Work of Chinese American Activist Documented in New Book

The more Dr. Scott Kurashige learned about Dr. Grace Boggs, the more intrigued he grew: a university-trained Chinese American who has tirelessly mentored Black radicals and multiple generations of activists in Detroit since the 1950s. Kurashige believed it imperative to compile Boggs’ writings and speeches into a book while she was still alive and available for consult.

That book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, published earlier this year. With a foreword by actor and activist Danny Glover, the book already has won acclaim among scholars such as Black historian Dr. Robin Kelley, who calls it “groundbreaking…the best of any radical, visionary thinking.” Kelley also praised a volume by Boggs’ late husband and partner, James, which also published recently.

A University of Michigan associate professor of American culture, Kurashige conceived and organized TNAR from Grace Boggs’ participation in every major social movement of the past century.

Born Grace Lee in 1915, she grew up in New York City and earned her doctorate in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College in 1940. Women had few career options, but she was acutely aware of the social ills saddling Blacks. Supporting herself with odd jobs, a collaboration with Marxists C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya introduced her to many Black writers and political leaders of the 1940s and 50s. She met her husband, an assembly-line auto worker and Detroit activist, when both helped James and Dunayevskaya produce a newspaper. The work took Grace to Detroit in 1953, where she became committed to the city and Black liberation.

The Boggses’ home, where Grace still lives today and meets with youth, quickly became ground zero for grassroots organizers to strategize. Through involvement in civil rights, Black Power, labor, environmental justice and feminism, the Boggses became acquainted with Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and other icons. They were fixtures at nonviolent demonstrations, petition drives and urban renewal projects, and in 1974, co-authored Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century.

Kurashige spent more than 10 years collecting and editing Grace’s speeches and newspaper articles into TNAR. They first met in 1998 when he was a graduate student organizing a conference where Grace was keynote speaker.

“Grace has lived through incredible moments in history,” says Kurashige, who has also done comparative research in Black and Japanese-American communities. “Her long involvement in the Black community reminds us we shouldn’t compartmentalize ourselves but reach out across broader humanitarian themes.”

In fact in TNAR, Grace encourages all people to do the latter. She calls Americans “self-centered and overly materialistic” for focusing on possessions and careers at the expense of neighborhoods and society and blames these attitudes for problems such as environmental devastation and too many inner-city children dropping out of school. As a manifesto, TNAR envisions alternative forms of work, education and human interaction. For instance, Grace suggests Americans create more community-based entities such as co-ops and small businesses to reduce dependence on corporate interests and government.

Dr. Stephen Ward, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Residential College and Center for Afroamerican and African Studies, finds political and personal appeal in the civic engagement of ideas of Grace and her husband, who died in 1993. Ward, who’s now finishing a dual biography of them, edited Pages from a Black Radical’s Notebook: A James Boggs Reader, released this year.

Representing four decades of activism, the compilation of James Boggs’ essays and newspaper columns illustrate how his ideology shifted from Marxism to Black Power to community-building activities, Ward says. “Some might say he was all over the place, but I see one constant: He was always trying to advance humanity.”