By Dinah Chung, Grace Lee, and Dawn Philip
Grace Lee Boggs is an activist, writer, and speaker whose sixty years of political involvement include working in the Labor, Civil Rights, Black Power, Asian American, Women’s and Environmental Justice movements. Grace is deeply connected to Detroit, Michigan, where she has lived for the past fifty years and is actively involved in empowering the city’s youth. Her Living for Change: An Autobiography is widely used in university classes on social movements , feminism, and Asian-American studies. A strong advocate for being the change we want, Grace Lee Boggs continues to resist, create, and inspire.
NAPAWF: Hi Grace! Thank you so much for talking with us. You have been a leader in so many social justice struggles. At NAPAWF we are always trying to inspire young girls and women to be leaders. What is your definition of leadership?
GLB: Well, this is a subject that I’m very interested in, and I think probably because of my very long life and experience in leadership. I have some things to say about it. What’s been happening over the years, I would say, is that the idea of leadership which was very dominated by a patriarchal society is being challenged and male leadership is very vertical, very top-down and that was very much the nature of leadership during the 60s and prior to that. In the period since the 60s, the women’s movement has challenged this process of patriarchal leadership. And, women have emerged much more in the leadership of grassroots organizations and they bring a very different kind of leadership, which is much more nurturing and much more horizontal, and this has coincided with the emergence of the internet, which also makes possible a very much more horizontal type of leadership. Young people, for example, of the millennium generation are connecting with each other 24/7 all across the country, all across the world and this has also coincided with a need for a more participatory democracy, as contrasted with the vertical leadership of industrial society.
I think, that in order to go into this next period of struggle, which I think is going to be a very exciting period, we’re going to have to do a lot of re-thinking about what we think leadership is.
NAPAWF: Does that concept relate to this idea of a “radical revolution of values,” which is something you talk about in relation to Dr. Martin Luther King?
GLB: Yes it does. I’ve been spending all week writing a new introduction to the book my husband and I wrote back in the early 70s called “Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century” and it’s going to be reprinted with the original content but with a new title, “Revolution and Evolution in the 21st Century.” I’ve written a new introduction and a lot of it has to do with MLK’s concept of love. King said that the concept of love is not some sentimental weakness but somehow the key to ultimate reality, and I’ve been looking at his concept of love, and this concept of love he’s talking about is agape. He said there are three kinds of love, there’s Eros, there’s Philos and that’s friendship, and then there’s Agape. And, agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore a community. I think about this in terms of a kind of leadership we need. How do we arrive at a kind of leadership that is really from the community and I think that’s our challenge. And I think that’s a challenge that is particularly complex for Asian-Americans b/c our community is so complex. What folks don’t realize is that up to 1968 the concept of Asian American didn’t even exist. We all thought of ourselves as Chinese Americans, Filipino Americans or Japanese Americans. Then when the black power movement emerged we decided we were not going to be the model minority anymore and we re-named ourselves Asian-American. And we did that at a time, when being Asian-American was not so complex because the new immigration laws hadn’t passed and the huge migration from Asia had not yet occurred.
NAPAWF: What was it like to be one of the only non-African American woman in the Black power movement when you were very involved in this movement with your husband?
GLB: That’s the question that I’m always asked. People want to know. I think that some people feel that it’s a terrible risk or danger and so people are fearful about it. I didn’t feel any fear about it at all. One thing was that in the ‘50s when I became part of the African-American community, Black nationalism had not yet become such a dominant force inside this country. So, many of the people that I met were people who were born down South and while they were very conscious of racism, they had lived next door, actually just a block away from White people, they had not known many Asian Americans or Chinese Americans. Mostly they had only known African Americans so to them I was kind of a novelty. And so I found it very easy actually because my husband Jimmy was so much a part of the African-American community. He was a writer, speaker, activist, and worker. And so I just fell into it very simply. I was quiet for a while because I knew I had a great deal to learn and it wasn’t until I had been a part of and lived in the black community for eight years that I became active in the black power struggle.
NAPAWF: Some of the issues we are working on at NAPAWF relate to the increasing rates of detentions and deportations and the way immigrants are being treated. You frequently write about humanity and re-defining our understanding of humanity—how do you think this relates to immigrant rights issues?
GLB: First of all I think we have to redefine this country. We have to understand that this country was born in a revolution, and one of the founding principles of the country is to form a more perfect union. The idea of a more perfect union has constantly been extended, expanded and enriched by the struggles that have taken place over the last 200 years. I think we have to understand that this country has the legacy and responsibility to represent a more perfect union and greater diversity, and that you always have two tendencies within the country. One is what I call a counter-revolutionary tendency to limit the idea of the country to White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant. The other is to constantly expand and enrich the concept of what it means to be an American. And I think we have to approach both the question of what it means to be an American and what it means to be a human being from that point of view. People think in terms of evolution mainly in terms of anatomical things, like the opposable thumb. They don’t think of the expansion of humanity or the evolution of humanity in terms of our acquiring and evolving into more human qualities of creativity, imagination and social responsibility. So we have to think differently about evolution, think differently about humanity. We have to think differently about being an American, and approach the whole question of immigration from that fundamental philosophical point of view.
NAPAWF: In the 60’s it seemed like there was a much bigger political movement going on where people did seem to share some basic principles and it seemed like a revolution was happening. Do you think that can still happen now?
GLB: It’s very important to see the difference between the ‘60s and today. In the ‘60s, we were very adversarial. We were claiming our rights in relationship to our lack of rights and the people who were denying those rights. We talked a lot about power. Our concept of what we wanted to do with our rights and where we wanted to go was still very superficial. For example, for many people it was to be just like White people. We never stopped to think about how White people behaved and how sexist they were and how what we were putting forward was another way of living. And I think that many of the things that have happened since the movement of the ‘60s, which achieved a great many rights, have come out of the fact that we did not have a clear enough idea of what we wanted to put in place of what existed. And I think that in the present period because some of those contradictions that emerged from the ‘60s, we are now finding it much more necessary and possible to think about what kind of society we want to create. What kind of America do we want to create? What kind of world do we want to create? That would, of course, help us because so many terrible things have happened, particularly in the last 20 years, that we have become conscious of. I would say the planetary crisis makes it necessary for us to think much more profoundly about what it means to be a human being and how we want to live. Are we going to have a nearly car free society or are we still going to drive all the SUVs we want and not give a damn that the whole thing may go up in smoke?
NAPAWF: What you just said sounds like this amazing phrase you often say–“We must live simply, so others may simply live.”
GLB: Yes, I think that is such an important concept. I think that what we have to think about these days is how to become – we never talked about this in the ‘60s – how do we become the change that we want to see in the world? How do we live more simply so that others may simply live? We saw solidarity in terms of how black people were fighting in Africa, and people of color were also fighting in Asia. But we didn’t think of how much our development and our over-development had taken place at the expense of the development of other people. We have a consciousness of that today, fortunately, that we didn’t’ have back then.
NAPAWF: I think we would be remiss if we had an interview with you, and had not asked you about your relationship to Detroit because you’ve done so much work around rebuilding Detroit. Could you talk a little about that?
GLB: I came to Detroit 55 years ago and I’ve lived in the same house most of the time since then. When I came to Detroit, the population was 2 million and the auto industry, while it was beginning to introduce a level of high technology, was still employing a fair number of people. But as a result of introducing technology into all the industries and the development of globalization, Detroit came to industrialize. So I began to challenge very early about what we should do about the de- industrialization. Do we look at the vacant lots just as blight or do we see them as opportunities for creating another kind of city? Unfortunately, in 1988 the mayor, Coleman Young, who was our first Black mayor was desperate and didn’t know what to do because there was so much crime because of the unemployment and he proposed casino gambling. We organized/mobilized to defeat him, and were able to do that, actually. But during the struggle he said, “What is your alternative? You’re just a bunch of naysayers.” He challenged us to begin thinking about another kind of city. How would we rebuild and redefine the spirit of Detroit, and to do that we created a program called Detroit Summer which involves young people in community gardening, painting public murals, cleaning up neighborhood parks and rehabilitating houses. We saw gardens not only as a way to provide food but a process and as the city responded to this movement of young people and older people, an agriculture movement began to develop in the city. That has become a movement that is growing faster all over the country everyday and also a way of beginning to look at a 21st century city in a period when we can’t constantly be importing our food from 1500 miles away, where we need to be able to walk more to neighborhood stores instead of buying at big box stores and shopping malls, and when the whole world has changed and made another kind of city both possible and necessary. This has given my whole life in Detroit and my ability to think, in terms of 50 years I’ve been here, a lot of meaning.
I think we need to create another American Dream. I think the old American dream of a higher standard of living has to be replaced by a dream of a higher standard of humanity.
NAPAWF: We would like to ask you a question that we, at NAPAWF have asked each other. Can you describe a politically defining moment for you?
GLB: Oh, I need a couple moments to think about that. I have so many politically defining moments. This week, for example, has been a politically defining moment because I’ve been really struggling with Martin Luther King’s concept of love – what that means for organizing, how that begins to introduce us to a whole new way of thinking about our relationships between people, and how that’s become necessary because we have been so consumed with producing and consuming things and have neglected our relationships with one another. It was a politically defining moment for me when I began to look at Detroit not as blight but as opportunity, and that happened when there was so much violence and so much crime in the city and these gardens began to open up a another possibility. A friend of mine who’s an urban planner says that this garden is not only for food but it’s a kind of quiet revolution. The idea that gardening could be a quiet revolution is amazing.
NAPAWF: We thank you for your time and on behalf of NAPAWF we would like to wish you a happy belated birthday!
GLB: I enjoyed it very much and I hope you did too.