#WCIW: Grace Lee Boggs
Asian-American Artist. Brilliant Illustrator. Overall Badass.
In her 100 years of life well-lived, Grace Lee Boggs was not only a witness to some of the most powerful and world-altering moments in history... she was a willing and active participant. Born in a small apartment above her father’s Chinese restaurant in 1915, Grace spent her early childhood in her hometown of Providence, Rhode Island before moving to Queens, New York with her family. Her father owned a popular restaurant in TImes Square and the family prospered. Grace devoted herself to her studies and graduated from High School at 16. She then pursued her BA at Barnard College, and eventually her Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr College, where she graduated in 1940.
Even with her impressive credentials, Grace Lee struggled to find work outside of school. She recalled later that even department stores refused to even glance at her resume, as she heard time and time again: ”We don’t hire Orientals.”
Finally, after a long and arduous job hunt, Grace landed a position at the library at the University of Chicago. Long a student of Kant, Hegel, and Marx, Lee decided to devote her life to helping to advance the causes of equality and feminism. She began by targeting the slum housing of Chicago. She organized and attended protests, drafted petitions, and wrote articles for leftist publications. Later Grace credited this early activism with connecting her to the Black community for the first time. "I was aware that people were suffering, but it was more of a statistical thing," she said. "Here in Chicago I was coming into contact with it as a human thing."
Eventually Lee took her fight to Detroit, the city she would call home for the rest of her life. It was there that she met an autoworker and fellow activist, James Boggs. The two fell passionately in love and were married in 1953. "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.
Together, they became two of the most noted and recognized activists in Detroit. They tackled the issues of racism, discrimination, feminism, and even the environment. Over the years they produced publications like, Revolution And Evolution In The Twentieth Century, Living For Change, and The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism For The Twenty-First Century. They helped to plan and participated in protests with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. and were often scrutinized by the FBI and CIA for their far leftist views.
Over the years the couple continued to support their community and its people--even as Detroit seemed to be in a downward spiral. They witnessed the closing of factories and the crack and crime epidemics that swept the city afterward. They, themselves, became the victims of multiple robberies and burglaries. Still, however, they fought for equality and justice and social good. After James passed away in 1993, Grace refused to slow down.
She continued to write, gave speeches and graduation commencement addresses, and protested, especially on behalf of the Black community. "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 her autobiography. "Especially if you are a woman, you need time to re-create yourself, to discover who you are."
Grace began attending meetings of black women who organized Save Our Sons and Daughters (SOSAD), which led marches against violence and developed a conflict-resolution curriculum for Detroit’s public schools. She remained critical of capitalism, but shifted her energies to questions of ethics and individual change. In the mid-nineties, she launched Detroit Summer, a program that brought hundreds of youthful volunteers to plant community gardens and work with schoolchildren.
She hoped to turn Detroit’s empty land into an archipelago of small, collective farms, a model, she believed, for a sustainable future. In her later years, she collaborated with activists in Detroit to create a new generation of leaders, starting with inner-city kids. A few years ago, with her blessing, they started a charter school--The James and Grace Lee Boggs School. She wrote a weekly column for the Michigan Citizen until she was 98-years-old.
Just before her death in 2015, Grace, living in Hospice care, participated in a documentary about her life. The film, American Revolutionary, focused on Grace’s life, her role as one of the founders of social psychology, and her perspective on life and she approached her impending death. ]
"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."
She passed in her Detroit home surrounded by friends and family on October 5th, 2015, still speaking of the revolution to come and her faith in the people of Detroit.
For her eternal optimism for change, her revolutionary efforts to engage and organize her community, and her life-long activism, Grace Lee Boggs is this week’s #WCIW.