Back in the early 1950’s, a Chinese-American woman named Grace Lee came to Detroit to publish an obscure newsletter for an even more obscure Marxist group led by a revolutionary from Trinidad. She met a black auto worker named James Boggs.
She had a PhD in philosophy; he had barely a high school education. She invited him to dinner. He showed up an hour late. She made lamb chops; he said he hated them. She put on a Louie Armstrong record, and he told her Satchmo was an Uncle Tom.
But later that evening, he asked her to marry him.
“And to my surprise, I said yes,”
she wrote long afterwards. They stayed married for forty years, forging an amazing and intense partnership until the man she always called Jimmie died of lung cancer twenty-two years ago.
They became one of the most fascinating and – beneath the radar – one of the most influential couples in Detroit, a place that has always been full of fascinating people often locally overlooked. In fact, Grace and Jimmy were known far better outside Michigan than within it. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee and Bertrand Russell were great admirers.
Oddly enough, one philosopher who knew them opposed their marriage because he felt Jimmie, the uneducated auto worker, would intellectually overshadow Grace, the Bryn Mawr graduate with a doctorate. And for a while that was indeed the case. Jimmie Boggs would come home from the assembly line, lie on the floor, and write in longhand on a legal pad. His first book: American Revolutionary: Notes from a Negro Worker’s Notebook, was ignored locally.
Internationally, it won rave reviews. Boggs said it was time for radicals to look beyond Marx and try to come up with a philosophy for this generation.
“The dilemma before the people is, how can we have automation and still earn our livings?’
Fifty years later, we’re still trying to figure that out. The FBI invented a new category for the couple: Afro-Chinese. They were denounced because they called the 1967 riot a legitimate rebellion by oppressed people. But they carried on. Kwame Nkrumha, the famous revolutionary from Ghana, told Grace once
“If you married me, we would have changed all Africa.”
There was a time when Grace Boggs did want to change the world. But for the last quarter-century of her life, she was mostly interested in changing Detroit.
She founded a movement called Detroit Summer, in which children and young people come together to clean up and beautify parts of their devastated city.
And she inspired.
Those of us who were lucky enough to sit and talk with her in her immense old house on Field Street, surrounded by books and vinyl records, will always remember.
In the last couple decades, she was finally discovered. Her autobiography, Living for Change, was published to considerable acclaim. More people came to know her through a wonderful documentary: American Revolutionary: The Life of Grace Lee Boggs.
Boggs died in her old red-brick house yesterday, a hundred years old, surrounded by loving friends. I didn’t always agree with her, but she always made me think.
She didn’t believe in looking for great leaders to save us. “We must be the change,” she said. Whatever else, she was surely right about that.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.