Living For Change: Grace Lee Boggs, A Beautiful American, (1915-2015)

A friend sent me an email today to let me know about the passing of Grace Lee Boggs. She lived to be a strong 100 years old! If you don’t know anything about this woman, I encourage you to learn about her and soak up some of the great spirit with which she worked and lived her life. We need more of that in these times.

As I think about her, I am posting a review I wrote after reading her autobiography, Living For Change (which I originally published to goodreads.com) last year, as well as providing some links where you can learn more about Grace Lee Boggs‘ rich legacy.

Robert Shetterly's portrait of Grace Lee Boggs
Robert Shetterly’s portrait of Grace Lee Boggs

Living For Change: An AutobiographyLiving For Change: An Autobiography by Grace Lee Boggs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have owned this book for many years (I found the original receipt for its purchase stuck in the middle pages) but didn’t have the temperament, attention, and interest to begin a serious reading of it until now. Nkenge Zo!@ (I miss her radio program on WDET SO MUCH!!) was a comrade in radical community politics in Detroit with James Boggs and Grace Lee Boggs, and when I met her in the 1980s Nkenge would often make references to NOAR (National Organization for an American Revolution) but I was young and not particularly interested in becoming involved. A few times I attended a program or two put on by NOAR, or maybe there was a community arts program with NOAR representatives in attendance, bringing attention to grassroots actions taking place and encouraging participation.

These days I am very interested in looking into and learning about people whom I had access to in Detroit, and whose artistic, cultural, social, and scholarly work cut a path for me to walk through. I also have an interest in reading about the lives of unconventional women, and Grace Lee Boggs is certainly one such woman. She is still “alive and kicking,” lucid and wise—June 27, 2015 will be her 100th birthday! Her boundless idealism and optimism seem powered, in part, by a flow of regenerative energy that comes from being active (—rather than non-participatory—) in collaborative struggles for social, political, and environmental change; and testing the limits of her ideas and ideals.

If you aren’t already familiar with Grace Lee Boggs, you can check out a 2-minute trailer for a documentary about this 99-year-old philosopher and life-long community activist at http://americanrevolutionaryfilm.com. “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs” was produced and directed by a much younger Asian American filmmaker, also named Grace Lee.

Originally published in 1998, Living For Change is easy to read and by that I mean it is engaging and full of historical details and linkages. Boggs is always weaving back and forth between practice and theory, past with present, and cross-pollinating principles and ideas from a range of voices and movements. Ideas and active engagement are constantly evolving in the person and in the world, and this resonates with me.

One thing Living For Change does not do is talk about Grace Lee Boggs’ emotional self, nor does she reflect on her life’s events with a sense of longing or holding herself accountable for particular choices or behaviors. While I kind of miss that, I am interested in the construction of a narrative that doesn’t rely on these things, yet creates a feeling: a sense of deep love and care seem implicit to the values practiced. More echoes of this are described in the work and character of her husband, Jimmy Boggs (1919-1993) political activist, auto worker, and essayist; an African American and Alabama native, whom she writes about extensively. C.L.R. James also has his own chapter.

To me this book IS NOT excellent as an autobiography, but, rather for it’s tracing of a real person’s walk through activist development intellectually, spiritually, and through tangential experience. Her book sheds light on the tensions, limitations, commonalities and divisions between capitalist, communist, and socialist systems—which I think is so important because even though its been 60+ years since McCarthyism, people tend to have knee-jerk, fearful reactions to these “hot button” words without understanding that these are not systems-for-life-written-in-stone. She also discusses the difference between rebellion and revolution.

The book is also important for the way it joins country with city, youth with elders, and illustrates some of the ways in which generations of multi-ethnic Detroiters from all walks of life have formed organizations and committees and taken actions to put progressive ideas into motion and not just to theorize and talk about them. It pains me whenever I read about Detroit and lazy journalists merely re-hash words describing decades of racial strife, yet never dig into the history of those Detroiters who have enjoyed friendships AND built coalitions to confront social, political, and environmental wrongs.

Read this book if you want to know how grassroots activists took up Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ideas to “explore strategies that would involve young people in ‘direct self-transforming and structure-transforming action’ in ‘our dying cities’…” (page 155) leading to such things as the conception of Detroit Summer; and movements to eradicate violence, champion health insurance for laid-off workers, shut down crackhouses, create public murals and cultivate community gardens.

Grace Lee and James Boggs. image courtesy of americanrevolutionaryfilm.com
Grace Lee and James Boggs. image courtesy of americanrevolutionaryfilm.com

You may also want to read her book, The Next American Revolution Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century.

See Robert Shetterly’s “Americans Who Tell The Truth.”

“Remembering Legendary Detroit Activist Grace Lee Boggs (1915-2015)” at DemocracyNow!

Videographer Kenny Snodgrass uploaded some edited video footage of Nkenge Zola hosting her program on public radio, WDET—about 25 years ago when they still played records!

peace & blessings,

Leslie

11 Comments

  1. What a woman! What an extraordinary life! I need to check her out. (Ooh, and she’s a Cancerian, like me. 🙂 )

    Thanks for sharing such a thorough, honest review, Leslie.

  2. Just like one knows the sun will set, I knew mother Grace was transitioning, but reading an early morning text still hit me with a thud.
    Peace and Blessings Family….
    ~Semaj

    1. Semaj – I think I know the thud of which you speak. Take heart, friend, in having been touched by Grace Boggs’ presence. peace & blessings to you, Sis.

    1. You’re welcome, Julie. Grace Boggs is truly a representation of what it means for [one] to leave the world in a better way than [one] found it. Thank you – as always – for stopping by, reading, and commenting:) cheers!

  3. Wow 100 years old! She sounds like she’s had a very full life. The books seems to be a must read. The painting of Boggs captures is beautifully done. There are a million stories in her face. Thanks for letting us know! I love the way you write your posts! The language is so melodic and every word is perfectly chosen. You definitely got this blogging thing Lady! 😉

    1. Hi Didi –
      Yes! Don’t you love Shetterly’s painted portrait of Grace Lee Boggs?! Thank you again, Didi, for your encouraging words about my writing. I accept it even as I feel critical of this particular review of mine for not being more specific with regard to the philosophies and activist struggles of Grace Boggs’ life’s work. Still, I hope I have provided enough links and items of interest to direct folks into a a richer study of her life. xo

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