Activist Grace Lee Boggs is finally getting the national attention she has long deserved, thanks to a new documentary, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, airing tonight on PBS’s POV series (and then streaming on POV’s website from July 1-30).
At age 99— her birthday was this past Friday—Boggs is still going strong. If you’ve never heard of this extraordinary woman, the film will bring you up to speed and make you want to learn more. If you’re already an admirer, you will love spending 90 minutes with her.
A Chinese-American feminist philosopher, Boggs was a leading figure in the civil rights and labor movements of the mid-20th century. Long before the term intersectionality became widely known and valued, Boggs embodied intersectional feminism. She was married to leading African-American, Detroit-based activist James Boggs, and together they held meetings, wrote pamphlets and staged rallies. She became so well known within the black movement that, as the film tells us, her voluminous FBI file erroneously identified her as being of Chinese and African descent.
Filmmaker Grace Lee (no relation) first met Boggs while working on The Grace Lee Project, a 2005 movie about women who share this extremely common name. When I interviewed Lee in 2006, she said that she had been on a quest in search of the “anti-Grace Lee,” someone who contradicted the stereotype of the brainy, quiet, overachieving Asian-American girl/woman. As one of many unconventional Grace Lees in The Grace Lee Project, Boggs was both strikingly radical and historically significant. Lee ultimately decided to devote an entire movie to her.
American Revolutionary weaves together intimate interviews, historical footage, music and photos to provide a picture of Bogg’s long, productive life so far. In one voiceover, Lee declares that Boggs “has been trying to wage a revolution in the United States for the past 70 years.” And that revolution, as the film makes clear, is rooted in contemplation, reflection and conversation. Because Boggs grounds her activism in theories that audiences might find challenging (she earned a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1940), the film includes 30-second animated tutorials on Hegel, Marx, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Boggs distinguishes revolution from rebellion: “a rebellion is an outburst of anger, but it’s not revolution. Revolution is evolution towards something much grander in terms of what it means to be a human being.”
In the early 1990s, Grace and Jimmy Boggs founded a multigenerational, multicultural urban garden program called Detroit Summer, shifting the ground (literally) of their political work but not their desire for wide-scale transformation. The program, still in existence, nurtures future leaders and revivifies inner-city landscapes. When Boggs became a widow after 40 years of marriage, she turned her powers of reflection inward and wrote an autobiography, Living for Change, a book that helped connect her to the Asian-American movement. Historian Scott Kurashige, featured in the film, notes, “When we think about Grace in the 20th century, she is very much an outsider; in the 21st century, she represents the uniting of people from different races and different backgrounds in a way that is now defining America.”
It’s as if the world had to catch up with her, an idea that would suit her dialectic thinking. “Evolution,” Boggs declares, “is not linear. Times interact.”
Toward the end of the movie, Boggs reflects on her longevity and describes herself as being engaged in what she calls “the process of dying,” something she does not see as a “terrible thing.” Instead, she regards this as a “period of transition.”
I’m very conscious of that sense of time. How long will I live? How long should I live? I’m very conscious of what time it is on the clock of the world. As I have grown older, I think more in terms of centuries, whereas eight or nine years ago, I was only talking about decades.
After viewing the film, you may find yourself, as I did, taking stock not only of Boggs’ life, but of your own as well. Ultimately, if we want to pay tribute to Grace Lee Boggs’ legacy, we each take up her challenge and find a way to contribute the ongoing process of reinventing society. As she reminds us, the clock is ticking.
Audrey Bilger (@AudreyBilger) is a professor of literature and faculty director of the Center for Writing and Public Discourse at Claremont McKenna College. She is co-editor, with Ms. magazine senior editor, Michele Kort, of Here Come the Brides! Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage, a 2013 Lambda Literary Awards finalist.