My first encounter with Grace Lee Boggs in 1998 was an unmistakable turning point in my life. I was a graduate student at UCLA and had been doing activist work for a decade. Her autobiography, Living for Change (1998), had just been published. I was especially interested in her deep connection to the African American community, and I was impressed by her extensive and long-standing ties to radical movements and Marxist theory.
Grace struck me as the perfect role model for the younger generations of Asian American activists whom I was seeking to mobilize into a new movement committed to social transformation, grassroots struggle and Third World unity. I was organizing the Serve the People Asian American community activism conference in Los Angeles when I wrote to Grace totally out of the blue, and she agreed to come for nothing more than a plane ticket, a bed in a friend’s home and a very small honorarium.
Grace’s visit and public appearance would challenge and transform my visions of politics and activism. She emphasized the need for radicalism to be driven not by anger and militancy but by the generative creation of new models of work, governance and community. Grace brought down the house at the Serve the People conference. As far as Grace and I are aware, her appearance on the night of May 15, 1999, at UCLA was the only public appearance she made with legendary Japanese American activist Yuri Kochiyama. Needless to say, it was a historic and powerful coupling.
Since that time, we have developed a growing partnership involving writing, public speaking at venues across the nation and community-based organizing in Detroit through the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center. In this conversation that took place in Boggs' home in Detroit, we discuss concepts from our co-authored book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century (2012). The book’s jacket notes, “A world dominated by America and driven by cheap oil, easy credit and conspicuous consumption is unraveling before our eyes.” We know that our current system is not only unjust but also unsustainable. But there is the distinct possibility that the next global system will be even worse. Only our own creative thinking and action can help us to ensure that it is more humane and democratic.
We hope this conversation helps to generate more serious, collective thinking about the vital work we all must undertake at this critical time. To paraphrase Frantz Fanon, it is imperative that today’s generation of Asian American activists discover its mission and fulfill its role in making revolution.
“I can’t believe how fortunate it is that we live in Detroit.”
The Next American Revolution co-authors Grace Lee Boggs and Scott Kurashige at Boggs' home in Detroit, Michigan.
SCOTT KURASHIGE: Why do you think discussion of revolution is so important at this time?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: The pursuit of economic growth without any recognition of consequences either to the planet or to human beings is at the root of a very real threat of planetary extinction. It’s interesting that up to this time, it’s been the Western world involved in this pursuit, but now China has joined the competition. And it’s so dangerous!
Industrialization was once hailed as remarkable and as a huge leap in evolution. But now we’re facing a threat of planetary extermination — a transition as monumental as that from hunting and gathering to agriculture. We have to recognize the evils of industrial society and stop seeing it as the height and the aspiration of the world.
We in Detroit are creating a post-industrial society that may prevent planetary extinction.
SK: And this is a very different view of Detroit. Most Asian Americans know about Detroit mainly from the case of Vincent Chin's murder by angry white auto workers in 1982. Many people also take pity on Detroit for what they perceive as a lack of consumer society. We don't have a lot of big shopping malls or luxury stores.
But the film American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs (2014) starts with you walking in front of an abandoned factory and saying, “I feel so sorry for people who are not living in Detroit. [...] [I]t's obvious by looking at it that what was doesn't work. People are always striving for size — to be a giant — and [Detroit] is a symbol of how giants fall.”
GLB: In its January 20, 2014, issue, The New Yorker profiled L. Brooks Patterson, Oakland County Executive in Metro Detroit, under the headline “Drop dead, Detroit!” Some people actually think that Detroit is dead rather than a living example of what can be and what must be.
SK: Patterson argues that white people fled Detroit for safety from crime and a better business environment. A lot of people read that as white flight and racial prejudice. He’s also said, “I love sprawl — I need it, I promote it” as though a wealthy suburban consumer lifestyle can go on endlessly. Detroit shows us the worst side of consumer industrial society and dialectically, it also challenges us to create something new.
GLB: Many young people have started coming to the city thinking that partly because rent is so cheap and space is available, there’s an opportunity to reimagine evolution here.
SK: Yet the current Detroit leaders, these wealthy developers and capitalists — Quicken Loans Inc. chairman Dan Gilbert, who moved the company's headquarters to Detroit to revive its downtown and Mike Duggan, Detroit's first white mayor in decades — are so socially distant from the urban farms set up by young people reimagining revolution in your neighborhood despite being physically only a few miles away.
GLB: I mean, this [uncritical] welcoming of Mike Duggan as a “comeback guy” is so fantastic. Detroit is not coming back. To come back is to go back. We need to go forward.
SK: And the more people focus on gentrification and catering to luxury hotels and condos downtown, the more people in your neighborhood and in places on the east side become marginalized. Yet people on the margins of the dominant order have the most space and freedom to create alternatives to that order and think anew.
Yuri Kochiyama (L) and Grace Lee Boggs (R) at the UCLA Serve the People Conference in 1999.
Revolution and Evolution
SK: The Asian American movement came out of the 1960s at a time when people were feeling alienated from white, middle-class society. Asian Americans were rejecting assimilation, the Vietnam War and U.S. imperialism and embracing Third World liberation. What changing concept of revolution do we need today that goes beyond what people did in the 1960s?
GLB: In our book Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century (1974), we responded to the 1967 rebellion in Detroit [that ended in 43 deaths and over 1,000 injured people] by distinguishing “revolution” from “rebellion.”
SK: You say that rejecting the current system and its current rulers by rebelling is only one step in the process of making revolution. We have to go beyond this stage of rejection and toward the stage of what you call “projections” or creating the new values of a new system.
GLB: I think the rebellions were a lot about being excluded from the American dream. Now we have to create a new American dream.
Revolution involves a different philosophical approach and a leap forward in self-consciousness and responsibility.
SK: So let’s talk about the relationship between revolution and evolution. Revolution means more than simply seizing state power and voting in new leaders. What types of new ways of living, new culture and new values are we talking about?
GLB: We have examples of people in Detroit already doing this. Myrtle Thompson and Wayne Curtis [founders of Detroit community-based farm Feedom Freedom] took over empty blocks on the east side. Peggy Kwisuk Hong and others have created a new cooperative that takes over houses without enforcements or doorknobs and have founded member-owned bookstore People's Books Cooperative [in Milwaukee]. They're all thinking in terms of a whole new way of production.
SK: These new forms of work are not just about creating more sustainable forms of production that avoid consumerism or are in place of Walmart-type sales and distribution, nor do they only create the material basis for people to survive at a time of rampant poverty and unemployment. Their work actually creates more human ways of relating to each other. Part of what we’re saying is that being dependent on big corporations for our consumer goods, whether it’s Walmart or Whole Foods, actually has, in many ways, stifled our minds and creativity.
GLB: We haven’t recognized that the industrial mode of production reduces the human being to a “fragment of a man,” as Marx put it. We have taken consumer goods to be material compensation for lack of humanization. But when a community mode of production can give you what you need, you have a different person.
SK: As we say, we’re restoring the neighbor back to the ’hood.
United States and China
SK: One of the reasons that so many jobs have been lost in places like Detroit is because they've been outsourced to other parts of the world. Let's talk about China's economic rise. Factories are sprouting up in China at astronomical rates. The New York Times reports that over a million villages in China have been lost in a little over a decade because so many people are abandoning their rural lifestyles for marginal existence as urban workers.
GLB: When I was in China in 1984, people were not interested in the United States. But they've become more interested now, which explains why my book [Living for Change: An Autobiography, which has just been published in translation in China] has been arousing some interest.
SK: As we in America and Detroit strive for self-sufficiency and new ways of living, how do we form a relationship and a sense of solidarity with the people in China who are being displaced from their villages and struggling to survive in this new industrial order?
GLB: We've made the story of Detroit known to them. [University of Michigan women’s studies professor] Wang Zheng and [Hunan Business School professor of literature and gender studies] Luo Xiaoge in China have done wonderful work to make the history of Detroit known. I think China really needs to rally for change. They would benefit from a study of how the American dream has become a nightmare and how they shouldn’t want to become a part of it.
SK: China is so prominent now — it's really changed what it means to be Asian American in the world.
GLB: When my mother's generation went to the Japanese American internment camps and when I was growing up, there was a strong desire to insist, “We're Americans, don't treat us as foreigners.” This desire obviously went on even throughout the 1980s with Japan-bashing taking place during the Vincent Chin case. Now, however, it's much more organic for Asian Americans in that we seem prouder in having the advantage to say, “I have this connection between the United States and Asia, and I am fluent in both cultures.”
SK: An important task for Asian American studies is to look critically at United States-Asia relations and at the ways we can transcend the dominant approaches to global economic relations.
GLB: I would like to see more people engaged in studying the Chinese Revolution.
SK: And when you say Chinese Revolution, you mean the role of Mao, the organizing of the peasantry and the seizing of state power as well as the way in which that revolution has transformed into its opposite today?
GLB: The 1911 Chinese Revolution, the 1921 formation of the Maoist party and the post-revolution period all have to be studied. How Deng Xiaoping became leader of China after Mao is really worth studying. He’s the one who ultimately said, “To get rich is glorious.”
History of Asian America, History of America
SK: So we're nearing the 45th anniversary of the San Francisco State Third World Liberation Front strike in March of 1969 when the first college of ethnic studies in America was founded. The ethnic studies movement was the impetus for me to get involved in activism. People wanted more than just access to the universities; they wanted to change the way we thought about the role of education in society. More than just saying, “We want to study people like us in history,” they wanted to change the ways we study history in this country.
GLB: From the dominant perspective, education in the United States is undertaken in order to achieve status. It's not about broadening your historical understanding of humanity.
SK: Other than some exceptional writings by movement figures like Glenn Omatsu, the history of the Asian American movement is really not documented in books. When I was a student, you actually had to go talk to people and build those relationships and connections to learn about it. It’s been a sort of blessing in disguise for Asian American activists to be required to learn their history by making actual connections between themselves and previous generations. We just got back from San Francisco, where we participated in a wonderful intergenerational conversation like this with the Chinese Progressive Association.
GLB: I would suggest that Asian Americans not only study Asian American history but Black history and Polish history and everyone’s history since America is not just one group. America is perhaps the most significant nation in the world because it has achieved industrialization, and it's facing the contradictions and challenges of postindustrialization. For me, rediscovering the American past and studying relationships of particular groups to the whole history of society has been very important.
If you love this country enough to change it, you have to go back to studying not only the rebellion and colonial history but the entire history of America to understand what that history has done to us.
SK: And I think the other thing we would say is that the focus on economic development, while making America a global power and a leader in industrialization, has also imprisoned us in so many ways.
GLB: My late husband Jimmy's chapter on dialectics in The American Revolution (1963) was absolutely wonderful. He said we concentrated on technological change so much that we became caught in that.
SK: You've talked about being born female and Chinese and not fitting into the dominant order and how that challenged you to think differently. When you started your activism, there was no Asian American movement or modern women's movement yet, so you got involved in the Black movement. So even then you weren't part of the dominant tendencies in the activist movement.
GLB: The marriage of my intellectualism with an activist and organizer who had a tremendous sense of history like Jimmy had a great deal to do with my making a connection to the Black community and seeing movement-building in a new way.
SK: Having grown up in the Jim Crow South, Jimmy didn't have the luxuries, privileges or even the basic opportunities that most Americans expect in terms of formal education and so on. Yet that actually made him more in touch with real people and their needs and concerns.
GLB: Jimmy and a lot of his friends had developed a sense of history from living in the South. Their knowledge comes not from books but from the history of Black people in this country. This historical view of oneself is one of the most important things we have to develop.
SK: You also said that it's very important for Asian Americans to learn from Black history. What are the most important lessons you've learned from studying Black history?
GLB: Jimmy emphasized that you have to be a visionary organizer and understand that in many places, some people don't even know there's a crisis. Some people are paralyzed and immobilized. They fear something new. You have to be able to recognize them and help and encourage them. I think that's one of the things we did here in Detroit.
The Future is History
SK: You are turning 99 years old this June. You have a lot of history to look back on. Yet every time I talk to you, you're primarily concerned with thinking about the future and the challenges ahead of us. How have you been able to maintain a sense of optimism about the future in the face of so much devastation in Detroit and around the world that you've witnessed in your own life?
GLB: It's because I have a sense of history, and it's what gives me a sense of place in the world and a sense of empowerment that we can do something to change the world.
SK: Let's ask you to address a young Asian American activist today who's maybe just getting started. Why should they see your film, American Revolutionary, and what would you want them to get out of it?
GLB: I tell them that they probably spent most of their young life wondering, “Why am I so small in a country where people are so big? How do I become like them?” Yet they should know that “them” is done. So young people should become something else, find another way, use their power and study their past to find a new self.
SK: Your life is an example of how we can break the mold and how we can actually think and create the world anew.
GLB: The old American way is dead. Don't become part of it.
Visit americanrevolutionaryfilm.com for more information on American Revolutionary.