"I don't have that much longer to live so I have to think about what it is I have to do before I go gently into that dark night. And what I'd like to do, I think, is help people understand that ideas and thinking historically and philosophically is as important to rebuilding a country and a community and making a revolution as activism. Most people think of revolution as taking power from somebody else. And I think of revolution as transformation of ourselves."
—Grace Lee Boggs 1915-2015
Grace Lee Boggs said this during an interview when she was 96 years old. Anyone who knew Grace or was in any of the activist circles orbiting around the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership knew that Grace would die soon. She was in hospice the past year and did not make it to her 100th birthday celebration in June.
To converse with Grace Lee Boggs was to tap into the pulse of the world and the perspective of a century lived to make sense of it. Grace embodied great humanism, great intellect, and great compassion.
Activist-philosopher Grace Lee Boggs went into that long night last week at the age of 100. It is sad that she is no longer among us; it's a personal loss for friends and a symbolic loss for activists locally and around the world, but there is no loss to the ideas and causes that wove into her life.
That's because a consequence of Boggs' living as long as she did and still having all her "marbles," as she would say, was that she had time to firmly establish her method for examining problems and coming up with solutions with numerous activists who are addressing their own issues and creating projects to build a more humane and sustainable world.
Grace was a revolutionary in nearly every sense of the word. Born in Rhode Island in 1915 to Chinese immigrant parents, Grace Lee earned a doctorate in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College. Racial issues in the 1940s academic world led to a low-wage job at the University of Chicago Philosophy Library. Her experience there as a tenants' rights activist led to her engagement with leftist philosophies and the African-American community. She became friends with the communist CLR James and others. In 1953 she moved to Detroit and married African-American autoworker James Boggs.
James and Grace were at the forefront of numerous progressive activities over the years. They were friends with Malcolm X and published a number of pamphlets, newspapers, articles, and books in support of labor and civil rights. In the early 1960s they broke with the conventional left and began to focus more on community-based issues and organizing in Detroit.
Grace became immersed in the African-American community. She continued and intensified that immersion after James' death in 1993. With the Boggs Center established (in their home) about the time James passed, Grace used it as a hub for meetings, discussions, and to support efforts at fixing a seriously broken Detroit. At its core, Grace's approach was to do what you can with what you have. More than espousing any particular political philosophy, Grace evolved from revolutionary to solutionary in seeking solutions to problems in neighborhoods. Solutions based on a deep humanitarianism and well-thought-out and heavily discussed strategies.
Detroit Summer, a project to engage youth of all stripes in gardening and media projects, was an early Boggs Center activity. Grace gave support to an embryonic urban agriculture movement. Many of the city's urban farms are worked by people who were influenced directly or indirectly by Grace. The Allied Media Project and the Boggs Educational Center were founded by people who came through Detroit Summer.
The Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, the Hope District, and Feedom Freedom Growers are part of Grace's orbit. Yusef Shakur and the Putting the Neighbor Back in the Hood project have a Boggs connection, as well as the East Michigan Environmental Action Council. Progressive activists across the board seem to have at least touched base with the Boggs Center.
Nationally, Grace helped create the Beloved Communities Initiative. Until recent years, when she slowed down physically, Grace was a featured speaker at national and international progressive conferences. Still she managed to write an autobiography, Living for Change (1988), and coauthored The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the 21st Century (2012), with Scott Kurashige.
In recent years she pushed people to really think about what they're doing and was involved in conferences to reimagine work and reimagine Detroit. "We have to change ourselves in order to change the world," she would say.
In the 2013 documentary film American Revolutionary, the Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, there is a scene in which Grace makes her way slowly, with a walker, along a street of vacant lots in the shadow of the abandoned and crumbling Packard Plant.
"I feel so sorry for people who are not living in Detroit," she said at that moment.
It seemed a ridiculous statement, but it was deeply related to her analysis of the world. Detroit was at the forefront of the industrial revolution and now stands to lead in figuring out what happens after industry. Boggs surmised that Detroit is at the forefront of what's next — and that makes activism around key issues even more important in terms of influencing the outcomes in Detroit and elsewhere.
Friends close to Grace say that she didn't want her passing to be about her, that she wanted us to keep the focus on the issues. That's as it should be. Still, for someone who dedicated most of her century to fighting for us, let's just take a moment to make it about Grace.
Larry Gabriel writes the Stir It Up and Higher Ground columns for the Detroit Metro Times and is editor of The American Cultivator.