Grace Lee Boggs: pioneer in the Asian American experience.

Author:Brown-Foster, Walton
Position:Biography
 
FREE EXCERPT

June 2015 marked the centennial birthday for Grace Lee Boggs (June 27, 1915-October 5, 2015), who for seventy-five years devoted herself to progressive social activism, intellectualism, scholarship, and change. Unlike the majority of her contemporaries, longevity granted her the unique privilege of complete self-reflection and critique, thus allowing her to evolve from one dimension of understanding social change and revolution to others. Her journey as a Chinese American woman intellectual and political activist is a unique, integral, and seminal part of the Chinese American story, despite the fact that the majority of her history of political activism was spent in the midst of the African American or Black liberation struggle. Her commitment to the Black liberation struggle is the result of the reality of race in the structured inequality of American society. She successfully navigated between the Black-White extremes of the strict American racial order. Her life's experience as an activist in the Black Power and Civil Rights movements paved the way for the Asian American movement and prepared her to inform and mentor future leaders in the Asian American movement willing to learn from the Civil Rights movement. Her experiences also led to her develop and transform her thinking about the meaning of revolutionary change and the way forward in the future.

Since the death of her husband of forty years, the activist and writer James "Jimmy" Boggs, in 1993 and her recent centennial milestone, she has shared the story of her life in an autobiography and another recently published book and in countless numbers of articles and interviews. Reflecting on her life, writings, lectures, experiences in Detroit, and the Civil Rights movement is necessary in order to understand her invaluable historical and contemporary insights and analyses about the political, social, and economic realities of race, ethnicity, and revolution in America. Thus, the purpose of this article is to reflect upon her life's journey and evolution in thought. It is a journey in which she and her husband shared the common purpose and commitment to positive change and a hopeful future.

We have always been careful ... to advance rather than impede the movement; yet we believe that we who have had a long life in relation to this and other movements owe the youth of today the benefit of whatever experience and knowledge we have gained along the way. (1) EARLY LIFE AND PATH TO RADICALIZATION AND ACTIVISM

Grace Boggs says her commitment to a life dedicated to change, evolution, and indeed revolution began as a child.

I was born in 1915 in what was later known as the First World War, two years before the Russian Revolution, and because I was born to Chinese immigrant parents and because I was born a female, I learned very quickly that the world needed changing. (2) She was born in Providence, Rhode Island, to Chinese immigrants who left China primarily because of the socioeconomic hardships imposed by the heavy taxation of poor families in Toishon County in Guangdong Province. Her father was somehow able to circumvent the immigration restrictions of the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) and landed in Washington State in the early 1900s. He returned to China briefly to marry his second wife, Grace's mother, and in order to circumvent the hiring restrictions and limited opportunities for Chinese on the West Coast, the family moved to the East Coast to Massachusetts in 1913 and by 1915 to Rhode Island. The family became restaurateur owners of Chin Lee's in downtown Providence. Finally, in 1924 her father moved the business to New York City and settled the family in Jackson Heights, Queens, where Grace grew up and graduated from high school. (3)

She was one of three Asian American women in her class at Barnard College in the 1930s and from there she attended Bryn Mawr, receiving a PhD in philosophy in 1940. While significant in any era for any woman, these intellectual and academic achievements were extraordinary for the WWII era. It should not go without saying that opportunities to pursue higher education for the majority of American women in general, and women of color in specific, during the era were scarce. It was at Barnard that her social and intellectual world expanded. She became involved in campus politics, running for treasurer as well as following some of the heated political ideological debates of the day within the radical political left.

At Bryn Mawr, she studied with George Herbert Mead whose teachings were rooted in theories of pragmatism. One supposition in the school of pragmatism is that

true reality does not exist "out there" in the real world, but is actively created as we act in and toward the world. A second is that people remember and base their knowledge of the world on what has been useful to them and are likely to alter what no longer "works." (4) Both are echoed in Boggs's recent writings, such as The Next American Revolution. (5)

She also delved deeper into the study of Marx and Hegel, both of which prepared her for the next phase of her life and associations with Black radical and progressive thinkers and activists, like C. L. R. James and her husband, James Boggs. Like so many political theoreticians and activists during the period, she believed that solidarity and political action challenging oppressive economic structures and processes in the country were necessary in order to effectively address the peculiar structures of race and racial inequality in American society. Eliminating class inequality and empowering labor were the means to the ends of justice and equality in society.

Despite her individual accomplishments, Boggs faced the crudest forms of racism and the Jim Crow racial order in Chicago, where she had moved to find employment. In Chicago she confronted anti-Asian racism and employment and housing discrimination from employers and landlords. The experience of racially segregated housing and miserable living conditions inspired her to become involved in a tenants rights protest against rat-infested housing where she lived in Chicago. The experience catapulted her into the lifelong sojourn as a Chinese American in the African American community because the tenants protest led to another step: involvement in plans for A. Philip Randolph's movement to organize and mobilize a major and primarily Black labor march on Washington in 1941 to protest against the federal government's discriminatory practices that excluded African Americans from federal employment and federal contracts. The purpose of the march was to demand equal rights. The march was aborted when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 banning racial discrimination in the defense industry in the midst of WWII.

Randolph was able to seize on a moment in American history, in which the eyes of the world would be on the American government and society, in order to raise the specter of racial inequality in the United States. It was an effective tactic in Randolph's larger strategy to obtain basic economic rights of African American workers and chip away at the American system of Jim Crow. Boggs recalls this as a moment in which Black progressives like Randolph were able "to combine our struggles with the view the world has of us." (6) The notion of "combined struggles" would later in her career be applied to interpretations of linkages between the domestic struggle for Black liberation with global anticolonial movements and decolonization in Africa and Asia. She would later meet, befriend, and receive a marriage proposal from Kwame Nkrumah, the first post-colonial president of Ghana. He was a major force in the movement to unify the continent of Africa and...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP