When I was 21 and just out of college, I felt, like many people that age do, a little aimless and a little rootless. I had no concrete sense of what I wanted to do with my life, which stretched before me like a dark tunnel, but I knew that I somehow wanted to put the lessons I had gleaned from my Asian American Studies degree to some practical use. So I went to Detroit, near where my then-boyfriend lived in Ann Arbor, with nothing but the vague goal of spending as much time as possible with Grace Lee Boggs.
It was in one of those Asian American Studies classes that I had read Grace Lee Boggs’s memoir Living for Change. Boggs—who was still engaged in extraordinary organizing work in Detroit when I learned of her—had lived a remarkable life. Born to a Chinese immigrant family in 1915 to a likely paper son, she came of age in a time when the Chinese American population, let alone the broader Asian American community, was so small as to still be only thought of as a curiosity. Perhaps that sense of marginalization was freeing for her, rather than a constraint. “Early on I had realized that I would have to plot my own course,” she wrote in Living for Change. Boggs would go on not only to obtain a philosophy PhD at Bryn Mawr, but also, in her 20s and 30s, ground herself in some of our country’s revolutionary movements, working with the likes of C.L.R. James in the Socialist Workers Party before becoming disenchanted with the group’s infighting and stultifying ideology.
She was looking for a new way of seeing and being, and it was after she married the Black working-class intellectual, writer, auto worker, and organizer James Boggs and moved to Detroit that Boggs would cement her legacy as what I’ve now come to realize is a rarity: a visionary organizer, rooted in a specific place, who combined her deep love for people and all of our collective possibilities with a sharp critique of the forces that work to dehumanize us, all grounded in an expansive, almost geologic understanding of human history. In Detroit, Boggs committed herself to the Black-led radical movement that was emerging in her adopted city in the 1950s and flowered in the ’60s, helping to plan marches, rallies, pickets, and conferences and to start new organizations and even political parties, while continuing to write for leftist publications and go on the lecture circuit, making a name for herself as a fresh thinker unafraid to challenge orthodoxy. Later in life, both Grace and James Boggs also began to focus on community-building and community transformation, believing that to transform the world, people first had to transform themselves into agents of change on the ground level, what James Boggs called “re-civilizing our society,” and what Grace Lee Boggs often described as a process of “rebuilding, redefining, and respiriting.” They saw how their city was being hollowed out; they believed it could be rebuilt anew.
How could I help but be inspired by her? Before I took off for Detroit for the summer, I emailed the Boggs Center, the organization she had created in the ’90s, to ask if there were any volunteer opportunities. Just stop by, I was told in response, and so I did. I made no lasting contribution to their work (I was more of an eager, somewhat naive leech, to be honest, and they were probably baffled as to why I just wanted to hang around all the time) but what I remember most was a feeling that my mind was being constantly expanded. Something she said that summer, which I later realized was also a favorite saying of James Boggs, has stayed with me in the years since: America, love it enough to change it.
Grace Lee Boggs died in 2015 at the age of 100, having inspired generations of activists and organizers. I recently reread Living for Change, and it occurred to me that part of what drew me to her story wasn’t just her activism. I was looking for a lineage I could add myself to. Part of growing up as the child of immigrants is a feeling, at times, of disconnection from the place where you find yourself living. Roots are often thought of first as your family history; when yours are so shallow, you go searching for a different way of tethering yourself to a past. Studying Asian American history was one way I tried to do that, but I was also looking for a model of how to live my life. Like so many others, I was lucky enough to find Grace.