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Remembering Grace Lee Boggs (1915-2015): “We Have to Change Ourselves in Order to Change the World”

StoryOctober 06, 2015
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The legendary Detroit activist and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs died Monday at the age of 100. She was born in Rhode Island in 1915 to Chinese immigrant parents. She would go on to become deeply involved with the civil rights, black power, labor, environmental justice and feminist movements. Over the past decade Grace Lee Boggs was a frequent guest on Democracy Now! Her profile grew in 2013 with the release of the Peabody Award-winning documentary “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.” The film captures Boggs’ remarkable life story from collaborating with C.L.R. James to organizing with Malcolm X to starting Detroit Summer. We air interviews of Boggs on Democracy Now!, excepts from the documentary and speak to her close friend and caretaker Alice Jennings.

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AMY GOODMAN: The legendary Detroit activist, philosopher Grace Lee Boggs died Monday at the age of 100. She was born in Rhode Island in 1915 to Chinese immigrant parents. She would go on to become deeply involved with the civil rights, black power, labor, environmental justice, feminist movements. Over the past decade, Grace Lee Boggs was a frequent guest on Democracy Now! Her profile grew in 2013 with the release of the Peabody Award-winning documentary, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs. The film captures Grace’s remarkable life story, from collaborating with C.L.R. James to organizing with Malcolm X to starting Detroit Summer.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: I feel so sorry for people who are not living in Detroit. People are always striving for size, to be a giant, and this is a symbol of how giants fall. Keep recognizing that reality is changing and that your ideas have to change. Don’t get stuck in old ideas.

ANGELA DAVIS: Grace has made more contributions to the black struggle than most black people have.

GRACE LEE: How did you become a philosopher?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: I’ll just go back 70 years. 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.

RON SCOTT: Folks didn’t really think about Grace as a Chinese American. She was Grace. You know, she was just one of us.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: I think the lightbulb goes on, very often, in conversations that people have, and we don’t pay attention to it.

UNIDENTIFIED: Talk is cheap.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: I find it very, very difficult to take. I want to tell you honestly. Their talk was not cheap!

SHEA HOWELL: Oh, god, yes, she made all kinds of people cry, myself included.

AMY GOODMAN: Grace, how would you describe where we stand now?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: One of the difficulties when you’re coming out of oppression is that you get a concept of the messiah. You have to get to that point that we are the leaders we’ve been looking for. We are the children of Martin and Malcolm. 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.

AMY GOODMAN: The film American Revolutionary features archival audio and video footage of Grace Lee Boggs dating back to the 1960s.

GRACE LEE: Back in 1963, Grace was still speaking as an outsider.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: I want to make very clear that I do not claim in any sense of the word to be a Negro. I have not lived all my life as a Negro, and I don’t think anyone who hasn’t really can speak for the Negro.

GRACE LEE: But once she becomes a black power activist, she starts using the word “we.”

GRACE LEE BOGGS: In the black movement, when we were demanding first-class citizenship, we were saying we were being denied that. We were very ethical, but we wanted more than that.


GRACE LEE BOGGS: We wanted to become part of the people who took responsibility for the country.

STEPHEN WARD: So, by 1966, '67, she's well known particularly in Detroit circles, but also nationally, as a black power figure.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: And I became so active in the black power movement that FBI records of that time say that I was probably Afro-Chinese.

RON SCOTT: Nobody ever really thought—and I don’t know how to say this, but folks didn’t really think about Grace as a Chinese American. She was Grace. You know, she was just one of us.

AMY GOODMAN: Along with her husband, the autoworker and author Jimmy Boggs, who was just seen in that clip, Grace Lee Boggs started a number of political groups in Detroit and published widely, from books to political pamphlets. In 1974, they co-wrote Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century. In 2011, at the age of 96, the University of California Press published Grace’s final book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the 21st Century. Revolution was a topic Grace Lee Boggs talks extensively about in American Revolutionary.

GRACE LEE: During Grace’s lifetime, hundreds of revolutions have taken place around the world.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: People thought of revolution chiefly in terms of taking state power. But we’ve had revolutions, and we’ve seen how the states which they have created have turned out to be like replicas of the states which they opposed. You have to bring those two words together and recognize that we are responsible for the evolution of the human species. It’s a question of two-sided transformation and not just the oppressed versus the oppressor. We have to change ourselves in order to change the world.

AMY GOODMAN: In the 1990s, Grace Lee Boggs turned her home into the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership. In 2013, she helped start the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, a charter elementary school. She continued talking and writing about revolution well into her nineties as her prominence grew in Detroit and beyond.

SCOTT KURASHIGE: When we think about Grace in the 20 century, she is very much an outsider. In the 21st century, she represents the uniting of people from different races and different backgrounds, in a way that is now defining America.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Let me make a challenge to you, OK? With people of color becoming the new American majority in many parts of the country, how are we going to create a new vision for this country, a vision of a new kind of human being, which is what is demanded at this moment? So that’s your challenge.

And so the black power movement came out…

GRACE LEE: Even in her nineties, Grace still travels the country talking about revolution, but she always brings the conversation back to Detroit.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: I can’t begin to tell you the number of young people who come to Detroit, and they come in order to be part of this new world that is being created.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs. The film is screening free online on POV. Grace Lee Boggs died Monday at her home, surrounded by her caretakers and friends. She was 100 years old. When we come back, we’ll be joined by Alice Jennings, close friend of Grace Lee Boggs and trustee of her estate. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Blue Nile” by Alice Coltrane, here on Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we remember the life and legacy of Grace Lee Boggs. Alice Jennings was a close friend and caretaker of Grace. She’s a lawyer and board member of the James and Grace Lee Boggs School.

Alice, can you talk about her last days, Grace’s last days, and what you feel is most important for people to understand about this extraordinary woman?

ALICE JENNINGS: Well, Grace’s last days were gentle. They were full of friends and discussions. Grace still wanted to carry on the conversation of “What time is it on the clock of the world?” She still wanted to talk the discussion about revolution and what it means to be a human being, to stretch one’s humanity. Grace’s legacy for us who are left here really is to consider that for each of us, we have our own responsibility to transform ourselves. As a transformative leader, it wasn’t that Grace wanted us to do as Grace did, but rather to explore ourselves to see what we could do to be better human beings, to stretch our own humanity, and to be involved in the social justice issues of our day.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2010, I interviewed Grace Lee Boggs at her home in Detroit, when we were there for the U.S. Social Forum.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: The World Social Forums began after the Battle of Seattle in 1999. And the slogan, “Another World is Possible,” emerged out of a completely new mentality, when people recognized that essentially those in control are dysfunctional and that the old social democracy dependence on those in power to give you things, that period is over.

And I think it’s really wonderful that the Social Forum decided to come to Detroit, because Detroit, which was once the symbol of miracles of industrialization and then became the symbol of the devastation of deindustrialization, is now the symbol of a new kind of society, of people who grow their own food, of people who try and help each other, to how we begin to think, not so much of getting jobs and advancing our own fortunes, but how we depend on each other. I mean, it’s another world that we’re creating here in Detroit. And we had to. I mean, we didn’t do so because we are better people than anybody else, but when you look out and all you see is vacant lots, when all you see is devastation, when all you see—do you look at it as a curse, or do you look at it as a possibility, as having potential? And we here in Detroit had to begin doing that for our own humanity.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Grace Lee Boggs in 2010. I want to go back three more years to 2007, when Democracy Now!’s Juan González and I spoke with Grace Lee Boggs and the late poet and activist Amiri Baraka to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1967 rebellions in Detroit and Newark.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Amiri, what has changed in these 40 years, in terms of consciousness and in terms of what the country has learned from that period?

AMIRI BARAKA: Well, actually, in some ways, we’ve gone full cycle but up to another level. I mean, we went from the kind of blatant brutalization, of white supremacy and racism. We then organized ourselves and elected two black mayors. We haven’t—none of my children, for instance, have ever grown under white people ruling in Newark. They don’t even know what that is, you understand? And so, we can be proud of that. But at the same time, after we had our two domestic kind of mayors, who compromised relentlessly with corporate power, you understand, now we’ve come full circle and come to—

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Let me ask you a question, Amiri. Do you think that we have challenged and criticized and evaluated black power sufficiently?

AMIRI BARAKA: Have we? No, no, but I’ve been doing it for—I’m sorry.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: When are we going to do it?

AMIRI BARAKA: Well, I’ve been doing it for almost 37 years. I mean, having two black mayors there, Sharpe James and Ken Gibson, I was probably their most relentless critic all the time. But now we have somebody who doesn’t compromise with corporate power, but who represents it. So that’s the difference. We’ve moved—

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, so do you think it’s a question of changing an individual? You know, for changing from Gibson to Booker?

AMIRI BARAKA: No, you have to get an individual who’s willing to change the system. You have to get an individual who’s willing to actually struggle with the system to change it. As long as you have people who—

GRACE LEE BOGGS: I mean, what do we mean by “struggling with the system”? How—when are we going to be—

AMIRI BARAKA: To make substantive changes, to make infrastructure changes.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: No, when will we begin to understand that we have to create new infrastructures, new forms, so that you can—

AMIRI BARAKA: Yeah, but you can only do that through people, you see?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: But you’re not going to do it from people at the top. We’re going to do it from people at the bottom.

AMIRI BARAKA: Well, you have to mobilize the whole community. But what I’m saying is that people at the top became accommodated to being in power and not changing.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Yes, but maybe what we’ve done—maybe what we’ve—yes, but you see, we’ve put so much emphasis on taking over the power structure, and we became prisoners of it.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Grace Lee Boggs debating the great poet Amiri Baraka back in 2007 on Democracy Now! In fact, next week, on October 15th, we’ll be speaking with Ras Baraka, Amiri Baraka’s son, who is now the mayor of Newark. But I wanted to turn back to Grace Lee Boggs from the last time she appeared in our studio here on Democracy Now! in 2013.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Grace, talk about getting older.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: You know, [cough] Bette Davis was the person who said, “Aging ain’t for sissies.”

AMY GOODMAN: “Aging ain’t for sissies.”

GRACE LEE BOGGS: It ain’t for sissies. I mean, when you have been very active all your life, and suddenly you’re very restricted and don’t have much mobility, it’s tough. And it’s tough when you’ve been married for 40 years to be living alone. But it won’t go on forever. And I think I’m so grateful that Grace has made this film, because I think she has helped make my life mean something to people at a time when I think people need what my life means, if—I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant. But the American people are very needy. They are very needy. They need to know that a revolution is to advance their humanity and to advance the humanity of the human race. They need to know that a revolution is to create solutions and not to get angry at the people. They need to know that a revolution is not just protests, it’s not just anger, it’s not just a search for power. It’s a search for real problems for how to be a human being. And I think that’s what’s unique about the American revolution, and that’s what’s unique about this country, because even though there is a lot of poverty, there’s a lot of inequality, there’s a lot of physical hardships, I think the most profound hardship of the American people is that they want to change, they want to change themselves, they want to change this world, and they don’t know how to do it. And revolution is the way to do it, but not the old kind of revolution. So, I think, in that sense, the reason that people are responding so positively is that to see the film does meet a need, a very profound need. I mean, this country is in such deep trouble spiritually, in every human sense. It’s not just the finances. It’s not just the joblessness. It’s—I believe in a kind of American exceptionalism, that whereas in other countries you face the material hardships first and they become central, in the United States it’s something that’s a hunger that’s much deeper, that we have to find our souls.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Grace Lee Boggs, the last time she appeared on Democracy Now!, here in a wheelchair—we moved the table—in 2013, her caretakers, her friends around her. That was two years ago. She was about, what, 98 at that point. And, Alice Jennings, as we wrap up, when I last went to visit Grace at home, what I was most struck by was the love, that she was in a cocoon of love. That you, Shea and her caretakers, Rick, overall, just enveloped her in, that also included her books, discussions, her passion right to the end, Alice.

ALICE JENNINGS: Yes, we tried to do what was right by Grace. She had always loved us. She had always given us books. She had always been there to talk when one needed to talk. And I think that we were able to—Grace beat two full terms of hospice care and got kicked out eventually. So, we thought that we did our job. And then she gently let go yesterday morning. So, yes, our dear friend.

AMY GOODMAN: Our condolences and congratulations for being a part of this great woman’s life and being there with her to the end. Alice Jennings, close friend and caretaker of Grace Lee Boggs, lawyer and board member of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center. Grace Lee Boggs died yesterday the age of 100.

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