At 98 years old, Grace Lee Boggs continues to dedicate her life tirelessly and relentlessly in U.S. social and political movements that have inspired a diverse pool of radical activists. Known for her leftist politics and collaborative work with Black Marxist C.L.R. James, Boggs has become a revolutionary speaker and writer—garnering attention across generations and uniting the hearts of grass-root organizers, scholars, and activists.
Born into a Chinese family in 1915, Boggs received her B.A. from Barnard College in 1935 and eventually her Ph.D. in Philosophy from Bryn Mawr College in 1940. Her academic feat proved her resilient character during a time when women of color had the rare opportunity to pursue higher education.
“She went to college, which was not the norm for Chinese American women at the time,” said Moon Ho Jung, a professor in the University of Washington’s Department of History. “She later worked with C.L.R. James, who was one of the leading figures among Black Marxist thinkers across the world and she really helped him think about Marxism [in a way] that many white Marxists weren’t thinking. She provided a perspective as a woman of color.”
Boggs became known to not only fight, but also beat the odds. Just think: A Chinese American woman deeply rooted in black community activism in Detroit since the 1960s. Along with her husband, a black autoworker who passed in 1993, she has fought for an ever-evolving revolution in order to propel America to a greater and better future.
“Lots of people in the mainstream hate on Detroit. Others may feel sorry for Detroit. Grace challenges us to rise above the scorn and pity,” said Scott Kurashige, director of the Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies Program at the University of Michigan. Kurashige has collected the speeches of Grace Lee Boggs for the past ten years.
“Recognizing that the industrial capitalist economy has collapsed, Grace has helped inspire a whole new kind of movement—one driven by the creation of alternatives to the dehumanization and exploitation under capitalism rather than just trying to make the system be a little better and more inclusive,” Kurashige said.
Although Boggs has been mainly known for her revolutionary writing and grassroots organizing stemming from her devotion to Detroit’s African American community, Boggs influence in the Asian American community cannot be ignored and her identity as a Chinese American woman has helped shape her political movement.
“She represents the struggle of Asian American women,” Jung said. “Her politics are rooted in her identity as an Asian American woman. Boggs definitely embodies the struggle.”
Her wisdom, ideologies, and strategic ways toward social change have provided fresh perspectives for Asian Americans who have sought for her guidance in times of upheaval.
“Grace was briefly involved in the Asian American Movement [see her autobiography, Living for Change], when young radical activists looked to her for theoretical guidance and saw her as a role model in the struggle for Third World liberation and solidarity during the age of Vietnam War protests and Ethnic Studies strikes,” Kurashige said.
And when Boggs’ autobiography was published in 1998, she spawned the curiosity of more activists striving to make lasting social change and thus convinced a new generation to place emphasis on the struggle of social justice in order to build meaningful life and sustainable community.
“She has reconnected with Asian Americans activists who met her four decades ago and has been embraced by a whole new generation of scholars and activists—including me,” Kurashige said.
In 2005, filmmaker Grace Lee from Missouri set out on a project to meet other people named “Grace Lee” as a way to debunk the quintessential and submissive stereotype that comes with this Asian American woman name, while capturing the complexity and non-monolithic story of each woman. As she journeyed across the nation, she met Grace Lee Boggs—the fiery social activist that did indeed break every stereotype.
Boggs’ uplifting and awe-inspiring efforts to love and engage her community during times of injustices have led the filmmaker to produce a feature-length documentary. After twelve years in the making, American Revolutionary-The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs has finally reached post-production and won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2013.
“Director Grace Lee and the filmmaking team did a phenomenal job capturing Grace’s groundbreaking ideas and contagious spirit on screen. That’s why the film has been garnering standing ovations and audience awards all over the place,” Kurashige said. “I’ll just say this: Go see it with an open mind and you’ll be blown away.”
Boggs’ story is one that inspires us to dream in the midst of uncertain social and political changes. And in moments of strife, injustices, and disheartening scenes, Boggs calls us to build upon true humanity.
“Our society places too much emphasis on material wealth and individual advancement. Grace shows us that another world and another way of life is possible,” Kurashige said.
American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs screens on at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival February 8 at 5:30 p.m. at Ark Lodge Cinemas Screen 1. For tickets and more information, click here.
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