One of the life-changing experiences of my life was taking a trip to Detroit in the summer of 1997 with Ann Filemyr’s environmental reporting class at Antioch College.
Impressions that remain from that trip include meeting a group of neighborhood activists who described hauling soil onto vacant lots and growing tomatoes to make “Kwanzaa-Q” sauce, and repurposing an abandoned crack house as a hayshed. We visited a cultural center, where the staff taught us how to play “Amazing Grace” on steel drums made out of oil cans salvaged from the Detroit River. And that trip was my first exposure to the Heidelberg Project, an entire block that artist Tyree Guyton has transformed over the years into an outdoor art park exploding with polka-dots, stuffed animals and vinyl records.
The intellectual force and personality at the center of this cultural milieu was a dynamic Chinese-American activist and thinker named Grace Lee Boggs. In a meeting with our class, Boggs talked about the experience of being devalued as a girl growing up in a family that operated a Chinese restaurant in New York City in the 1920s and about working with James Boggs, an African-American man from rural Alabama whom she married in 1953 and with whom she collaborated to organize working people. She traced a connection from the revolutionary upheaval of the 1960s to the more small-scale, community activism that engaged her later years.
I took away an admiration for Boggs’ searching intellect, genuine interest in what other people had to say and unflagging optimism. Her very life was a testament to the fact that people can forge deep and meaningful relationships across lines of race, gender, generation and cultural background if they are courageous enough to live honestly and authentically.
Boggs died on Monday at the age of 100 in Detroit.
I got the opportunity to hear her speak again in 2012 during the Association of Alternative Newsmedia convention, which also featured an electrifying talk by MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer about prison reform. Boggs’ displayed the same thought-provoking, empathetic and optimistic disposition as she had the first time I saw her 15 years earlier. If you wanted to find two people who embody the resiliency and creativity of Detroit, you probably couldn’t do much better than these two.
Boggs championed ideas of nurturing capacity for social change through relationships at the community level and building economic vitality through self-sufficiency in urban centers struggling with massive divestment. Those ideas seemed far outside the mainstream in the mid-1990s, but since the onset of the Great Recession, they’ve come into vogue. Even relatively stable cities have stopped putting all their stock into economic incentives to try to lure big employers, and are looking to indigenous assets like community gardens and local enterprise to improve their vitality and durability.
Poverty, inequality and disinvestment, ironically, have only deepened in the city to which Boggs dedicated her life, which in a sense makes her optimism all the more remarkable. Her struggle to shore up the local assets of urban Detroit in the last 25 years of her life, of course, was a response to the waves of closures in the auto plants from the 1980s on. The downsizing of the auto industry there — like the textile plants in the South — was a cruel blow, especially for activists like Boggs who had dedicated themselves to the struggle of fighting racism to open up industrial jobs to black workers. We’re always trying to catch up with history.
“In the heyday, she and her husband were on the forefront of linking the issues of workers in factories with the issues of racism and the fact that black workers were treated in a profoundly different manner,” Sheila Cockrel, a former member of the Detroit City Council, told the Detroit Free Press. “The two of them were major intellectuals that literally shaped a generation of progressive leadership in the city of Detroit.”
Shea Howell, a journalism professor at Oakland University who is also quoted in the Free Press obituary, succinctly captures the essence of Boggs life, transcending the major historical epochs that she straddled.
“I think Grace has stood for the belief that our central question is how to become more human human beings, and the understanding that that happens when we work together on trying to create a world that is sustainable, that’s loving, that’s productive,” Howell said. “I think she’s understood that humanity is called out particularly at this time from people who have been left out of much of modern life.”