By JONATHAN TILOVE
May 16, 2007
c.2007 Newhouse News Service
DETROIT _ In a two-story brick house with red trim and a leaky roof, Grace Lee Boggs, 91, is plotting revolution.
That in itself is nothing new. She’s been doing the same from this very house for 45 years. It was here, at the corner of Field and Goethe on Detroit’s east side, that Grace and her husband James midwifed the birth of the black power movement _ producing pamphlets, manifestos and books on racism, class struggle and revolution, creating one organization after another bent on making it happen, and turning their living room into a crossroads for generations of black radicals.
They were a most unlikely couple, Grace and Jimmy. She is an Ivy League-educated philosopher, the daughter of Chinese immigrants; he was a black autoworker and organic intellectual who never shed the deep country dialect of his native Marion Junction, Ala.
What is new, and kind of startling, is that 14 years after her husband’s death, Boggs is in demand as never before.
Already there were radio appearances, speaking engagements, the weekly column for the black-oriented Michigan Citizen, the ceaseless churning of a dialectical mind synthesizing everything in sight. She is soon to appear on “Bill Moyers’ Journal” (pbs.org/moyers), and seems on the verge of trading her cult status in this forsaken city for something bigger.
“It’s getting a little overwhelming,” she says. “And it’s going to get worse.”
In her twilight, Grace Lee Boggs shines more brightly than ever.
“The variety of people who beat a path to her door is just astonishing,” marvels John Maguire, who retired in 1998 as president of California’s Claremont Graduate University and now directs its Institute for Democratic Renewal. Maguire recommended Boggs to Moyers, a lifelong friend.
“She really has come into her own,” says Stephen Ward, a professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Michigan who is writing a book about the Boggses.
Scott Kurashige, a professor of American culture at Michigan, is working with Boggs on a book of her writings since the 1998 publication of her autobiography, “Living for Change.” “People can see she’s lived a very long, full and meaningful life,” he says.
More remarkable than her longevity is her agility.
“She’s never been stuck,” says Ilana “Invincible” Weaver, a 26-year-old Detroit hip-hop artist and activist who counts herself among Boggs’ disciples. “She’s always willing to change.”
Boggs’ mind blazes, synapses sparking like a fireworks display, illuminating a world as yet unseen. Even old friends confess leaving her company winded by her breathless pursuit of what’s new and what’s next.
Have you read world systems analyst Immanuel Wallerstein (“He’s coming to Detroit for my 100th birthday”) on the instability of global capitalism? Or political philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri on how globalization and the decline of the nation-state are inspiring a multitude of singular grass-roots movements that collectively, she says, “are much more participatory than the democracies we’re used to”?
What about organization consultant Margaret Wheatley, whose work, Boggs says, indicates how small organic actions can together have consequence “far beyond what you can imagine”? Or Paul Hawken, co-author of “Natural Capitalism” (he used to sell gardening tools with a man named Smith), who says that it would take a month to scroll like film credits through the names of all the groups working around the world on social justice and ecological sustainability?
One moment she is quoting “runaway nun” Karen Armstrong, and the next Starhawk, the anti-globalization, anarchist, ecofeminist witch. Throughout, she is bounding out of her comfortable chair to fetch another book or article to place in evidence.
Boggs still believes in revolution. But, as she told a diverse, standing-room-only crowd at the left-wing Brecht Forum in New York’s West Village in early May, “We have to change our concept of revolution. It’s about how we transform not just Bush and Cheney but ourselves.”
Dismissive of Martin Luther King Jr. in his lifetime as sentimental and naive, Boggs has in recent years embraced him as truly revolutionary, from the transformative humanizing power of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, to his explicit call for a “revolution of values” away from materialism and militarism and toward “agape _ the love that is ready to go to any length to restore community.”
Boggs was born in Providence, R.I., and at 8 moved to New York City, where her father opened a nearly thousand-seat Chinese restaurant on Broadway. By 25, she had her doctorate in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College.
“I was lucky I came along before the women’s movement,” she says, or she might have ended up an academic with tenure, a parking space and a gilded, gelded radicalism.
Instead, she became associated with the brilliant West Indian Marxist C.L.R. James in a faction known as the Johnson-Forest Tendency. That brought her to Detroit and to Jimmy Boggs, who had grown up outside Selma, then rode the rails to Detroit and work in a Chrysler plant.
They were comrades but barely friends until the day Grace invited him home to dinner. He arrived two hours late, complained about the food and the music she played (at the time he thought Louis Armstong an Uncle Tom), and asked her to marry him. “To my surprise,” she wrote, “I said yes.”
She was his wife and collaborator _ making lentil soup, typing, editing, hosting, thinking, organizing and writing.
In 1964, she coordinated the campaign to create the all-black-but-for-Grace Michigan Freedom Now Party and field a full slate of candidates. They asked Malcolm X to run for the Senate, but he declined. Grace was the party’s candidate for Michigan State trustee, getting 26 votes.
In the summer of 1967 _ 40 years ago; she was 52 _ Detroit erupted in five days of violence that left 43 dead.
“The police called it a riot, because it was obviously a breakdown of law,” Boggs says. “The people called it a rebellion because it was seen as a very righteous uprising against the white occupation army _ the police _ and also against the idea, the reality, that the city, though becoming majority black, was still being run almost exclusively by whites.”
The Boggses were vacationing in California at the time. “When we came back the people were jubilant,” she recalls.
And they read in the Detroit News that they were two of the six activists responsible for the uprising. (This spring, the News named her one of its Michiganians of the year.)
“The kind of documentary evidence that makes for a conclusion will be difficult to produce for some time,” wrote the renowned black journalist Louis Lomax. “Yet Detroit’s responsible Negroes are casting a jaundiced eye at six persons in their community: attorney Milton Henry and his brother Richard; Edward Vaughn, a bookstore owner and black power advocate; the Rev. Albert B. Cleage Jr., pastor of the Central United Church of Christ, and John (sic) Boggs and his Chinese wife, Grace Lee Boggs.”
“These individuals,” Lomax wrote, “comprise what is without doubt the strangest black power amalgam in America.”
Of the six, only Grace Boggs still lives in Detroit.
Cleage, who transformed his church into the Shrine of the Black Madonna, died in 2000. (Detroit‘s current mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, grew up in the church.) Vaughn moved back home to Dothan, Ala., a few years ago to tend to his mother in her last years, and leads a revived Alabama NAACP. Milton Henry died in 2006. His brother, Richard, who changed his name to Imari Obadele, moved to Mississippi to try to establish a separate Republic of New Africa. He now lives in Baton Rouge, La.
“I don’t think the people who erupted in July 1967 did so because of us,” Boggs says today. “It’s nevertheless true that the climate in Detroit was politically different because of all the propaganda, agitation and organization that had gone on.”
In 1965, the Boggses wrote an influential essay, “The City Is the Black Man’s Land.” The “civil disorder” in Detroit, and a week earlier in 1967 in Newark, N.J., were watershed events in its fulfillment. Blacks seized political power in one city after another. The black middle class grew.
But the Boggses also saw how economically expendable black young people were cast even further adrift, swept along by a victim mentality that licensed crime and violence behind a “badge of militancy and blackness.” In 1972 they published a pamphlet, “Crime Among Our People,” challenging those who would turn blackness into a commodity or an excuse. They called on the community not to put up with it and not to buy stolen goods.
These days, Boggs trades heavily in hope.
In Detroit especially, she says, folks don’t need to be told how bad things are. They need to believe they can do something about it _ plant a tree, grow their own food, paint a mural, ride a bike, clean up a corner. She evangelizes for Detroit as a de-industrialized mecca for those who would create something self-sustaining amid the wreckage of this onetime citadel of capitalism.
“New Yorkers need to hear about the hope that exists in the wasteland of Detroit,” Boggs declares at the Brecht. “In vacant lots there is the opportunity to begin anew.”
“I’m glad she’s still around,” says General Baker, an old comrade from the Freedom Now Party. But planting flowers? Is this, he wonders, what the movement has come to?
After Jimmy Boggs’ death, friends created the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership and bought the couple’s home, which they had only rented, so Grace could continue to live and work there. One of its programs is Detroit Summer, enlisting young people to “rebuild, redefine and respirit Detroit from the ground up.”
Mostly, the center has created a cadre of new activists, like Ilana Weaver, who says that Grace gives lie every day to the libel that activism is but “a phase” young people go through. “It’s a life choice,” Weaver says.
Now, on the cusp of 92, Grace Lee Boggs is reaping the whirlwind of that life choice, and glad of it.
“This,” she says, “is going to be an interesting year.”