Most American workers have geared themselves to a standard of living that is based on a five-day week plus — either in the form of overtime or another job, part or full-time ... there can be no smug plan for reforming this system.”
If there is a more fascinating story of love and an intellectual partnership anywhere, I certainly don’t know it. Jimmy Boggs was a black autoworker from Alabama whose formal education stopped after a poor segregated high school.
Grace Lee was an older Chinese-American woman from Rhode Island. She had a Ph.D. in philosophy from Bryn Mawr and was a follower of an esoteric West Indian Marxist and cricket enthusiast, C.L.R. James. They met in Detroit in the early ’50s, where she had come to put out a newsletter. She invited him over to dinner.
They barely knew each other. He showed up an hour late; he said he didn’t like her lamb chops and sneered at her taste in music. Then — that same night — he asked her to marry him. She agreed, and what followed was an amazing 40-year partnership.
What could a half-educated Chrysler worker have to say to a philosopher? Well, plenty. Grace’s mentor opposed the marriage, in part because he feared she would become a follower of his. Jimmy Boggs was — there is no other word — brilliant.
This, however, might not have been immediately apparent to a journalist or even a higher species of pseudo-intellectual. Boggs often talked like an Alabama sharecropper, liked to work under the hood of a car, and would cheerfully tell you how a hog once mistook his toe for a sweet potato and nearly bit it off.
Yet after working on the line all day, he would stretch out on the floor of the aging house they rented and write rapidly in longhand, on a legal pad. The passage at the start of this essay comes from his first and probably greatest book, The American Revolution: Notes From a Negro Worker’s Notebook, which was published in 1963.
Essentially, the book says that “Marx’s concept of socialism had become irrelevant,” Grace Lee Boggs remembers, talking to me about her husband in the very room where he wrote his book. Marx wrote in a time of material scarcity, when capitalists could not make money if workers refused to work.
James Boggs, one of those workers, saw clearly — long before most labor leaders and sociologists — that machines were making work disappear and many workers irrelevant. “The time had come,” Jimmy wrote, “to stop depending on Marx and to do for our time what Marx had done for his,” remembers Grace, her eyes shining, her mind as clear and incisive as ever. That’s what the two of them tried to do together, for decades.
They wrote and they marched and demonstrated. Grace and Jimmy organized neighborhood groups to fight crime by discouraging the purchase of “hot goods,” to demand to be treated with dignity, to try and figure out how to create a more fully human life for everyone. They fought incessantly to make a new American Revolution in a postindustrial Detroit that was largely crumbling and abandoned. They were, for most of their lives, ignored by the local media — and celebrated internationally.
Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were visitors at the house on Field Street. Kwame Nkrumah told Grace, quite seriously, that if she had married him they could have changed all Africa. Shortly after Jimmy’s book was published, without much fanfare by the little Monthly Review Press, he got a fan letter from Bertrand Russell, the best-known philosopher of the age. A correspondence followed in which Boggs — respectfully — lectured the grand old man on what the duty of philosophers should be.
Tragically, Jimmy Boggs was a heavy cigarette smoker, which ended up killing him in July 1993. He was writing pointed letters to the Free Press and speaking to classes right up until just a few days before he died. Almost the last thing he did was inspire the still-flourishing Detroit Summer, which brings older generations together with kids every year to “rebuild Detroit from the ground up.”
Last thing he did in life, that is; he is still inspiring people. Grace still lives in the home they rented for decades on Field Street. She has a new landlord now: The Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership bought the house, and has converted the second floor to a combination office, conference area and dormitory. For further details on what she and the center are doing, check out www.boggscenter.org.
Grace herself is still going strong; writing a weekly column in the Michigan Citizen, lecturing, traveling, mentoring. She doesn’t turn 88, after all, till later this month.
Two days later, on Sunday, June 29, there will be a special celebration starting at 1 p.m. at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church on Cass at Forest to mark the 40th anniversary of the little book James Boggs wrote. Much of it would still come as a revelation to those who pass for leaders and thinkers today.
Ossie and Ruby will be there, and there will be artistic performances and discussions, and the like. And, of course, Grace Lee Boggs. Among this columnist’s major regrets are that he never got to know Jimmy; but he is at least honored that in the last few years he has been able to talk with Grace.
Don’t pass up this chance.
Calling Pontius Pilate: Everyone aware of their media history had a nice chuckle at the Free Press editorial Saturday sanctimoniously protesting the Federal Communications Commission’s expected decision to give big corporations more control of the airwaves. This from a newspaper whose corporate owners whored and licked every politician’s boot they could find to win government approval of the anti-competitive, consumer-gouging Joint Operating Agreement back in the late ’80s.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org