American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs

Grace Lee Boggs, creative commons image.

Grace Lee Boggs, creative commons image.

In the last column I discussed the recent publication Muzzled Oxen: Reaping Cotton and Sowing Hope in 1920s Arkansas. I promised a series of columns on that book, and I’ll be picking back up with those in the following weeks. But this week I’d like to call attention to a film that will be available for free online streaming through the end of the month. Though not about Arkansas or even the south, the film touches on something  relevant to so many communities in our region: an ongoing quest to overcome extreme economic odds, the importance of fighting racism, and  rethinking what it means to build strong neighborhoods.

 Recently featured on PBS’s POV series,  American Revolutionary: the Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs explores the ongoing legacy of a 98 year old Chinese American woman who’s played a large role in many of America’s social movements since the 1960s. The film follows Boggs around her longtime home of Detroit, a city known today mostly for its poverty. While many Americans hear about Detroit as a place filled with decay and loss, Grace Lee Boggs and the younger generations of people she has inspired, see Detroit as a place ripe for a new kind of American revolution of sorts, a way of being in the world that moves away from corporate greed and human division.  “People are always striving for size, to be a giant” she says as she walks down the streets of her once thriving city, now largely vacant after the mass exodus of the auto producing plants in the late 1960s. “And this is a symbol of how giants fall.”

 Though the film is about much more than the community’s quest to envision a new kind of economics for Detroit, it’s a topic that is woven into the fabric of the film as the filmmaker traces Boggs’ former days as a philosopher turned radical Marxist turned black power activist. The film also touches on her the huge role of her late husband, Jimmy Boggs, an African American man committed to equal rights for working people in the city. Over the decades Boggs has allowed her vision of what she calls revolution to grow and expand. These days she works with young people to reclaim vacant lots for urban farms, helps to create schools that bring the community into the classroom, and inspire new forms of community economies that fight poverty on a local level. “Keep recognizing that reality is changing and that your ideas have to change,” she says during one interview. “ Don’t get stuck in old ideas.”

Click here to read the  full synopsis of the film from PBS.

At 98 years old Boggs isn’t very physically active.  While getting into a car she looks out the window saying, “it takes so much energy just to get around.” Yet this doesn’t stop her involvement in the community. Her home has become a place where young people gather to talk about the future of their city. Perhaps one of the most captivating parts of the film is the way in which the filmmaker highlights Boggs’ belief about the importance of conversations. For Boggs, conversations are never speculative small talk, but rather meaty, challenging and necessary precursors and accompaniments to sustained community work.  The end of the film sees Boggs exploring her own feelings, even as the filmmaker challenges her tendency to downplay her own vulnerabilities. She clarifies how the years have enlarged her beliefs about what it means to be a revolutionary thinker: “Just being angry…does not constitute revolution. So many institutions of our society need reinventing. The time has come for a new dream. That’s what being a revolutionary is.”

Follow the links below for more information. I love hearing from readers!  What are your thoughts on the film? Also, if you have ideas for columns or things you’d like to see addressed please email me! I love hearing your ideas, complaints, suggestions and feedback. Thanks so much for reading!

Watch the film here through the end of July. 



See past our past posts about Boggs here:

“Why Carlos Stays in Detroit (and Why James Stays in Little Rock).” 

“Dispatches from Detroit.”