Is America ready for its next revolution? Grace Lee Boggs thinks so
This week began with rebels taking Tripoli. From the sound of it, President Obama loves a revolution:
“Your courage and character have been unbreakable in the face of a tyrant,” Obama said to the Libyan people on Monday. “An ocean divides us, but we are joined in the basic human longing for freedom, for justice and for dignity. Your revolution is your own, and your sacrifices have been extraordinary. Now, the Libya that you deserve is within your reach.”
And to think it only cost the U.S. $900 million.
Now if only the president can tap some of that fire he has for Libya to help us find the America we all deserve here.
Grace Lee Boggs, 96, the most radical Asian American I know, says yes he can, but it’s going to take a real revolution.
Relax. No one is advocating an armed revolt. That’s so Patty Hearst.
“I think we need to do more soul searching than anger and rebellion,” Boggs said when I interviewed her recently at the Asian American Journalists Association convention in Detroit. “We need to take care of one another.”
If you haven’t heard of Grace Lee Boggs, maybe it’s time you did.
Boggs has spent her entire life as an Asian American bucking the system. Her father was brought from China to build the railroad, then became a laundryman. Her mother was an illiterate escaped slave from China. From that background, Boggs found herself a cultural oddity: an ABC Ph.D. (American-born Chinese with a Doctorate in Philosophy) from Bryn Mawr in 1940. There were no glass ceilings then. No jobs for Asian American woman in the Ivory Tower. So Boggs went to the South Side of Chicago and became an organizer, where the massive academic doses of Hegel and Marx she ingested began to take hold. She met and married UAW union organizer and radical Jimmy Boggs, an African American.
They were Marxists in love.
Later, her Cointelpro file described Grace Lee Boggs as “Afro-Chinese.”
Since the ’40s, the couple has witnessed every major grass roots movement in America involving civil rights, women and gender rights, and labor rights. Together their views are documented in numerous books and pamphlets.
Here’s a passage from the book they co-authored, Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century (Monthly Review Press):
“The Revolution to be made in the United States will be the first revolution in history to require the masses to make material sacrifices rather than to acquire more material things. We must give up many of the things which this country has enjoyed at the expense of damning over one-third of the world into a state of underdevelopment, ignorance, disease and early death…. It is obviously going to take a tremendous transformation to prepare the people of the United States for these new social goals. But potential revolutionaries can only become true revolutionaries if they take the side of those who believe humanity can be transformed.”
Published in 1974, it sounds like it could have been written in response to the current economic debate when traditional pols all seem to think the answer is jobs, jobs, jobs.
But Boggs knows that jobs-either through the Keynesian fix of priming the pump, or by the Tea Party’s bogus notion of cutting taxes to create jobs-aren’t really effective answers. Too dehumanizing, she says. She’s seen technology bring automation that ends up stripping the auto industry of jobs. As I talked to Boggs, Obama was in Western Michigan praising the auto industry for being on the leading edge of technology. A few days later, major stories were leaked about the industry’s partnerships for plants overseas.
That’s why jobs aren’t the answer. To Boggs, there’s something far more important.
She says what this country needs is a revolution of the soul.
“At this time, two Asian Americans are saying grow our souls not grow the economy,” she said. “I think that’s very newsworthy.”
Boggs with co-author Scott Kurashige, an Associate Professor and the Director of Asian Pacific Islander Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, have a new collection of her work, The Next American Revolution–Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century (University of California Press).
So what exactly is a “revolution of the soul?”
“We don’t realize that capitalism and money relationships have existed for a just few hundred years,” she said. “Prior to that, community relationships, our relationships with one another, were the most important things. And the economy was decided by how you relate to one another.”
Boggs said it’s time for people to return to that and start caring for one another in ways that matter. And she doesn’t box herself by the limited special interest of race, sex, or gender. Her interest is all of humanity. “It’s time to ask what it means to be a human being,” Boggs said.
Sound too simple for revolution?
“Simple does not mean simplistic,” she said. “Simple can become real if it’s small enough, global enough, human enough.”
Boggs has her own life in Detroit as proof of what can be done.
To Boggs, Detroit and the auto industry, once the symbols of the triumphant industrial age in America, are now the symbols of everything that’s wrong with our economic system in the modern age.
Even as the Renaissance Center in Downtown Detroit shines with the bailed-out General Motors logo, it’s no jewel. It shines more like cubic zirconium, especially when just a few minutes away, Boggs and Kurashige drive me to East Detroit with its abandoned lots, boarded up homes, and broken-down unemployed workers.
It’s been the reality for Boggs since the ’70s. But by starting community building efforts like Detroit Summer, a youth program designed to rebuild Detroit from the ground up, wherever there was an empty lot, there’s now hope.
The empty lots have been turned into gardens.
Before slow food became trendy, Detroit started an urban farm movement out of necessity.
The main criticism seems to be that it hearkens back to sharecropping.
Maybe. But when there are no supermarkets, and the only stores around are liquor stores that take food stamps but have little healthy food, growing your own food is downright revolutionary.
Today, there are more than 800 gardens in the community.
Boggs’ Detroit Summer continues with Detroit-City of Hope, where participants have formed projects to address key issues like education, even domestic violence and crime, as in a project called Peace Zones for Life.
It’s all part of a real justice movement in Detroit you don’t often hear about.
There’s a humanistic revolution going on here, and Grace Lee Boggs thinks it can be a model for us all.