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
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
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
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
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.