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Grace Lee Boggs, American Visionary

Posted on Jun 26, 2014

“Grace has made more contributions to the black struggle than most black people have.”

—Angela Davis, icon of the black power movement, about Grace Lee Boggs

On Friday, activist and author Grace Lee Boggs turns 99, three days before a new documentary, “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs,” airs nationally on PBS’ “POV” (it can also be watched online during July). Not a conventional biopic, the movie was filmed over many years by Grace Lee (no relation), who met Boggs when she made the 2005 film “The Grace Lee Project” about stereotypes of the women who share that name. The movie tells the story of Boggs’ life—how she got her Ph.D. in 1940, couldn’t find work due to discrimination, moved to Chicago, where she started organizing, and met and married her autoworker husband, James Boggs, and their activism in the black power movement in Detroit. But the movie also explores her unconventional ideas about revolution and how it’s about transforming the self and the world. 

Out in San Francisco for a screening of “American Revolutionary” at the Center for Asian American Media Film Festival, Boggs talked about the importance of reflection and conversation, how economic growth has damaged the planet, and the difference between fish and human beings. 

Emily Wilson: You say reading Hegel made you think how important conversation and reflection are. Why is that so important?

Grace Lee Boggs: In my autobiography, “Living for Change,” I talk about my experience as a graduate student with a professor whose name was Paul Weiss. Paul was a Jewish philosopher brought up on the Lower East Side of New York. He had a way of speaking so you knew that everything he said had never been said before. It gave me a whole new view of conversation. I think to recognize that conversation is very different from writing, to know how much is spontaneous and how much of it emerges not so much from reflection as much as from reaction to changing realities. Just to deal with the spoken word in a different way than you deal with the written word and to understand how much we know of ourselves and the world through the spoken word, and how it’s essentially a social medium—it’s amazing. It’s given me a lot to think about.

EW: You kept using the word evolution and talking about how we need to transform ourselves for a revolution to take place. What changes do you think need to happen for revolution?

GLB: I think we are an enormously unreflective society, and 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. To understand revolution is twofold—it’s not just changing institutions, it’s changing ourselves. Our challenge for this time is to know how much economic growth has damaged not only our planet, but ourselves. 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 change that. That’s the challenge of revolution.

EW: In the documentary, when Coleman Young was elected mayor of Detroit, you talk about him courting corporations because he felt he had to. Is that what you mean by getting stuck in the past? Thinking we need to grow and grow?

GLB: I remember when Coleman Young was elected. He was elected for two reasons—blacks wanted power, and because since the rebellions of ’67, it was very clear that white power could no longer maintain law and order. And to have Coleman, who was a very smart cookie, unable to do anything different—it was a very enlightening experience. It helped us to begin understanding racism and blackness in a different way. Up till then there had been a lot of illusions that black power would be different from white power. To undergo the recognition that it was not different and to meet the challenge of defining what would be different, it was amazing.

EW: At one point in the movie you say you hadn’t thought of yourself as being Chinese or as a woman. When did that change?

GLB: My feminism from early on had been based on the fact my mother did not know how to read and write because she was born in a village where there were no schools for females, and that I was born above my father’s restaurant, and the waiters when I cried said, “Let’s just dispose of her outside—she’s only a girl baby.” That’s one view of feminism, but as I grew and witnessed the world of women, I learned women’s ways of doing and thinking are really very different. There’s a whole concept of the idea of work, and people think about it in terms of jobs, and women do it in terms of caring for the family and home. That’s so different, and they have been beaten down for so long and are just now emerging.

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