By Courtney Holbrook
Grace Lee Boggs, a 96-year-old civic activist, has spent her life on the front line of almost every progressive movement in the last century, supporting the rights of women, minorities and workers. A resident of Detroit, Lee Boggs has just released a new book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century. Boggs offers ideas for this generation of activists and plans for the problems of today. We sat down with Boggs to talk about activism, her history and advice for Occupy Wall Street members.
Tell us about your latest book. What makes this American Revolution different?
GLB: Well, I think it’s important to understand that we begin with a chapter in [the book] that says: “These are the times to grow our souls.” Most people don’t think of revolution in terms of growing our souls. I think it would be helpful to understand that the times we are in for this revolution are very different from what people usually associate with revolution. What I think is taking place is that we are at a very important historical transition at a cultural level that is as far-reaching and as essential as from hunting and gathering to agriculture 11,000 years ago.
Most people think of revolution in a vertical way, in terms of the Russian Revolution and the seizure of state power. We have just come through the 20th century, where those revolutions have turned out to be colossal failures in terms of creating tremendous dictatorships. People have wondered whether it was possible to make a revolution.
We are in the midst of a transformation of a fundamental nature, because the industrial age is coming to an end, particularly in a place like Detroit—a city that was once a national and international symbol of the miracles of industrialization and then became the national and international symbol of the devastation of deindustrialization. It is now in the midst of revitalizing itself, rebuilding itself, respiriting itself from the ground up in a way that people hadn’t expected.
You have been a supporter of Occupy Wall Street. Can you give us your opinion of how the movement stands today?
Well, as it happens, the Occupy Movement was a facilitator here of the movement in Detroit and the new book. I talk about it a great deal—I think it’s fantastic and I love what it has managed to do in terms of changing the conversation. But I think it has changed the activism to such a degree that it has not really encouraged people who are involved in the movement to imagine alternatives. I think that the Occupy Movement is going to have to begin doing more with imagination, and a reimagination of alternatives.
What advice would you give to young activists involved in Occupy and other movements? How can they reimagine?
I urge them to consider what time it is on the clock of the world. That is the first question I think you have to ask yourself; otherwise, you think that you only respond, react to everything. You watch the response to the Trayvon Martin murder in Sanford, Fla. We must understand that the murder of Trayvon in 2012 is very different from the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. We are at a very different time on the clock of the world.
The murder of Emmett Till in 1955 sparked the public bus boycott a few months later, which was the spark for the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement began to change a lot of things in our country. It brought about a kind of revolution in values, which has in turn brought about a kind of counter-revolution, which I think has brought about the movements today—we’re seeing these responses to Trayvon and the Occupy movement.
You are a Chinese-American woman. What made you become involved in the black power movement and the Civil Rights Movement?
Well, when the Civil Rights Movement started and I became an activist, the number of Asian Americans in this country was minuscule. There was nothing like an Asian-American movement, but the African-American movement was beginning.
I was challenged to become a part of it because I was living rent-free in a basement where I had to chase down a barricade of rats in order to get into my quarters. That made me very rat-conscious and brought me into contact with the black community, which was also fighting against poor housing. That in turn put me in touch with the March on Washington movement, which was demanding jobs for blacks in the defense industry. The Depression had ended for white folks in 1940 and ’41, but not for blacks. They were still excluded from well-paying jobs in industries. When I joined the March on Washington movement, which actually did not result in a march but terrified the White House and Franklin D. Roosevelt to such a degree that he issued an order banning discrimination against African Americans in the defense industry. When I saw what a movement could do, I decided I would become a movement activist.
You’ve done more in the past 10 years than some people do in their lifetime. Have you ever thought, “Well, I’ve done my part, it’s time to settle down”?
Well, I’m very old. I’m almost 97. I’m hard of hearing. I have a lot of weakness. Getting around is very difficult. I mostly need a wheelchair. I realize that there are limitations. On the other hand, I know I have a tremendous amount of energy to have lived for as long as I have lived and to have experienced as much as I have experienced. I have never wondered about having another life.
Can you talk about your appearance on April 22 at the New School?
That’s going to be a conversation between myself, faculty member Bill Gaskins and student Melina Pelaya. It will be a panel discussion. The New School is the kind of school that aims to be progressive. John Dewey, who was a hero of mine, helped found it. His writing was extremely important to me.
What book should every young person read?
I have two favorites. One is Hegel’s Phenomenology, which was written in 1831 and deals with the expansion of the human being and the human spirit. Another one that I think is a really fabulous book of this time is The Third World, by Alvin Toffler, which has been a bestseller for many years and which you can pick up at any second-hand store for practically nothing.
What Toffler points out is that we have had three waves of civilization. The first wave was the agricultural wave; it’s when everything was based on the land. The second was the industrial age, where you have the people working to produce on the assembly line. You get a lot of standardization and specialization and concentration and centralization in that period. That period is now coming to an end, and we’re entering something called the third wave, where there is a link between the producer and the consumer and you have the intervention of the markets. That is where we are going now in the world.
Grace Lee Boggs will speak at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium (66 W. 12th St., betw. 5th & 6th Aves.) Sunday, April 22 at 6 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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