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In Person

Grace Lee Boggs

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Grace Boggs has been protesting for progressive change in America since 1941, when she became involved in the March on Washington Movement (which pushed for the desegregation of U.S. armed forces). Since then, she has participated in most of the defining social movements of the 20th century—including the labor, environmental, women’s and civil rights movements.

Boggs is the author of Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century (with her husband James Boggs), Women and the Movement to Build a New America and Living for Change: An Autobiography. In 1995, friends and associates of Boggs and her husband founded The James & Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership in Detroit. The nonprofit organization honors and continues the couple’s legacy as movement activists and theoreticians by engaging in diverse community building activities including youth leadership development, urban agriculture and environmental justice.

In These Times corresponded with Boggs, now 93, and members of the Boggs Center earlier this year.

In 25 words or less, what makes you so special? (Keep in mind that humility, while admirable, is boring.)

I’ll soon be 93 and still have most of my marbles.

What’s the first thing that comes up when your name is Googled?

Philosopher/Activist.

Shamelessly plug a colleague’s project.

On the east side of Detroit, within walking distance of the Boggs Center, 79-year-old Lillie Wimberley and her 45-year-old son, Michael, have created the Hope District, a project to engage community residents in ongoing activities that will provide affordable housing and employment for everyone. The district includes “Club Technology,” an entertainment center for meetings and parties and a training center for construction, the culinary arts and computers; community gardens where residents grow their own food; storefronts for local businesses; and a corner lot where residents are encouraged to post their dreams.

Describe your politics.

I believe that at this pivotal time in our country’s history—when the power structure is obviously unable to resolve the twin crises of global wars and global warming, when millions are losing their jobs and homes, when Obama’s call for change is energizing so many young people and independents, and when white workers in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania are reacting like victims–-we need to be struggling to define and begin making the next American revolution.

The next American revolution will be radically different from the revolutions that have taken place in pre- or non-industrialized countries like Russia, Cuba, China or Vietnam. As citizens of a nation that had achieved its rapid economic growth and prosperity at the expense of African Americans, Native Americans, other people of color, and peoples all over the world, our priority has to be correcting the injustices and backwardness of our relationships with one another, with other countries and with the Earth.

This vision of an American revolution as transformation is the one projected by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his April 4, 1967 anti-Vietnam war speech. Speaking for the weak, the poor, the despairing and the alienated, in our inner cities and in the rice paddies of Vietnam, he was urging us to become a more mature people by making a radical revolution not only against racism but against materialism and militarism. He was challenging us to “rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.”

King was assassinated before he could devise concrete ways to move us towards this revolution of transformation. Forty years after his assassination, in our Detroit, City of Hope campaign, we are engaged in this “long and beautiful struggle for a new world”––not because of King’s influence (we identified more with Malcolm)––but because we have learned through our own experience that just changing the color of those in political power was not enough to stem the devastation of our city resulting from de-industrialization.

Our campaign involves rebuilding, redefining and re-spiriting Detroit from the ground up: growing food on abandoned lots, reinventing education to include children in community-building, creating co-operatives to produce local goods for local needs, developing Peace Zones to transform our relationships with one another in our homes and on our streets, replacing punitive justice with Restorative Justice programs to keep non-violent offenders in our communities and out of prisons that not only misspend billions much needed for roads and schools but turn minor offenders into hardened criminals.

Despite the huge differences in local conditions, our Detroit-City of Hope campaign has more in common with the struggles of the Zapatistas in Chiapas than with the 1917 Russian Revolution because it involves a paradigm shift in the concept of revolution.

This paradigm shift requires viewing revolution not as a single event but as an extended process. It involves all of us, from many different walks of life, ethnicities, national origins, sexual orientations, faiths and generations. At the same time, based on our experiences in Detroit, I see the Millennial generation, born in the 1980s, playing a pivotal role because their aptitude with the new communications technology empowers them to be remarkably self-inventive and multi-tasking and to connect and reconnect 24/7 with individuals near and far. As Frantz Fanon put it in The Wretched of the Earth: “Each generation, coming out of obscurity, must define its mission and fulfill or betray it.”

What has kept you active all these years?

Thinking dialectically, i.e. recognizing that every practical step forward creates new and more challenging contradictions.

Media

[Scott Kurashige, member of the Boggs Center.]

Name a journalist whose work you read religiously. Why?

I don’t always agree with David Brooks, but America needs more smart conservatives. The notion that politics should be a perpetual war between two camps with fixed ideologies inhibits our ability to think creatively about the real challenges we face.

What social networking devices do you use (Facebook, MySpace, Digg, Del.icio.us, etc)?

I have only used MySpace on occasion, mostly to hear a song by a band I’ve just heard about. I’m 37 years old, and I’ve finally fallen inescapably behind the cutting edge of the information revolution.

Scan through our archives. Give us two stories that we should re-read today.

A Win in the Water War,” by Megan Tady, and “Farming the Concrete Jungle,” by Phoebe Connelly and Chelsea Ross, both from August 2007.

What’s a mistake the mainstream media always makes that really gets under your skin?

In its attempt to present “two sides” of an issue, the mainstream media generally reinforces the narrow parameters of debate that serve to uphold the status quo.

Politics

[Grace Lee Boggs]

My political awakening occurred when…

My political awakening took place 67 years ago, when I became involved in the 1941 March on Washington Movement and discovered the power of a movement to bring about massive changes in the life of a people. At the beginning of World War II, thousands of blacks all over the country were mobilizing in response to a call from A. Philip Randolph, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters President, to march on Washington to demand jobs in defense plants, When President Roosevelt pleaded with Randolph to call off the march and Randolph refused, FDR was forced to issue Executive Order 8802 banning discrimination at defense plants.

Who is your favorite elected leader, past or present? Why?

My favorite elected leader is Barack Obama because he has the audacity to articulate the hope for fundamental change that is stirring in millions of Americans all over the country.

Which conservative politician has pleasantly surprised you the most?

The conservative politician who has pleasantly surprised me the most is Ron Paul, who never wavered from his anti-war position during the Republican debates.

Personal

[Julie Rosier, a Detroit artist and activist who founded the Story Owners Collective in Detroit.]

What’s the best piece of advice someone gave you when you were young?

I was an actor in Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit when I was 13 and 14 years old. The founder of the group saw us as a professional theater company, and he told us to always work like a professional. I think this advice has helped me blur the division between amateur and professional and gives me confidence to pursue what I feel strongly about in a serious manner.

What is your favorite childhood memory?

I had several imaginary friends when I was young. One day I asked my parents to take me around the neighborhood to look for my invisible friend. My dad consented and, in a sincere—as opposed to patronizing––way, he took my five-year-old hand and walked me door-to-door, asking whoever answered the door if my friend Susan lived there. Looking back, I am so impressed that my dad spent that hour indulging and participating in my imaginary world.

Fill in the blanks: “____ is sexy; ___ is sexier”:

Bonding in good times is sexy; staying connected in a human way through conflict is sexier.

Have you ever had any run-ins with the law that you’d like to share?

I was riding the subway back to Brooklyn at about 1 a.m. from a very long day in Manhattan. Nose-deep in a book, I heard a police officer saying over and over, “Miss, please step off the train.” He was holding the door open and keeping the train from moving.

I finally tore myself away from my book to see what all the commotion was about and realized that he had been yelling at me. I couldn’t believe it. He made me get off the train and the train pulled out of the station.

It turns out that it’s against the law to take up more than one seat on the subway. Since my legs were up on the seat next to me, I faced punitive measures. Even though the train was practically empty, he gave me a $50 ticket.

[Kerry Vachta, member of the Boggs Center.]

What’s a lifestyle choice you’ve made recently to be greener?

When I came back to Detroit, I found an apartment about six blocks from work and one block from the laundromat. I use the car about once per week for groceries and errands––which I combine into a single trip––and Boggs Board/City of Hope meetings.

What are your prejudices? What are you doing to overcome them?

My brother has a serious chronic mental illness. I work hard to expand our understandings of ‘normal’, break down barriers limiting where people who don’t fit those ‘norms’ fit in our society and make sure the supports and resources are available as needed. But when I tell someone about his illness, I often find myself following up by mentioning that we’re adopted and have no biological relationship out of fear that they’ll behave or think differently toward me otherwise. Unfortunately, it’s not unreasonable to expect that reaction—but I should be beyond worrying about what ignorant people who would stigmatize my brother would think of me because of that relationship. What I’m doing about it is talking about it-–more often, more openly-–more actively engaging in advocacy and resisting falling into the patterns that play into the discrimination and stigma he and others still face.

Have you ever had any run-ins with the law that you’d like to share?

I was an NGO representative at the UN conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in ’92. Following a series of actions protesting George H.W. Bush’s stonewalling the rest of the planet by refusing to sign any meaningful agreements, I was part of a group of students who held a five-day fast followed by a mock trial in the courtyard of the UN compound. UN Police went through and removed each of our credentials. Those of us from the United States, Canada or Europe were politely, if firmly, escorted one-by-one out of the building and to the street and barred from re-entry. The folks from the Southern hemisphere were dragged through the courtyard, over broken glass and into the security offices in the back of the compound.

The irony of the difference in our opportunities and treatment in response to our protesting the difference in our opportunities and treatment would have been rich if it hadn’t been so terrifying at the time. I found out that our comrades and friends made it out OK. Definitely brought the urgency of the global inequities we were striving to address home…

Culture

[Julie Rosier]

What is the last, best book you have read?

I’m halfway through an amazing book called The Complete Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi. It is a graphic novel that recently was turned into a movie. The author/artist uses simple but extremely beautiful pictures to depict her life as a young girl dealing with revolution, war and fundamentalism in Iran. I think telling one’s own story in such a compelling way has huge social change potential.

Guilty television watching pleasure?

I grew up without a television and still hardly watch any TV, but after a co-worker gave me the DVD of a couple seasons of the British version of “The Office,” I was addicted. I think the writing is very smart and funny. I also like that the series focuses on the interpersonal dynamics of the workplace as the most pivotal aspect of a job environment.

What is your favorite work of art or artistic movement? Who is your favorite artist?

One painting that comes to mind is a depiction of Joan of Arc, done by Jules Bastien-Lepage in 1879. I have always been intrigued by the story of this young French woman who felt called by God to lead the army. She inspires me in the way she transcended gender expectations as she followed her calling. Bastien-Lepage really captures the focus and determination in her facial expression as she walks away from the small cottage of her childhood.

What person deserves to be a lot more famous than they are?

Anna Deavere Smith is an actress who creates one-woman shows by interviewing people, and then becoming them on stage. Her first plays focused on race, as she interviewed people who were engaged in race riots of Brooklyn and LA. She uses theater to study the American character, paying specific attention to language and listening between the lines for what people really think and feel. Then she brings these findings to life on stage.

[Will Copeland, a Detroit poet active in the city’s U.S. Social Forum Committee.]

What is the last, best book you have read?

“This Bridge Called Home” is a powerful anthology in response to issues of gender and race. It is a powerful international anthology written mostly by women of color that calls forth spiritual and cultural activism. The book is well-edited and filled with powerful visions of transformation. The book recognizes that there is a freedom that can come at the margins that allow us to question and redefine the limits and categories society places on us. It centers women of color in freedom struggles and explodes the limits of identity politics, much less representational or electoral politics.

Give an example of pop culture that you love and make the case that it is subtly or subversively leftist.

Jay-Z: “How you gon’ rate music that thugs with nothing relate to it? I help them see their way through it… Not you.” From Jay-Z I have learned the value of helping a sister or brother “see their way through,” which means being able to kick it and relate to a variety of folks. I do not want to become one of those who can judge, criticize or “rate” others without being able to relate to ‘em, inspire, break bread. I always get inspired listening to “Blueprint,” “American Godfather” (remix album), or “Hard Knock Life.” I think about my own ability to hang with those who are oppressed and work with them on creating systems of survival/ well being. Another Jigga quote: “I’m like Che Guevera with bling on. I’m complex. I’m not an angel with wings on.”

What is your favorite work of art or artistic movement? Who is your favorite artist?

Most days I listen to only Michigan music while commuting to and from work. There is something brilliant brewing now in Detroit urban arts. There is an amazing historical continuity between poetry, hip-hop, soul and slam poetry in the city. For many of these artists, love for the D or love of being from the D is a tangible quality you can feel in their bodies of work and live performances. My favorites include: Invincible, Versiz, Blair, Monica Blaire, Slum Village, Big A, Black Milk, Phat Kat, Diamond Dancer, Vievee Francis.


—November 21, 2008