Social Text 19.2 (2001) 43-73
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The Continuity of Living for Change
An Interview with Grace Lee Boggs
Wayne State University, July 1999 and July and september 2000
L. Todd Duncan and Kathryne V. Lindberg
Grace Lee Boggs, a Chinese American who became politicized in 1941 after finishing her Ph.D. on George Herbert Mead and the construction of the "social individual," reminds us, in person and in print, that self- criticism and personal commitment to an activism both grounded in the "inner city" and committed to listening to the people are tough but rewarding. A movement activist and theoretician, Boggs continues to reflect on the changes that Marxism and activism must undergo in order to change--and, she would say, to humanize--the world from the ground up. The aim of our conversational interviews (conducted on 1-2 July 1999 and again on 4 July and 17 September 2000) was twofold. We wanted to instigate a wider reading of texts (newspapers, pamphlets, manifestos, analyses from and about the shop floor and the barricades) that are sometimes considered the paraliterature of theory as well as praxis. Beyond this, we wanted to talk with a woman who, over the past sixty years, has participated in the transformative and survival programs of several Marxist and African American revolutionary formations. This interview departs from Boggs's recent autobiography to consider how that project of the remembered past also began to clear the ground for reexamining the intersections of identity politics and place-based activism that have always driven her political and philosophical endeavors. We want readers of this interview to enter the archive, to begin critically to reread the theoretical and analytic contributions of the black Left from the 1940s to the present. It is time that "black Marxism"--that is, the construct of blackness as well as the theoretical and political aspects of Marxism--be reconsidered in terms of the political engagement that formed and continues to form activist intellectuals within and without the discursive categories of academe.
L. Todd Duncan: Could we begin with Living for Change? Though you have done a lot of writing over the years, was writing an autobiography a different process?
Grace Lee Boggs: Unlike Jimmy [Boggs's late husband and activist companion], I never thought of myself as a writer. Jimmy's pen would fly from the left side of the page to the right like a bird, while I always found [End Page 43] writing laborious. True, I've done a lot of it over the years, but it's been mostly advocacy type writing: leaflets, pamphlets, press releases. At the same time I've done a lot of editing. I edited Correspondence for a number of years and the SOSAD [Save our Sons and Daughters] Newsletter for nearly ten years.
Being able to use a computer to write Living for Change was really important because I could read what I had written back to myself and get a sense of how it sounded.
TD: Did you read it back aloud?
GLB: No, but as I read what I had written, I began seeing my own life as a part of the development of the United States and also as a part of the development of revolutionary thought. Also, as I read what I had written about the struggles in Detroit, I felt that I had helped to make the history of the city and that it was therefore my responsibility to resolve the contradictions that had emerged out of our struggles for black power. That gave a momentum to the writing. I was not just writing about the past but about the future.
TD: Was there a catalyst, an event or reflection that led to further reflection and momentum? What got you started?
GLB: I never thought I would be writing my autobiography. Shortly after Jimmy died in l993, I wrote to Shirley Cloyes at Lawrence Hill Publishers--they had published C.L.R James's works--asking if she would be interested...