This piece was developed during the second Bartimaeus Institute Online (BIO) Study Cohort 2016-2017. These pieces will eventually be published in a Women’s Breviary collection. For more information regarding the BIO Study Cohort go here.
By Jeannette Ban, 10/7/17
Grace Lee Boggs
Born: June 27, 1915 Providence, Rhode Island
Died: October 5, 2015 Detroit, MI
Our challenge, as we enter the new millennium, is to deepen the commonalities and the bonds between these tens of millions, while at the same time continuing to address the issues within our local communities by two-sided struggles that not only say ‘no’ to the existing power structure but also empower our constituencies to embrace the power within each of us to create the world anew.
-From The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century by Grace Lee Boggs
Until her death in 2015, Grace Lee Boggs lived, marched, and dreamed among her beloved community of 55 years in Detroit, Michigan. “I stayed involved because I stayed,” she said. Detroit glows at the center of her tale, a city tumbling continuously through the chaos of automation and industrial collapse. Mirroring its periods of bloom and decay, Grace’s journey as an activist spanned the Marxist movement in the 1960s to the Black Power movement in the 1970s, culminating in a community-centered and community-led philosophy until her death.
Born in 1915 in Providence, Rhode Island to two Chinese immigrants, Grace went on to attend Barnard College, earning her Ph.D in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College in 1940. Throughout her life, she revisited these learned questions that catapulted her from a comfortable existence into an active search for the physiology of revolution. She said, “I’m not sure why I am who I am. I think it does have something to do with the fact that I was born female and born Chinese.” This unique framework lent her powerful insight into the intersecting forces responsible for the oppression of women, minorities, and African Americans.
During her time as editor of a radical left newsletter, Grace met and married fellow activist James Boggs, an autoworker and reporter involved in the national struggle for black liberation. Her transition from Marxism spurred by the rise of what she felt to be a distinctly American revolution- black liberation, Grace emerged as an early vanguard of the Black Power movement. However, she teetered across the delicate line of intimacy and outsider; of this period she has said, “I was a Chinese American living in an African American community and saw myself as a part of and apart from the community.” Throwing her body into the work of the movement, she was accepted as a potent organizing force that yet could not breech the otherness of her race and gender.
As the automation of Detroit increased and employment opportunities decreased, the limits of a movement tied to elevating African Americans into positions of power became clear. Aided by the understanding that the government would only ever transform its behavior when forced by the activity of a population undergoing its own cultural revolution, Grace said “I tried to help these male intellectuals, liberal intellectuals understand that this movement was about something deeper than rights.” Revolution, the notion of a fundamental change in social structure, is largely concerned with a transformed understanding of the sacred inherent in each individual. Non-violent philosophy, thus, declares that compassion is not a weakness but rather a more powerful tool for exercising this potential than violence.
In 1992, Grace and Jimmy Boggs founded the Detroit Summer collective on the principle that true social change comes from the bottom up, percolating through conversations had in the warmth of kitchens or the squashy chairs of a living room. This grass-roots collective finds its strength in the diversity of races, ages, and viewpoints working together to create gardens, murals, and a new world out of the vacant lots abandoned by a capitalist system. In the hopes that Detroit’s younger generations would cultivate a sense of value while transforming their city into a place of value, Grace says:
One of the difficulties when you’re coming out of oppression and out of a bitter path, is that you get a concept of the messiah and you expect too much from your leaders. And I think we have to get to that point where we are the leaders we have been looking for.
Towards the end of her life, Grace centered her activist work around conversation. Today we honor her life by pursuing conversations that yield the wild blossoming of ideas.