Racialicious Crush Of The Week: Grace Lee Boggs

By Andrea Plaid

I need to admit something about the Crush posts about Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Oppressed Brown Girls Doing Things I did in April: I partly did it because I wanted to give myself a birthday present that week, and what’s better than a sharing some love on one’s birthday, right?

Well, this week’s Crush just celebrated a birthday this week–like two days ago–and I try not to be selfish about sharing birthday love. So…the Racialicious Crush Of The Week is Grace Lee Boggs, who just celebrated her 97th year on this earth–and she’s still rocking the activism.

Grace Lee Boggs. Courtesy: boggsblog.org


Some flashback on her facts, in her own words:

Over the past few years I have become much less mobile. I no longer bound from my chair to fetch a book or article to show a visitor. I have two hearing aids, three pairs of glasses, and very few teeth. But I still have most of my marbles, mainly because I am good at learning, arguably the most important qualification for a movement activist. In fact, the past decade-plus since the 1998 publication of my autobiography, Living for Change, has been one of the busiest and most invigorating periods of my life.

I have a lot to learn from. I was born during World War I, above my father’s Chinese American restaurant in downtown Providence, Rhode Island. This means that through no fault of my own, I have lived through most of the catastrophic events of the twentieth century-the Great Depression, fascism and Nazism, the Holocaust, World War II, the A-bomb and the H-bomb, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the cold war, the Korean War, McCarthyism, the Vietnam War, 9/11, and the “taking the law into our own hands” response of the Bush administration. Perhaps eighty million people have been killed in wars during my lifetime.

But it has also been my good fortune to have lived long enough to witness the death blow dealt to the illusion that unceasing technological innovations and economic growth can guarantee happiness and security to the citizens of our planet’s only superpower.

Since I left the university in 1940 [she earned her PhD from Bryn Mawr College that year–Ed.], I have been privileged to participate in most of the great humanizing movements of the past seventy years-the labor, civil rights, Black Power, women’s, Asian American, environmental justice, and antiwar movements. Each of these has been a tremendously transformative experience for me, expanding my understanding of what it means to be both an American and a human being, while challenging me to keep deepening my thinking about how to bring about radical social change.

James Boggs and Grace Lee Boggs. Courtesy: boggscenter.org

She also shared quite a bit of this incredible life with her partner, James Boggs, whom she married in 1953. They moved to Detroit, where, as Boggs herself says, they dedicated themselves to putting “the neighbor back in the ‘hood” in the spirit of acting locally while thinking globally. From this homeplace, the Boggses started “Detroit Summer,” an intergenerational activism program, in 1992. They modeled it after the Civil Rights Movement’s Mississippi Summer to help get young people involved in rebuilding the city. Lee Boggs said of the program:

“We wanted to engage young people in community-building activities: planting community gardens, recycling waste, organizing neighborhood arts and health festivals, rehabbing houses, painting public murals…[e]ncouraging them to exercise their Soul Power would get their cognitive juices flowing. Learning would come from practice, which has always been the best way to learn.”

Since that time, according to Yes Magazine in 2009, Detroit Summer morphed into other programs and initiatives such as “the Detroit Summer Live Arts Media Project, which involves young people in collecting oral history and in activism through media; the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, an organization created to promote and continue the work of Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs; and Detroit: City of Hope, an organization that builds connections among nonprofit organizations and activists in their work to rebuild Detroit.” (The Boggs Center is hosting the “Detroit 2012” conference to further help people learn to grow their communities through “visionary organizing.” Check here for more information.)

Lee Boggs has authored and co-authored several books articulating what “visionary organizing” means, including her autobiography, Living for Change; Revolution and Evolution In The Twentieth Century (co-authored with James Boggs); The New American Revolution: Sustainable Activism For The 21st Century. (All of these, among other works by Lee Boggs and James Boggs, are available at the Boggs Center website.)

And the famed activist articulates what “visionary organizing” means in this celebrated interview with PBS’ Bill Moyers:

(The entire interview and transcript are here.)

Hyphen Magazine asked her this year to reflect on her life and her ideas around racial solidarity and activism:

How do you think being born a Chinese female has impacted your outlook on your life and your activism? [sic]

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?

Sometimes, we just have to give props to those people who love humanity–love us–so much that they stay fighting for this world to get better. So, we at the R raise our glasses and send the best of birthday wishes and and a bouquet of gratitude to Ms. Lee Boggs for loving us with her life.





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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at team@racialicious.com.

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPAUCMYYE4LTADNQPVH3HRYDA Kimberly

    As a fellow Detroiter, it’s cool to see an activist homegirl get some props, especially on this site whom I love. Me and an activist friend went a Boggs-sponsored conference at the Focus:Hope school last winter, and we really enjoyed it. I really liked the slideshow showing how kids were being taught how to apply their art/math skills to solve alternative energy and fresh food problems.

    Also, I used to go Detroit Summer monthly conferences/potluck dinners from 2006 to 2008—Ms Boggs came to one session—also saw her speak at a downtown conference several years ago.. I loved it because I’d get a good education on whatever local issues were going on, as well as poetry,plays and rap They stopped operating due to lack of a location for a whole, but they finally re-started last year and are up and running. Got to find out more about this Detroit 2012 thing, though—I got a flyer for it.

  • http://twitter.com/Ellington3 Rhonda Yearwood

    Wow! Great crush choice!
    She is way nifty! I now have another shero! : )