was dying, and said that living longer than everybody else made for a lonely life. But she remained optimistic.
“To me that’s not a terrible thing…. I see this as a period of transition that I can make a transition by the things that I choose to engage in,” she said. “I don’t know what the next American revolution is going to be like, but we might be able to imagine it if your imagination were rich enough.”