- “We Are Extraordinarily Lucky to Be Living in These Times”A Conversation with Grace Lee Boggs
Who is Grace Lee Boggs—and why should scholars of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies focus on her? In a radio show produced in the summer of 2011 by Zak Rosen, Grace described herself as follows: “I’m ninety-five years old. In my teens I became a philosopher, and in my twenties I became an activist.”1 Grace is a longtime resident of Detroit, Michigan; a collaborator of West Indian historian C. L. R. James;2 the wife of autoworker and theorist James (“Jimmy”) Boggs;3 and a writer and lecturer whose audience seems to have broadened with each succeeding decade. Especially as a woman, she has ignored or defied the limits and expectations often placed before her, and by so doing she has opened up the possibilities for how people of all genders think about their lives, how they participate in radical political activism, and how they engage with theory.
On the first page of her autobiography, Living for Change, Grace writes: “Had I not been born female and Chinese American, I would not have realized from early on that fundamental changes were necessary in our society.”4 Many decades before civil-rights, antiwar, and feminist activists redefined US culture and politics, Boggs saw herself in alliance with the most downtrodden groups in US society and aspired to develop ways of bringing about transformative, system-wide change on their behalf. In recent years, she has spoken as a participant in and theoretician for a web of interconnected social movements. During the fall of 2011, the filmmaker Grace Lee helped Boggs to issue two short vimeo messages directed toward the Occupy Wall Street movement.5 Two years later, the same filmmaker released a feature-length documentary titled American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs. Most people would not imagine the label “American revolutionary” as a serious job title in this century, and probably would not think of a woman or a person of Asian ethnic heritage as a viable candidate. Grace Lee Boggs is [End Page 92] unique on many counts, one of them being an Asian American woman who is recognized among a variety of communities—identity-based, scholarly, progressive, and grassroots—for her insights about revolutionary change.
pragmatic intellectual and “emersonian” marxist
It is not easy to separate out the key moments in Grace Lee Boggs’s long and intricate journey from the daughter of an entrepreneurial father and a rebellious but unhappy mother to the social movement icon she has become. Her unconventional path has been marked by a web of intimate relationships that are as political as they are personal. At various points in her autobiography she refers to herself as a tomboy, a feminist, and “the most intellectual” child in her family. Between 1931 and 1940 she attended Barnard College and then went on to Bryn Mawr to receive master’s and doctoral degrees in philosophy—accomplishments that were exceptional, at that time, for a woman of any background. She dwelled in books, but over time she became concerned about closing the gap between scientific or intellectual abstraction and the concrete realities of daily life. Perhaps her experiences as a gendered and racialized minority predisposed her to sympathize with oppressed people and to adopt this practical approach.
Grace was aware that being a Chinese American woman would not make her salable for a university teaching job, even with a PhD. But the philosophers she focused on—from Hegel to George Herbert Mead—gave her something even more valuable: an intellectual scaffolding for the life she wanted to pursue. From Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind she took the idea that human beings are “constantly struggling to make what they believe to be true, right, and just into a reality in their individual and social lives.” Studying Mead and the other American pragmatists empowered Grace to move “from a life of contemplation to a life of action.”6
In 1940 Grace moved to Chicago, where she joined anti–World War II activities and found her way into the organized political left. Shoulder...