As a graduate student in philosophy at Bryn Mawr, Grace Lee Boggs, Ph.D. '40, began to study ideas that would lead her from a life of contemplation to one of action. Within a year of completing her dissertation, she decided to devote herself to the black liberation movement.

Had she not been born female and Chinese American, she writes in her 1998 biography, Living for Change,1 she would not have realized early in her life that fundamental changes were necessary in society. She also might have ended up teaching philosophy at a university rather than working for decades as an activist in numerous grassroots movements. Growing up in an all-Caucasian community, she had no role models. "So I realized early on that I had to blaze my own trail. That is probably what predisposed me to make so many unconventional decisions when I became an adult," she told Asian American students at the University of Minnesota last year.

Born to Chinese immigrant parents in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1915, she moved with her family at the age of 8 to New York City, where her father owned the famous Chin Lee's restaurant in Times Square. Grace entered Barnard College at 16. Her first two years were exciting but "suddenly, in the first semester of my junior year, my classes and activities seemed boring and empty," she writes.

"In part, this was because of the social crisis created by the Depression and the rise of Adolf Hitler in Europe. But unlike some of my classmates I did not feel moved to social action. Instead, I responded to the deepening crisis by turning inward. I began asking myself and my friends questions about the meaning of life and engaging in endless discussions. Not satisfied with these discussions, I suddenly decided to drop all or almost all of my courses and began auditing philosophy classes."

The Barnard philosophy faculty was worried that Grace looked to philosophy for answers about the meaning of her life. "What if I didn't find the answers I was looking for? Would I commit suicide? I can still see the anxiety and concern in their faces."

When she came to Bryn Mawr on a Chinese graduate scholarship, however, she felt her "mind and humanity stretching" under the dynamic Paul Weiss, who introduced her to the writings of Immanuel Kant and G.W. F. Hegel. Kant showed her that "if we shape reality by how we think, we can also change reality by what we do." Hegel helped her see that her own struggle for meaning was that of the "healthy human reason" overcoming contradictions or inadequacies and leaping to a new idea or stage.

The chance discovery of the writings of George Herbert Mead provided her dissertation topic. "Although I did not know it at the time," she writes, "Mead prepared me for the next stage in my own development by providing me with 1) a way to look at great ideas in their connection with great leaps forward in history and 2) an analysis of how the self and society develop in relation to each other." One of the four founders of the American school of pragmatism, Mead is now recognized among both philosophers and social scientists as a major influence in 20th century social theory.

After receiving her Ph.D., Grace decided to begin her life of action in Chicago. She had no friends or relatives there, but both John Dewey and Mead had developed their ideas in this city, which "seen through Carl Sandburg's eyes, was the opposite of European decadence." In Chicago she soon involved herself in a struggle against rat-infested housing by the South Side Tenants Organization, set up by the Workers Party, a small Trotskyist group that had split off from the Socialist Workers Party. "For the first time, I was talking with people in the black community, getting a sense of what segregation and discrimination meant in people's lives, learning how to organize protest demonstrations and meetings," she writes.

Through her involvement with the 1941 March on Washington movement, which demanded jobs for black workers in defense plants, she "learned that a movement begins when large numbers of people, having reached the point where they feel they can't take the way things are any longer, find hope for improving their daily lives in an action that they can take together. I also discovered the power that the black community has within itself to change this country when it begins to move. As a result, I decided that what I wanted to do with the rest of my life was to become a movement activist in the black community."

Finding the Workers Party too static, she would have left had she not formed a collaboration with Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James, who started a tiny anti-Stalinist group, The Johnson-Forest Tendency(the names are pseudonyms for James and for Raya Dunayev-skaya, a Russian-born Marxist feminist). The Johnsonites, as they were called, disagreed with Workers Party leadership in their support of independent black struggle and of rank-and-file workers' efforts to take over control of production inside plants rather than forming an independent Labor Party.

After following C.L.R. James to New York for a decade of studying Marx, Lenin and Engels, translating, writing and publishing pamphlets with the Tendency, Grace moved to Detroit in 1953. She married Alabama-born James "Jimmy" Boggs, a black rank-and-file Detroit auto worker and community activist whom she met in 1952 when he came to New York to teach trade unionists and intellectuals in the "Third Layer School" that had been established by the Tendency. His 1963 book, The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker's Notebook, drew praise from Bertrand Russell, with whom he began a correspondence and whom he lectured about his ignorance of the ongoing struggle in the United States.

In Living for Change, Grace chronicles the Boggses' work together through the Cold War, the civil rights era, and the rise of black power with a network that included Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. In 1974, Grace and Jimmy published a book culled from their lectures, Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century.

Through her studies of past revolutions and leftist theories, Grace had come to understand that once-progressive strategies can cease to be useful: "So instead of being disheartened when I have had to give up ideas, associates and organizations to which I have whole-heartedly committed myself, I have seen these breaks as an integral part of my evolution as a movement activist." She and Jimmy eventually concluded that the notion of a socialist revolution was outdated and sought new grassroots ways to redefine and rebuild Detroit as a collection of communities.

With a small circle of friends, they came up with the idea for a low- budget program in which high school and college students would help spruce up Detroit for a month every summer. Detroit Summer has become an annual program for urban and suburban youth from around the nation.

At a People of Color Environmental Justice Symposium held in Washington, D.C. in 1994, Grace found a new arena of struggle for the movement and helped found Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. DWEJ is a grassroots organization to empower people of color and poor communities in southeastern Michigan to organize and redress pollution, lead poisoning, crime, unemployment, failing schools and hazardous working conditions.

She believes that 21st century cities should become self-reliant at the local community level, resisting a global economy that brings in casino gambling and sports stadia as local "industries," which breed more crime and violence.

James Boggs died in 1993. At 85, Grace continues to live in Detroit's inner city as its self-described "griot" or historian. "I still love going to meetings that are part of the ongoing movement to rebuild, redefine, and respirit our cities from the ground up," she writes in the conclusion to Living for Change. "But I am not the prime mover and I know that if I were no longer around, things would continue. I still make speeches and write articles. People still come to Field Street for information and materials. But I am no longer a coordinator or organizer. I am more a resource person, a connector, whose concerns and admonitions are listened to, although not necessarily accepted."

1 Quotations from Living for Change are used by permission of the author and The University of Minnesota Press.

'If Grace had married me we would have changed all Africa.'

Grace Lee had never thought to marry, partly because of her mother's unhappiness at the confines imposed upon her by her husband, who believed in theConfucian role of the wife as the person inside the boundaries of the house. (Ultimately, she locked him out of the house in the 1930s and refused to allow him to return, denouncing him in front of his employees at the restaurant.)

"But the main reason, I believe, is that when I was 15, I read Women and Economics by the feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman and was impressed with her thesis that wives are like prostitutes because they exchange sex for economic support," Grace writes. Yet she accepted Jimmy Boggs's marriage proposal at the end of their first dinner together, which he made even though he showed up two hours late, refused to eat the lamb chops she had prepared and scorned her Louis Armstrong recording. Jimmy, whose first marriage was ending, had resisted her attempts to get to know him, making it clear that he had not joined the radical movement to "get a woman." Grace is not surprised that she accepted his proposal in spite of its unauspicious beginning. "Until I married Jimmy, most of my major decisions-where to go to school, where to live, or whom to relate to-had been made in this way, without premeditation or consultation with anyone inside or outside my family. Early on I had realized that I would have to plot my own course. So I had become accustomed to trusting my own feelings to let me know what I needed to do at a particular time." Grace herself was ready "to settle down in a place and in a relationship that would be both nurturing and challenging. ...Jimmy radiated a personal and political energy that I found very attractive. He was also more rooted and more secure in his identity as a human being than any man I had every met."

Grace had turned down a marriage proposal from Kwame Nkrumah, whom she met in 1945 when he had just finished his studies at Lincoln University. "After he returned to the Gold Coast and became Leader of Government Business, he wrote to ask me to come to Africa and marry him. I was completely taken by surprise. I don't have a copy of my reply, but as I recall I declined because I couldn't imagine myself being politically active in a country where I was totally ignorant of the history, geography and culture."

Nkrumah, who became the first president of Ghana and founder of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), said that if "Grace had married me we would have changed all Africa."

Chinese-American identity

After Jimmy's death in 1993, Grace began to reclaim her Chinese-American identity. Attending a Barnard reunion, she was so inspired by the number of Asian American students that she sat down to write her autobiography upon returning to Detroit.

She also grappled with her Chinese heritage. "Even though in most ways I am more American than Chinese," she writes, "I was brought up in a Chinese family and socialized to think of myself in relationship to others rather than as an individual." This "habit of self-effacement" was reflected in her first draft of Living for Change. Outside reader Stanley Aronowitz commented, "When Jim dies and Grace is for the first time in years on her own, we become convinced that, in the words of a favorite Gilbert and Sullivan song, until then she 'never thought of thinking of herself at all.' In effect, on the evidence of this book Grace Lee Boggs from age 20 was the intelligent supplicant of two great men (James Boggs and C.L.R. James)." That comment "really shook some of the insides out of me," Grace writes.

Although she tried to study Chinese on and off since college, English was spoken at home when she was a child and the family did not live in a Chinese community. What little she did know of spoken language was her parents' Cantonese dialect, which differs greatly from Mandarin, the national and official language. "Studying Chinese has been the hardest thing I have ever attempted and perhaps the greatest disappointment of my life," she writes. She finally visited China in 1984, at the age of 69. "The most important thing that I learned during my two months in China is that I am more American than Chinese." Her fluency in the spoken language had scarcely increased, and her decision not to continue study was reinforced by the lack of respect shown by younger cadres for Mao and the liberation struggles. "The shamelessness with which they spoke about enriching themselves literally made me sick," she writes. "I finally concluded that with more than a billion Chinese in China speaking Chinese, I didn't have to feel guilty about not speaking it myself. It was a very liberating conclusion."

Between 1969 and 1971, Grace was involved in the new Asian-American movement as one of the founders of the Asian Political Alliance (APA) in Detroit. In a speech given at the University of Minnesota last year, she noted that in the 30 years since the movement began, increasing numbers of Asian Americans have become part of the academic establishment and the system that pursues upward mobility. Meanwhile, more recent Southeast Asian refugees live in polluted urban areas and work in sweatshop conditions. She was heartened, however, at the response of Los Angeles Koreans to the anger directed towards them by African-Americans and Latinos after the 1992 Rodney King verdict. "By making the issue one of justice rather than race, the Los Angeles Korean community set the stage for African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans to begin forming coalitions to address the challenge of building a more just society," she said. "Subsequently Asian American youth, especially Korean Americans, served as the shock troops in groundbreaking labor-community organizing in the Los Angeles garment and hotel industries and were in the forefront of campus and electoral struggles to save affirmative action."

Recently, Grace joined the editors of Amerasia Journal in challenging readers to contribute to a continuing discussion of "Crossing the Color Line: The End of the Twentieth Century." (The phrase comes from W.E.B. Dubois' oft-quoted 1903 declaration that "the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color-line.") Grace suggested that the dialogue be intergenerational, bringing together activists, scholars and community workers from different decades. In the issue of Amerasia presenting the challenge (1999, No. 2) writers acknowledge Grace's contribution to human struggles but question the relevance of her political life to Asian American concerns. In response, Duke University professor Arif Dirlik, an historian of modern China, has underlined the importance of "the discussions by and on Grace Lee Boggs." They "force to the surface the relationship between political commitments in general, and political commitments that are constrained in their vision by ethnic interests and an ethnic vision of politics." If Boggs provides a role model for contemporary Asian Americans, according to Dirlik, it is not as a "color-crosser" but as "an individual whose political activity is "values that transcend those of any ethnicity" and "a vision in which, ultimately, color has no place." (The UCLA Asian American Studies Press will publish selections from the responses to Amerasia's challenge.)

Visit the website of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership.

cover icon Return to Summer 2000 highlights