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An Unusual Suspect

Often working behind the scenes, Grace Lee Boggs has intrigued scholars and students with her lifelong mentoring of Black radicals.

By Lydia Lum

Dr. Wang Zheng wastes no words when it comes to discussing the person she most admires, a 91-year-old Chinese-American revolutionary activist whose life’s work Wang includes in her University of Michigan courses.

Wang says she knew very little about Dr. Grace Lee Boggs before the latter participated in an oral history project on campus a few years ago. Wang then read Boggs’ autobiography, and says she was amazed by Boggs’ dealings with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights figures. Wang was also intrigued by the longstanding commitment Boggs and her husband, Jimmy Boggs, had to Detroit’s Black community.

“Grace is my idol,” Wang says. “I have a deep, profound respect for her. I never expected to encounter an Asian American woman like her. She is extraordinarily courageous for having crossed so many boundaries and departed from all the norms. She is a wonderful role model, not just for Chinese-Americans, but for all the younger generations.”

Boggs plays down the adulation and insists she has merely followed her passion. She says such compliments encourage “vertical relationships,” rather than the “horizontal relationships of a participatory democracy” that she advocates.

The daughter of immigrants, she was born Grace Lee in 1915 in Providence, R.I. The family soon moved to New York City, where her father ran a huge Chinese restaurant near Times Square.

The restaurant, which seated nearly 1,000 people, became nationally famous and a de facto hub of Chinese culture. But it was her mother who served as an early model of feminism. Tired of her husband’s patriarchal expectations of female obedience, Boggs’ mother threw him out of their house and bad-mouthed him to the restaurant’s employees. The public display was rare among Chinese-Americans of that era, and considered a great embarrassment to her father. Yet Boggs would later credit her activism to both of her parents, recalling how her father dreamed of modernizing his village back in China.

She earned her bachelor’s degree from Barnard College, followed by a doctorate in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College in 1940. The writings of George Herbert Mead inspired her to move to Chicago, where she knew no one but where Mead had developed many of his ideas. Dozens of homeowners and landlords refused to let her rent a room because of her ethnicity. A sympathetic Jewish woman finally let her take a basement apartment, where she says the rats came and went as frequently as she did. Boggs soon landed a $10-a-week job as a University of Chicago librarian. But it was her involvement with a local tenants’ rights organization fighting rat-infested housing that taught her about organized protests and, more importantly, about the many social ills in Black communities.

A political collaboration with Marxists C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya took her back to New York, where she supported herself with odd jobs in order to study Marx and Lenin.

That association introduced her to many Black writers and political leaders in the 1940s and ’50s, including Kwame Nkrumah, who would become the first president of Ghana. Nkrumah, who was finishing college in the United States, was so smitten with the young activist that he proposed marriage. But, in her autobiography, Living for Change, she says she couldn’t fathom being politically active in a place “where I was totally ignorant of the history, geography and culture,” so she declined.

Ironically, she would accept Jimmy Boggs’ marriage proposal in 1953 at the end of their first date, even though she knew little about him. He was two hours late for their dinner and refused to eat the lamb chops she cooked. They met through a newspaper they were helping James and Dunayevskaya publish. Editing and writing articles took the couple to Detroit, where Jimmy was a Chrysler autoworker and activist. Although her mother cut off ties with her for marrying a Black man, Grace Lee became Grace Lee Boggs and committed herself to Detroit, Black liberation and movement activism. Their home became a popular meeting place for grassroots activists, who spent long hours theorizing
and strategizing.

“Jimmy and Grace mentored a whole generation of radicals in Detroit,” says Dr. Peniel Joseph, an assistant professor of Africana studies at the State University of New York-Stony Brook. “Although they worked behind the scenes, they seemed to be everywhere, and they were very influential. My students are particularly fascinated by Grace’s story.”

Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley, a University of Southern California professor of cultural and historical studies, has described Living for Change as “a jewel” and a “brilliant, crucial memoir.” It “might be the most important political memoir of the second half of the twentieth century,” he has said. And indeed, the pages of Living for Change are rife with mention of Grace’s dealings with Malcolm X, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Bob Moses, the Rev. Albert Cleage and a host of others. The book is a virtual Who’s Who of Black history that spans the Cold War, the civil rights era, the rise of Black Power, the Nation of Islam, the Black Panthers and today’s rebuilding of urban communities.

Wang, an associate professor in women’s studies, often mentions Living for Change when giving presentations in China, where she was born and raised. She says she believes the book can show people overseas an unvarnished look at this country. She has convinced colleagues in China to translate it, but the main hurdle has been the cumbersome explanations of aspects of U.S. history such as the Black Power movement.

“Grace portrays the U.S. in a complicated way,” Wang says. “Rather than images of Hollywood that the U.S. promotes to the rest of the world, Grace portrays this country’s different socioeconomic groups and their tensions.”

Although Boggs worked office jobs in Detroit and was a public school teacher, her passion was in organizing demonstrations, petition drives and grassroots projects with Jimmy. She was often the only Asian American at events and meetings but became such a regular presence that she was mistakenly described as “Afro-Chinese” in records kept by the FBI, which monitored activist movements. A friend of the Boggses eventually offered to support them so they could quit their jobs and devote themselves fully to social change and community projects. They co-authored the 1974 book Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century and became popular speakers on college campuses.

“Grace has a genuine interest in young people in which she takes them on their own terms,” says Dr. Stephen Ward, a University of Michigan assistant professor in its Center for Afroamerican and African Studies. “To her, young people have an important role in any social movement,” adds Ward, whose dissertation was about the Boggses.

In 1992, the Boggses called for college youth to participate in Detroit Summer, a multicultural movement to rebuild and replenish Detroit from the ground up. Locals and out-of-towners would come together during the summer to work with elders and children on public works projects by day, then attend media and organizing skills workshops at night.  Although Jimmy Boggs died in 1993, Detroit Summer has continued.

In 1996, already in her eighties, Boggs was among two-dozen activists arrested for civil disobedience at the Detroit News Agency during a protracted newspaper strike. Ironically, in her autobiography’s last page, she wrote of becoming more of “a griot” who would “lay back like a Taoist.” Yet today, she still writes a column in the Michigan Citizen, a weekly newspaper aimed at Blacks that focuses on topics ranging from global warming and the benefits of local agriculture systems to the Iraq War. She has frequent speaking engagements in Michigan and beyond.

“I can’t imagine retiring,” Boggs says. “I enjoy life too much. I’m extraordinarily fortunate to combine a life of activism and a life of thinking. Each challenge with my activism causes me to think more deeply.”

Boggs and her closest associates also started the Boggs Center, which helps community activists develop ideas and strategies.

The center is housed on one floor of her home and has attracted a steady stream of visitors, including members of academia and even a few members of the British Parliament. Dr. Scott Kurashige, a University of Michigan associate professor of American culture and history, says many visitors come to the center hoping to find alternative ways of dealing with urban problems like gangs and poor school systems. Kurashige and Ward are both board members at the center.

“People recognize that Grace represents a connection to star power and the collective wisdom from participating for more than six decades,” Kurashige says.

Wang says she once asked Boggs how she kept herself motivated from one endeavor to the next, setting aside disappointments and setbacks. She says she won’t soon forget the reply — “Being an activist is a privilege.”

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