I’ve always had a certain image in my mind of Grace Lee Boggs, the Chinese-American revolutionary, as an inspiring figure in the AAPI activist community, especially regarding working in solidarity with the Black community. However, I still only had a vague idea of some of the work she had accomplished, such as her work with the Detroit Summer youth program. Deciding to make a better effort to understand my role models this year, I recently read Living for Change, her autobiography.
I found myself relating to her in a ways I never imagined: from the smallest of details like her birthday being only two days away from mine to her Toishanese heritage and of course, her passion to empower communities through social justice.
One of the chapters I found myself devouring was her chapter titled “Going Back to China” where she addressed her own identity as a Chinese American and her position within the Asian-American community. She summarizes the chapter nicely, relaying her struggle to gain fluency in Chinese to her lack of self-identity within the Chinese community. Her struggle to identify with the Chinese community grew out of experiences where she saw classism and elitism creep within the values of the culture.
Being someone who grew up in an area with little to no Chinese presence and especially with parents who left China at a very early age, part of their own diaspora, I often find it hard to relate to other Chinese students. Also feeling like one of the very few Chinese Americans discussing social justice within my personal community, Grace Lee’s struggles to fit in the community felt just as real as mine. However, growing up in a time where Asian Americans have a significant presence in the United States, I would like to dedicate my time to try to educate, advocate, and work together within my community to unlearn oppressive values within our cultures.
There are many more things I loved about the book: one of my favorite chapters of the book covers how she met her husband, James “Jimmy” Boggs. Grace Lee had originally never wanted to get married, never quite finding anyone she wanted to ever “settle” with. She swore to never be in a submissive position to a man due to early exposure to feminist theory. As a queer nonbinary femme, I feel similarly about the heteropatriarchal institution of marriage.
However her story meeting Jimmy, less than fairytale perfect, emphasized how opposite she and Jimmy were were, from their backgrounds to the way they liked their vegetables cooked, but also how complementary they were as activists. Her casual attitude towards these differences felt refreshing when nowadays ideal significant others are often painted as someone who could practically be your clone. Their oppositeness led them to continuously learn and challenge each other. As Grace learned new things, changing the way she drove due to the way police targeted Jimmy and housing discrimination, she learned more about what it was like to Black in America. In similar ways, I believe (especially within the AAPI community) we need to challenge our perspectives more often to look outside our own communities. Only then can we truly fight for justice.
Reading about Boggs’ dedication to rejecting capitalism in as many facets of their life as possible was also particularly poignant for me. Both Grace Lee and Jimmy bought all their furniture and clothes from thrift stores and actively denounced shopping during the holidays, choosing to focus on building relationships and spending time with loved ones instead. They both rejected the idea of finding happiness in material objects, instead focusing on enriching their lives through healthy relationships and community building with other people. In an increasingly consumerist society dominated my multinational corporations, I’d like to try to live my life in a similar way.
Due to these beliefs, her and James were able to build a sense of community among Detroit citizens, creating initiatives like Detroit Summer, empowering youth to participate in community engagement and emphasizing intergenerational work, having elders and youth work to build community gardens to counter “food deserts” in areas of the city. They fought against the idea of believing economic development was the only key to rebuilding Detroit, and believed only communities could really rebuild the city they called home. Once Jimmy passed away, Grace Lee continued to fight for justice, organizing and studying a new concept at the time: environmental justice.
A section that moved me nearly to tears was about her invitation to speak at conferences where she was shocked to see so many Asian-American women attending and taking up space in universities. Growing up in the US and often being the only Asian-American in her classes, she immediately started writing Living for Change after seeing these young Asian-American women leading the next generation. In ways that we are inspired by Grace Lee, she was also inspired by us.
I believe that Grace Lee Boggs’ autobiography should be mandatory reading for any aspiring activist, especially within the AAPI community. It made me wonder if we would ever have another figure like Grace in our community, but I believe we all need to take some of the wisdom and ways Grace lived her life like in order to build and become our own revolutionaries and leaders for the future.