Why We Need James and Grace Lee Boggs Now

Courtesy of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership

In 2011, I sat in the living room of Grace Lee Boggs at 3061 Field Street, a space Bill Strickland affectionately described as “the Boggses’ University.” Grace was then a sharp 95 years old and began by asking each of the graduate students huddled on her floor where we came from. I told her that I grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but was skeptical what this could tell her about me. I had given it little thought since I left for college a decade earlier. Fort Wayne was a place Grace knew intimately, whether she had been there or not. It mirrored her city, Detroit: a booming, blue-collar industrial city, home to massive plants that were depleted by a loss of over 30,000 jobs during the closures of the 1970s and 1980s. The cities even shared a basketball team (the original Zollner Pistons were moved from Fort Wayne to Detroit by auto magnate Fred Zollner in 1956).

Five years since sitting in that living room, as Donald Trump unfathomably became our 45th president, I kept returning to that conversation. A year since Grace’s transition at the age of 100, and two decades since her intellectual, political, and spiritual partner Jimmy passed away, the Boggses’ lessons about grassroots organizing, community activism, and dialectical thinking are needed now more than ever. As Grace once put it, “The answers are coming more from the bottom.”

Neither Grace nor Jimmy were born in the city that would become synonymous with their activism. They both went through a period of itinerancy before settling in Detroit. Jimmy left Marion Junction, Alabama just days after he graduated from high school. He boarded a freight train with $1 and hoboed to Detroit. Unable to find work in the industrial economy, he rode westward through Chicago, Minnesota, and Washington, later recalling that “[h]oboing enabled me to get a complete picture… [an important task] if you’re going to be talking about making a revolution in this country.” Meanwhile, Grace attended Barnard College at sixteen, then pursued a PhD in philosophy at Bryn Mawr. Yet both carried anchors of community during these transient years. Jimmy returned to Junction City and married his high-school girlfriend, Annie McKinley, before bringing her to Detroit with him in 1939. Grace frequently returned to her family’s Chinese restaurant in Times Square, where she recalled feeling “like a family.”

Grace Lee Boggs’ graduation (Courtesy of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership)

At Bryn Mawr, Grace was drawn to the ideas of Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, and George Herbert Mead. She began to reinterpret the discomfort of the dualities she lived with: “I began to view my unease and restlessness as not a weakness, but a strength, a sign that I was ready to move to a new and higher state of being.” Grace saw history as an unfolding struggle over the meaning of freedom, replete with contradictions between the positive and negative charges of an idea. These dialectics were the engine of history and needed to be constantly struggled through, lest once-progressive ideas become regressive and outmoded. While her years in Chicago played a profound role in her life, exposing her to Marxist organizing and the March on Washington Movement, it was to Detroit where she moved with these ideas in the early 1950s.

Grace later admitted that the “contradictions in this nomadic existence had been growing…. I needed to settle down in a place and in a relationship that would be both nurturing and challenging.” Detroit was that place. As historian Ashley Farmer points out, Grace “mainly listened and learned” in her early years. This was not only due to her outsider status in the black community as a Chinese American woman, but also to her commitment to a theory of revolution that relied on hearing and learning from the oppressed. Grace and Jimmy moved to Detroit from divergent paths, and for dramatically different reasons. Jimmy had found a job at the Chrysler Jefferson plant and became politicized through membership in the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Communist Party. Grace had spent the better part of the last decade as a Marxist theorist with the noted Trinidadian intellectual CLR James in the group the Johnson-Forest Tendency (JFT). As Grace later recalled, “[m]y approach to political questions came more from books, [Jimmy’s] from experience.”

Children in Black Bottom, Paradise Valley, Detroit, 1963 (Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs)

Detroit was a deliberate choice for Grace and her new organization. Correspondence, like the JFT before it, broke with orthodox Marxism on ideas about workers’ political consciousness and the role of a vanguard party in leading the industrial class. They believed in the revolutionary capacity of other groups (in addition to rank-and-file workers) to self-activate: namely women, youth, and African Americans. Thus, not only had Grace and Jimmy come to Detroit for different reasons, but they were positioned at opposite ends of the organization where they met. The so-called “Third Layer School” (the “third layer” was what Correspondence called these potentially revolutionary forces) was comprised of “structured political discussion led by rank-and-file members like Jimmy who served as the teachers, while the intellectuals and leaders like Grace listened and learned from them.”

What became important about Detroit as a home to the Boggses over the next half-century was that it was not merely a physical space in which to exercise revolutionary thought, but a political space out of which that thought emerged. Thus, the city “became not only a base of operations but also a source of political experience and theorizing.” When Grace asked me where I came from, she was not asking for a place, she was asking for the source of my ideas. She wanted to know, where do your questions come from?

The emergence of the Civil Rights Movement and the automation of the industrial workforce reshaped the Boggses’ ideas about revolution. They excitedly chronicled the Montgomery Bus Boycott, seeing it not simply as a successful campaign to undo Jim Crow segregation, but as one that fundamentally changed those struggling against this oppressive system. Grace later described it as the “first struggle by an oppressed people in Western society based on the concept of two-sided transformation, both of ourselves and of our institutions.” These conclusions informed their interpretation of the Detroit rebellion a decade later. Despite being blamed by many city officials as responsible for the uprising, the Boggses were ultimately disillusioned by its failure to bring about lasting change. While they insisted that it was a “rebellion” not a “riot,” it did not translate into revolution. They found urban rebellions failed to fundamentally remake victims into creative agents who could achieve self-determination. Instead, they tended to reproduce victims’ status as what Grace would called “deterministic.”

Courtesy of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership

On November 8, 2016, an evening that felt so different from its 2008 counterpart, I was reminded of the phrase Grace was fond of: “we are the leaders we are looking for.” The next day, I met with the racial justice community reading group I lead at a minimum-security prison in Portland, Oregon. Our group is called Liberation Literacy, and Grace’s quote is our unofficial motto. Some students were angry, others were hopeful for its potential to accelerate revolution. One reminded classmates that they were incarcerated yesterday and will be incarcerated tomorrow, regardless of the election. It was a rich and emotional discussion, and like most weeks, I left feeling more hopeful than when I had arrived. I was reminded of Grace describing the abandoned factories and burned-out homes of Detroit with similar optimism. Detroit was what she called “a city of Hope rather than a city of Despair.” I also had to concede that her hope was founded in a place that could be remade anew, and mine came from an institution predicated on dehumanization.

Grace’s last book contains what feel like premonitions of a Trump presidency. “[W]e can easily slip into scapegoating ‘the other’ and goose-stepping behind a nationalist leader, as the good Germans did in the 1930s,” she warned. To some, in the face of Trumpism, urban gardening, bike co-ops, and community murals may sound naïve. To others, electoral politics in the face of neoliberalism, privatization, late capitalism, mass incarceration, re-entrenched patriarchy, and global white supremacy may sound more so. If we must not only remake our institutions, but ourselves, then we must concede that national elections promise to do neither.

The shift from historical materialism to dialectical humanism that the Boggses’ theorized emphasized the revolutionary undertaking of making humans more human. By this, they meant cultivating and elevating the things that make humans unique, such as creativity, moral responsibility, and self-consciousness. If I could answer Grace’s question again – “where do I come from” – my answer would be our reading group: Liberation Literacy. Not because I think prisons engender the same hope that Detroit does. As opposed to a city, which can be built up and remade, prisons must be razed and eradicated, their logics undone and unthought. But instead, the group is my place of family and community. It is where my questions and answers, and ultimately my hope, come from.

Garrett Felber is a scholar of 20th-century African American history. He earned a PhD at the University of Michigan in the American Culture Department. His scholarship has been published in the Journal of African American History, South African Music Studies, and SOULS. He has also contributed to The Guardian, The Marshall Project, and Viewpoint Magazine. He is the co-author with Manning Marable of The Portable Malcolm X ReaderFollow him on Twitter @garrett_felber.

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Garrett Felber

Garrett Felber is a scholar of 20th-century African American history. He earned a PhD at the University of Michigan in the American Culture Department. His scholarship has been published in the Journal of African American History, South African Music Studies, and SOULS. He has also contributed to Boston Review, The Guardian, The Marshall Project, and Viewpoint Magazine. He is the co-author with Manning Marable of The Portable Malcolm X Reader. Follow him on Twitter @garrett_felber.