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By Darian Razdar, SID Spring 2014
Grace Lee Boggs passed away in her home in Detroit on October 5th, 2015. She was 100 years old.
Two Mays ago Maya Angelou died in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I often say that Maya Angelou is my favorite person to have ever lived. Maya Angelou showed me, as a teenager, how I could empathize with everyone. Angelou’s perspective gave me a sense of the common humanity that unites every one of us, and the necessity to think outside of oneself. From her I learned of the quote “I am a human being, therefore nothing human can be alien to me,” by Roman playwright Terence. This thinking informed by intellectual growth through high school and into the present day.
This year I came to know of another revolutionary woman: Grace Lee Boggs. A Chinese-American woman who, approaching the age of one hundred, had been involved with radical organizing since the 1940s. Like, Maya Angelou, her life has enlightened me. As with Maya Angelou’s passing, I wept after Grace’s and was led to reflect on her influence in my life.
Since Grace died I have been—almost by necessity—musing over my life and work in relation to hers. I never knew Grace, unlike many people with whom I’ve worked with and know. I call her “Grace” because she had an incredible impact in my life and, through Semester in Detroit, I feel a certain degree of connection with her. Oddly enough, I feel close to Grace.
In May and June of this year I was interning at the James and Grace Lee Boggs School in Detroit’s East Side; James (Jimmy) is her late husband—an auto worker, labor activist, radical thinker & organizer. They both worked for decades around the nation for causes of civil rights, Black liberation, women’s rights and anti-violence/war. They authored a book together, “Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century,” which outlines the century’s many revolutions and possibilities of a new American Revolution. Grace and Jimmy together developed a neo-Marxist, community-based approach to “revolution.” Even with their broad focus and reach, Detroit was their home base during their decades of activism.
James & Grace Lee Boggs School sign (Mitchell St., Detroit)
Through my work at the Boggs School I got involved with the James & Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership—held on the second floor of Grace’s Field Street home. In both cases I had first-hand experience with something more than the radical neo-Marxism of Grace’s philosophy; I got to feel her love. In organizing her 100th birthday celebration with my co-intern, Jill Mills, peers in SiD, and community organizers, I felt the love and passion in the communities Grace’s work touched. In the grassroots networks of Detroit the Grace’s love is to be seen almost literally everywhere. Of these places, the Boggs School was wherein I spent most time. There, we saw how teachers, administrators, volunteers, community members and family came together for the common cause of building their students into “solutionaries” for Detroit, the nation and the world. They came together to create a lovingly radical community. Jill and I saw and became a part of a revolution happening in the Boggs School.
Jillian Mills & I presenting on our experience interning at the Boggs School
As I remember Grace, I think about how I can still integrate her philosophies into my life. I think about how I am always growing, and how she insisted that we grow our souls as we grow a revolution in our communities. I further reflect on my relation to the Detroit community I got to know. I confront my humanity in the face of strife, systems that reduce us to small parts, and rising movements to create a different reality.
Although I cannot yet answer all of those considerations—many can only be answered over the course of my lifetime—I have had the last few weeks to think some of this over. I’ve first found a renewed drive for activism. Though university can be alienating from the outside world and, of course, highly stressful, Grace’s death reminds me that I am a part of something bigger than what I am struggling to finish this week. Her passing reminds me to seek out how I can build community around and for issues of social justice. As I grow into an activist/organizing role, I find myself always thinking of the lessons I learned while doing Semester in Detroit. I see the necessity and beauty of struggle (Grace signs her messages with “In Love & Struggle”) for sustainable revolution. “For her, they [love and struggle] are two sides of a coin and they’re equally important,” said Julia Putnam, Principal of the Boggs School. Because of Grace I am always thinking about how I can make my activism the most sustainable, the most loving, and thus the most meaningful. Since Grace has passed I have been working on being more loving in my activism; that means being more kind and empathetic in my everyday life.
Perhaps the greatest thing I learned from Grace’s work, the Boggs Center and the Boggs School was what it means to ‘think dialectically.’ I was introduced to the Hegelian Dialectic at university, and I found the concept both cumbersome and compelling. I didn’t really know why I was forming arguments in the typical thesis—antithesis—synthesis sytle of the dialectic. Only until reading Grace’s work did I realize the power of thinking dialectically. Thinking dialectically means to always be open to change. In the documentary “American Revolutionary, Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, Grace recounts:
“I can remember swearing when I was young that I would not change, because if I changed I would betray the revolution. And as I’ve grown older, I’ve understood I should change. And changing was more honorable than not changing.”
Since I’ve encountered this concept of dialectical humanism, I’ve felt a need to continually reevaluate my situation, my work and my humanity. That’s hard. That’s especially hard when it’s simultaneously so easy to cement oneself into ideologies that can develop into blind dogma. It is often challenging to shift from an outdated practice or frame of mind to a new, better suited one. For myself, it’s even harder to have to confront a changing world that informs who I am. I orient myself in relation to my environment, so recognizing that the world is always in evolving has made me reconsider who I am at my core. In all, learning from Grace and the communities developing around her and Jimmy force me to question: Who am I and why do I do what I do? I ask this every day.
Boggs School’s community celebration of Grace’s 100th birthday (June 26, 2015)
I didn’t get involved with the Boggs School, the Boggs Center, let alone Semester in Detroit with the explicit goal of gaining a new philosophical framework. I didn’t go into the experience expecting to be so shaped or inspired by my engagements. I did expect to grow, but from Grace—a woman whose home I have been in though not actually met—I still learn to grow my soul above all else. I have found a new sense to humanity in my indirect relation to Grace, and in her passing I celebrate what she has done for me and for innumerable people in Detroit, the United States and around the world.
(Link to Jill & Darian’s video of Boggs School solutionaries for Grace’s 100th birthday: https://www.facebook.com/boggsschool/videos/10152867980137274/ )