Grace Lee Boggs is approaching the ripe old age of 97, but she doesn't seem to be tiring a bit these days. It could be argued that there hasn't been a cause in this country that Boggs hasn't been involved with, from environmentalism to labor rights. Perhaps this is because she sees that it's all connected. As Bill Moyers said in 2007: "Over a long life, Grace Lee Boggs has tried out one radical idea after another to make America work for everyone." Which is exactly the point. Boggs isn't concerned with getting rights for one group -- she wants to have the whole cake, not carve out a tiny slice and distribute it among the many.
During our recent phone interview, the wise revolutionary told me about her life, the challenges she's encountered and the opportunities that she's been provided with along the way.
Boggs was born on June 27, 1915 in Providence, Rhode Island to hardworking Chinese immigrants and learned to bridge communities after studying philosophy and working with prominent Marxists and Civil Rights groups in her adopted home of Detroit. At one point in the early '60s, Boggs even tried to convince Malcolm X to run for Senate.
When I called her the other day, Grace's first words after "hello," were "so what are we going to talk about?" The woman means business. After talking about her motivations, she said, "The Chinese characters for the word 'crisis' are both 'danger' and 'opportunity.' That policy of the negative and the positive were very much a part of my upbringing, and my father was a man who took advantage of crises." She continued, "Also, I studied Hegel. His sense of duality has been very helpful in my organizing."
We spoke about the rise and fall of Detroit, and the arts and activist groups that have made a home there in the past few years. It's a strange and incredible time to be living in Detroit, as Boggs readily proclaims. "What has been so remarkable about Detroit is the number of people at the grassroots level who see abandonment as a possibility," she says. Artists have been buying inexpensive homes in the city for years. According to a 2009 New York Times article one artsy couple bought an area house for merely $1,900.
Though Boggs is known as a revolutionary, she is also aware of what is happening in popular culture. During our conversation, she says, "I don't know if you know of the rapper 'Invincible.' You should check her out; she's a very skilled rapper." As I am dumbfounded about being schooled about hip-hop by a 96-year-old, Boggs continues, "Rap captures the crises and challenges of our times and creates a sense of command and control, that we can do something about it. It's amazing how many people use rap to convey how challenging our times are."
In the end, though, Boggs is as interested as ever in what unites us and tears us apart. Her remarkable legacy is forged in a belief in the strength and resilience of the human spirit. Near the end of our talk, she says, "What I think will be interesting about Foundry Theater is how or if they are able to incorporate these [activist] dynamics in the April 20th event. Nelson, Andrea, and I, and Amy of course, are four different types of persons. How do you make theater out of that?"
We'll just have to see tonight. Boggs will be speaking at the Cooper Union in New York City with Nelson Johnson and Andrea Smith on a panel moderated by Democracy Now's Amy Goodman. The topic: "Memories of the Future." This is a part of the Foundry Theater's Festival of Dialogues series, which takes place from April 20-22.
"This Is How We Do It: a festival of dialogues about another world" at Cooper Union. Get sliding scale tickets here.
Correction: An earlier version of this article listed the rapper as 'Invisible.' We regret the error.