Born in 1915, Grace Lee Boggs has been involved in struggle for almost a century. Will Bornstein of the Global Listening Project and I visited her at her home in Detroit during the summer of 2013.
Grace: I’ve lived in this house for 50 years and in Detroit since 1953. The house is on Field Street, which is right next to East Grand Boulevard. East Grand Boulevard was where the very wealthy people of the city lived, and their friends lived on this block and built these houses, which you can see. This living room was quite something.
My husband (the auto-worker and activist Jimmy Boggs) and I were able to rent this place very cheaply because he took care of the grounds, shoveling the snow, cutting grass and so forth, and after he died and the landlady died, the Boggs Center bought the house, and now, upstairs is where the meeting quarters of the Boggs Center are.
When I came here, the Packard plant, which is just a few blocks from here, was still operating as was the Chrysler plant where my husband worked along with 17,000 other workers. Within a couple of years, as Germany and Japan started producing cars, the Chrysler plant got down to 2,000 workers, and the Packard plant closed down completely.
Today, there’s 30 acres of broken glass and broken concrete where it used to be. If you threw a stone up in the air, it’d fall down and hit an abandoned house or a vacant lot. The question is, what does that represent? Does that abandoned house represent the end of everything or is it a beginning?
Detroit is such a wonderful example of how when things are in crisis, it’s not only a danger but an opportunity. The way that people have responded to the collapse is just amazing. We’re building a new community mode of production here in Detroit out of the decline and collapse of the industrial mode of production. I think for too long, the concept of integrating into a society, into a society which is actually dying, has dominated the movement. We’ve ended up with a lot of people who belong to the system, and that’s a bad place to be.
Here in Detroit, we’re beginning to experiment with 3d printers. I really encourage people to read the article about this new mode of production that came out in the Smithsonian Magazine in May. It’s possible to use 3d printers to do everything – to create our own transportation, our own clothing, our own buildings – without depending on Wal-Marts or Bangladesh. We don’t have to depend on the market anymore. I hope everyone will go away from this gathering with the idea that a new mode of production is on the way. And the market? Forget it!
Rob: Can you talk a little bit about Detroit Summer and your work to build radical movement here in Detroit?
Grace: In 1988, we elected a black mayor in part because the rebellion had taken place in 67, and it was clear that a white mayor would not be able to maintain law and order. But that black mayor came in with the same views as the white mayor. He said that in order to bring jobs back we needed casinos. We struggled against him, and, instead, we created a program called Detroit Summer, which involved young people in rebuilding the city. It gave young people an opportunity to see themselves as participating, as producing.
Those young people who were then 16 and 17 are now in their 30s. They’re the parents and the teachers now, and they’ve started a new school based on community-based education. We approached movement building in terms of where the city was. I don’t know how people could do it another way.
Did you go to the Feed ‘Em Freedom Gardens? They’re giving children an opportunity to see what it’s like to grow their own food and to talk to the world about what they’re doing. It’s just amazing.
You see how different that is from what we have admired and wanted to reproduce as industrial civilization? Education today is a form of child abuse. It’s very much like the factories used to be. Kids are supposed to be quiet and are tested on information. It’s amazing that we consider that education and not regimentation. It doesn’t give children the opportunity to do anything about the problems that they face. I think here in Detroit, the children are seen, and can see themselves, as solving problems. That’s a very different concept of education than the one that’s been instilled.
It gives you a whole new concept of how the human race has evolved. I mean, most people don’t look at a political movement in terms of the evolution of the human race, but you see all of us wearing these t-shirts that say (R)evolution. I think that concept of revolution as part of evolution is what you can feel here in the city as you drive around.
Will: I’m interested in listening, and you seem like an amazing listener. How did you learn to listen and see the world in the way that you do?
Grace: Have you read my autobiography? I really recommend it. When I was graduating college, the Depression hit, and for some reason I don’t understand, I decided to study Philosophy. If you had asked me what Philosophy was, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you, but I just felt that need.
And out of my study of Philosophy, I began to study Hegel, a German philosopher who danced around the tree of liberty as a teenager, but then experienced the French Revolution and all the contradictions that came out of it. Out of that, he developed a concept that everything contains both a positive and a negative. Out of advances, new contradictions emerge, and they challenge us to be more creative.
The idea that progress isn’t going to take place in a straight line has helped me to recognize, to listen, to know what’s taking place. A couple years ago, I had a discussion with Angela Davis, and during the discussion, Angela says something, and people start clapping, and I said, you better stop clapping and do more thinking! People want to be excited, and excitement is fine. I’m not against excitement. But I think we really need to do more thinking about what’s taking place.
We need to listen more, and actual listening is not only by the ear. Listening is about watching and recognizing and naming. There are old people who came from the south, and who looked at those vacant lots as opportunities to grow food and teach young people how to think differently. They called themselves the Gardening Angels. And, to recognize them, to know who they were and to call them by name, to acknowledge them, is a form of listening.
Rob: Sounds like grad school was really formative for you. I’m thinking about going to grad school. What are your thoughts on academia?
Grace: Why don’t you form a study group? You’re not going to get what you need in a class at a university. At least there are very few universities where you’re going to get what you want. Mostly you’ll be paying a lot of money and making a lot of student loans increasing your debt.
If people came back from this week and created study groups, you would really have an opportunity to expand your mind and think together and learn together. We’ve had people come to these gatherings who are professors and who go back to use the things they learned here in their classes. But, I don’t know.
Rob: What do you think the future is for labor unions in the United States?
Grace: First of all, I think we have to understand that labor is a comparatively new concept. It’s only a few hundred years old. Only with the beginning of capitalism was work turned into “labor.” Other languages have different words for work and labor. It’s only because all of us were brought up in a capitalist society that we tend to think of work as labor and believe that people need to have jobs in order to live.
The idea that, in other societies, people respect each other and do work for each other, and community is more important than the factory, that doesn’t even occur to us. We don’t have enough knowledge of history. I think that’s one of the things that we really, really need to have for ourselves and to be able to impart to people.
If you listen to Wayne and Myrtle who started Feed ‘Em Freedom Gardens, they don’t have the kind of education that would help them to think differently, but they live a life that can tell them that there are no more jobs, that labor’s gone, and we have to do something else. Out of their own experiences, they began creating a new way of living, and to live in Detroit and have that kind of experience is a real blessing.
I think the crisis is everywhere. In Istanbul, they are deliberating right in the park. In Brazil, they’re deliberating. All over the world, people are trying to find where to go. We are behind in that sense, but we have the basis to go ahead, and we have the reason and motivation.
If we think this way, then the role of organizers becomes recognizing what people are doing and what people are capable of doing. But most radicals don’t think that way. They think that the role of the organizer is to mobilize people to protest, so that the people at the top will do something. They think the people can’t do anything.
Will: Do you have any advice about how to cultivate and maintain joy in this work and in these movements? Joy seems like something that’s often lacking and that can sustain us and offer us a frame we can use to look for new solutions.
Grace: Did you see the copy of the green pamphlet “Changing Concepts of Revolution”? Would you mind getting one? I put together this pamphlet last year.
One of the things that it says is that we should all keep in mind that the Declaration of Independence says that we take these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that we are endowed by our creator to the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that governments are created to further these ends, and whenever a government fails to do this, it is our right and our duty to abolish and to change this government. I think that’s a way to maintain joy! To know that you’re right, and it’s your duty to abolish tyranny!
It’s important to remember that you’re not the federal government. If you allow yourself to be shaped by the government, that’s your choice. You can say, I’m myself. I am who I am. I’m going to decide who I’m going to be. I’m going to decide what this country is going to be like. You need to say, here I am. Here is the world. How do I think in order to do something about it? And, how do I not think?
We’re living in a time where we have to reinvent almost everything. And in one sense, that’s a very challenging thing. It can immobilize you. But it can also inspire you to see how much we have to do and can do, not as individuals only, but in working with other people. It’s a marvelous time to be alive. There’s so much to do. So much to change.
I really urge people to begin to love this country enough to change it. I was on a panel with Michael Hardt, who teaches at Duke University, and Michael said he had never had contact with somebody who thought we should make a revolution because we love this country. He said most people were inclined to create a revolution because they hated this country. We’ve got to love this country enough to change it. That brings us a lot of joy.
Rob: How do you suggest we go about making change? It seems like there’s so little powerful, organized resistance in this country right now, and such big problems facing us like the tar sands pipelines?
Grace: You know what I think you should do? I think you should take The Next American Revolution, find two or three people who are interested in reading it with you, discuss it and decide whether you want to do something afterwards together.
You have to decide, am I going to make a difference or am I going to just let the world go on? This is a time to make a difference, and you can’t do it just by yourself. You have to find some other people to share some of your experiences with, who have the same questions you do and are also learning, questioning and thinking.
I wouldn’t start online. I would start with some real human beings that you can struggle with, that you can disagree with. I don’t think you’re going to just find them out in the world. I think you ought to take advantage of the opportunity to be with the people who are here, who feel the crisis in much the way that you do and want to do something about it. And that pipeline is terrible. It’s very dangerous. But it’s not going to be stopped overnight. It’s going to take a lot more than your putting your life on the line to stop it.
If you, and two or three other people try something, and it’s not right, do something else. You can begin to create answers together. Just do a small thing. Don’t try to solve all the problems of the world at once. Get started with somebody else besides yourself. Don’t just go to school. Work with a few people.
“Grace, at her heart, is a revolutionary,” Howell said. “She could never be satisfied with the way anything was as long as there was still injustice. And she could never be satisfied with the idea that there was some easy answer. She was constantly pushing people forward.