The (R)evolutionary Vision and Contagious Optimism of Grace Lee Boggs

Boggs’ love for humanity ran strong and deep, serving as a generative force for creating change.

Barbara Ransby October 6, 2015

(PBS POV / Flickr)

Grace Lee Bog­gs died yes­ter­day at the age of 100 and the world is bet­ter for the cen­tu­ry that she walked it with us. As a writer, insur­gent intel­lec­tu­al, rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­niz­er, men­tor, com­mu­ni­ty builder and friend to many, Grace will be dear­ly missed.

She was not a part of an elite intelligentsia. She lived in a modest little house on an even more modest income. She never held a tenured university job. She believed that ordinary people, not academics, had the power to understand their lives and to change the world with that understanding.

When I was a teenag­er in Detroit and a wannabe rev­o­lu­tion­ary in the 1970s I heard the names Grace and Jim­my Bog­gs all the time. I knew they were beloved and respect­ed in Detroit’s Black activist com­mu­ni­ty, and I just assumed they were both Black. I was sur­prised to final­ly meet Grace and dis­cov­er she was Chi­nese-Amer­i­can. I had to recal­i­brate my notions about the Black strug­gle, my peo­ple” and race itself.

Long after many of Detroit’s young black rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies left Detroit and the rev­o­lu­tion, Grace stayed. She was so immersed in the life and strug­gles of Detroit’s pre­dom­i­nate­ly Black com­mu­ni­ties that she said her FBI file described her as prob­a­bly Afro-Chi­nese.” Along­side her part­ner in life and pol­i­tics, for­mer auto-work­er and black activist and leader, Jim­my Bog­gs (who died in 1993), Grace fought the good fight over five decades, writ­ing books, build­ing orga­ni­za­tions, orga­niz­ing cam­paigns, and teach­ing by exam­ple that rev­o­lu­tion” is a pro­tract­ed process — not a sin­gle event or a spate of protests. She saw the Black strug­gle as the cut­ting-edge strug­gle of her life­time, intri­cate­ly linked to many oth­ers, and she was hum­bled to be a part of it.

Grace was also a cat­a­lyst for bring­ing peo­ple togeth­er. The Bog­gs Cen­ter, which she found­ed, was a cre­ative space for artists, the young par­tic­i­pants in the now-famous Detroit Sum­mer” projects and var­i­ous fans and vis­i­tors who migrat­ed there to pay their respects to Grace. Those vis­i­tors includ­ed celebri­ties and schol­ars from the late Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, to Dan­ny Glover, his­to­ri­an Robin D.G. Kel­ley, and Chica­go activists Bill Ayers and Bernar­dine Dohrn.

But there were also less­er-known film­mak­ers, hip-hop artists, labor orga­niz­ers, stu­dents and politi­cians that showed up at Grace’s door over the decades, drawn by the pow­er of her rep­u­ta­tion and her track record for get­ting things done. Her beloved cho­sen fam­i­ly in Detroit includ­ed her long­time friend and com­rade, Shea How­ell, whose devo­tion to Grace was unmatched; Rich Feld­man; for­mer Black Pan­ther and orga­niz­er, Ron Scott; the activist and artist, Ill; dream hamp­ton; the poet and tire­less orga­niz­er Tawana Pet­ty and many more sur­round­ed her with so much love and nur­tur­ing sup­port that I am sure she nev­er felt alone.

Many peo­ple will remem­ber Grace as gen­tle, kind and gen­er­ous. She was all those things. But I want her to also be remem­bered as a rig­or­ous intel­lec­tu­al and a fierce thinker and ana­lyst. She took ideas seri­ous­ly. She wrote or co-wrote numer­ous books, arti­cles and posi­tion papers; she lec­tured and talked about com­plex the­o­ries of cul­ture, com­mu­ni­ty and change. She was trained as a philoso­pher. As a Marx­ist, she worked along­side the bril­liant Trinida­di­an intel­lec­tu­al C.L.R. James in var­i­ous Trot­sky­ist orga­ni­za­tions before even­tu­al­ly split­ting, as so many such groups did and still do, over ide­o­log­i­cal differences. 

Most impor­tant­ly, she was not a part of an elite intel­li­gentsia. She lived in a mod­est lit­tle house on an even more mod­est income. She nev­er held a tenured uni­ver­si­ty job. She believed that ordi­nary peo­ple, not aca­d­e­mics, had the pow­er to under­stand their lives and to change the world with that understanding.

Jim­my Bog­gs was her intel­lec­tu­al hero. She once wrote of her time work­ing with C.L.R. James, Whether or not you were an intel­lec­tu­al, you felt that when you par­tic­i­pat­ed in a demon­stra­tion or asked prob­ing ques­tions about life or soci­ety, you were help­ing to cre­ate impor­tant ideas.” This was the root of her rad­i­cal epis­te­mol­o­gy, bor­rowed from Bog­gs and James and Anto­nio Gramsci.

Dur­ing her cen­tu­ry of life, love and work, Grace lived what she believed and served as an exam­ple and inspi­ra­tion for many of us. Even when you did not always agree with her, you had to love her. She always had that beau­ti­ful smile on her face and you knew that her love for human­i­ty was so strong and deep that it was a gen­er­a­tive force for cre­at­ing change.

She often wore a t‑shirt that read “®evo­lu­tion.” It sug­gest­ed that we are all evolv­ing as peo­ple as we fight, build and envi­sion rev­o­lu­tion. Grace was a vision­ary and a doer. She could look at a trash-strewn field and imag­ine a gar­den. And then, she would work to trans­form it. She could look at Detroit’s bro­ken down build­ings and imag­ine new possibilities.

And she could look at all of us, her friends, com­rades and fel­low trav­el­ers of var­i­ous stripes, flawed and frag­ment­ed, and she could imag­ine us as a whole. She could meet a scruffy lit­tle kid with no skills, no hope and no place to go, and imag­ine that he or she would become a poet, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary or bril­liant sci­en­tist. This was the lens through which Grace saw the world and her opti­mism was contagious.

In 2010 at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, a gath­er­ing of thou­sands of pro­gres­sives from around the coun­try, Grace was cen­ter stage in a ple­nary con­ver­sa­tion with Immanuel Waller­stein. At 95, she was sharp, lucid and on point. She would often joke and say, I’ve lost some of my hear­ing and a lit­tle bit of a lot of oth­er things, but I still have all my mar­bles.” She cer­tain­ly did.

Grace Lee Bog­gs made every year and every moment count. The best trib­ute we can pay to our dear Grace is to grow our souls,” as she once wrote, and keep her opti­mistic and gen­er­ous spir­it close to our hearts in all the work we do and in all the bat­tles we fight.

Bar­bara Rans­by is a pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois-Chica­go and the author of Ella Bak­er and the Black Free­dom Move­ment: A Rad­i­cal Demo­c­ra­t­ic Vision. She is a long­time activist and a founder of the group Ella’s Daughters.
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