Grace Lee Boggs was a Chinese American activist and philosopher whose cross-racial organizing work called for racial justice and the radical transformation of American society. Though the only documentary on her life was released in 2013 and generated wide interest in her life story, Boggs’ legacy has been in the news over the last year as the nation reckons with racist violence against Asian Americans and Black Americans. Alongside the emergence of Black-Asian solidarity marches, there has been increased exploration of histories of collaboration between these communities, the various barriers that have undermined solidarity, and what future collaboration might look like. Described by Angela Davis as someone who “made more contributions to the Black struggle than most Black people have,” Boggs’ life story may provide fertile ground for reflection in these times. Though there are many stories to tell and questions to raise in this ongoing discussion, the story of Grace Lee Boggs is one inspiring example of what it can look like to discover shared stakes, commit to collective action, and leave a legacy that nurtures ongoing resistance.
In the 2013 documentary American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, Boggs narrates her gradual transformation from a typical young person to the activist she would become. She explains that during her early life, she was not an activist at all and was largely interested in fitting in. Her trajectory would change, however, when a chain of events politicized her and brought her into life-long collaboration with Black activists.
In American Revolutionary, Boggs explains that following the completion of her PhD at Bryn Mawr College, she struggled to find employment in any industry due to the depth of anti-Asian racism. She ultimately secured a low-paying job within the philosophy library at the University of Chicago where she earned only $10 per week. While there, she was unable to afford rent and was offered free shelter in a rat-infested basement. It was during this time in Chicago that she became aware of a group of Black people in the neighborhood protesting poor living conditions including the rat-infested housing that was widespread in their community. Boggs describes this as a watershed moment in her development. She notes that though she had been aware of the levels of poverty and political disempowerment in Black communities, this experience transformed that idea from an abstract concept to an experience that touched her own life and suddenly bound her to this shared struggle. It is through her involvement with this housing-related activism that Boggs began to forge what would become a career centered around struggling with and in service of the Black community.
She would later relocate to Detroit to edit the radical newsletter Correspondence and it is there that she would meet her husband, James “Jimmy” Boggs—a Black man who would become her partner in thought, activism, and life. The couple would become two of the city's best known activists and would later coauthor a book called Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century. They were heavily involved in organizing on behalf of racial justice as early members of Detroit’s Black Power movement, as well as pushing for a radical transformation of America’s economic systems. Their activities coincided with the McCarthy Era when those engaged in activist endeavors thought to be at odds with capitalism were blacklisted, purged from various institutions, and sometimes incarcerated. As a result of their activities, the couple would become known to the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) as radical agitators. At the time, Black-Asian solidarity and coalition building were so absent from the public stage that when Grace was identified as a leader within Detroit’s Black Power movement, FBI authorities wrongly assumed that she must be of both African and Asian descent.
Another core theme that emerges in this documentary is Boggs’ love of rigorous thought and deliberation. In contrast to some of her long-time collaborators, Boggs insisted that our enduring social and political challenges call not only for activism but for deliberative reflection. Though this emphasis on thought before action appears to have put her at odds with some of her collaborators on the ground, this was a way of seeing and operating that Boggs also tried to inculcate in the young people she taught and mentored during her life.
Boggs was a strong believer in the power of young people to transform their environments, as well as the importance of rising to support them in that process. In 1992, the couple would help to establish Detroit Summer, an organization inspired by Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Summer, with an emphasis on rebuilding the city of Detroit. Still an active organization, Detroit Summer is a multi-racial, inter-generational collective. Its members say that they are “working to transform ourselves and our communities by confronting the problems we face with creativity and critical thinking. We currently organize youth-led media arts projects and community-wide potlucks, speak-outs and parties.” Two years after James’ passing in 1993, the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership was formed to honor the legacies of both James and Grace as activists and theoreticians.
In the film, Boggs also indicated that despite her array of public contributions, she didn’t regard herself as a leader within the Asian American movement. She said: “People began asking me to speak on the Asian American movement and I discovered my ignorance. People are so [eager to identify] icons that they sort of fixated on me even though I wasn’t an Asian American icon.”
Despite Boggs’ insistence that she wasn’t an Asian American icon, it is certainly the case that she is among the figures who have expanded the ways that Asian American women can show up in political organizing and ally with Black people. Though Boggs is certainly not the only Asian American person who has worked in close solidarity with African Americans, Boggs’ life is a powerful example of the social change work that can emerge when people realize that their fates are conjoined and take aligned action.
Facing History and Ourselves invites readers to join us for our event with Helen Zia on Thursday, May 27th, Making the Invisible Visible: Exploring and Teaching the AAPI Experience.
Pictured above: Grace Lee Boggs at her home in Detroit on February 21, 2012.
Credit: Kyle McDonald, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
This piece was originally published in May 2021.