Check out coverage of Grace Lee Boggs in Detroit Free Press in anticipation of upcoming "Grace Lee Project" event

Activist Boggs learned from mom's regrets
March 9, 2006
BY DESIREE COOPER, Detroit Free Press


At 90, Grace Lee Boggs is a one-woman revolution.

Raised by her Chinese immigrant parents in a New York, upper-middle class family, she attended elite colleges in the 1930s. From a rat-infested room in Chicago, she joined the civil rights movement in the 1940s. Unlike many women of her day, she married late in life and never had children.

In 1953, Boggs met an African-American labor activist in Detroit: James Boggs. Together, they influenced a generation of civil rights leaders with their books, including actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis.

A half-century later, Boggs feels the revolution is far from over.

"I see Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War and the Detroit public school dropout rate as atrocities on the same level," she said Friday. "They are all signs that we have to change."

What inspires her to continue to rail against the establishment?

"I've always felt a philosophical and spiritual connection to Hegel, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi," Boggs said. "They all believed that change was not only necessary, but possible."

But there's one other person who unwittingly influenced Boggs' progressive politics: her traditional Chinese mother, Yin Lan.

One woman's prison

Boggs' living room at her home on Detroit's east side is like a professor's, each chair cuddled by stacks of books. On her aquamarine wall hangs a photo of her paternal grandmother from about 1934.

"She lived to be 104," Boggs said. "She had boys, so they said that she was 107."

The Chinese honored women with an extra year each time they bore a boy.

Boggs' mother, Yin Lan, gave birth to four boys, but she didn't always feel so honored.

Born in rural south China, Yin Lan had been sold into slavery as a girl. At 21, she escaped through an arranged marriage with Chin Lee, a successful Seattle restaurateur 20 years her senior.

Yin Lan gave birth to their first child on the ship steerage floor during their journey to the United States. Soon after the couple arrived in Seattle, Chin Lee decided to move his family to the East, escaping the racial violence against Asians on the West Coast.

"They had a child and a restaurant in each new place they settled after that," Boggs said.

Boggs was born in Providence, R.I., as the fourth of six children.

In New York, her father established two successful restaurants on Broadway in the 1920s. The success was bittersweet for Yin Lan, who felt increasingly saddled by marriage and children. "My mother saw all that was available here," Boggs said, "and the waste of her own life became overwhelming."

In the 1930s, Chin Lee put his business and home in his wife's name to protect his assets from creditors, Boggs said. "When my mother found out, she locked my father out of the house and never let him back in," she said.

Like mother, unlike daughter

Boggs wasted little time taking advantage of what America had to offer, fueling her mother's resentment. But she soon realized that for an Asian woman, freedom had its limits. In the 1930s, she was removed to the Jim Crow section of a train. Later the conductor returned and said he'd been mistaken, but she refused to move to the front.

Boggs was one of only three minority students at Barnard, where she studied philosophy and played sports. In 1940, she earned a doctorate in philosophy from Bryn Mawr.

"But I was Chinese and I was a woman," said Boggs. "There were no jobs waiting for me when I graduated."

Boggs resisted marriage, determined to sidestep the trap that had caged her mother. Instead, she got a library job at the University of Chicago, earning $10 a week. Unable to find anyone who would rent a room to an "Oriental," she accepted a free couch in a woman's rat-infested basement.

Soon, she became involved with Chicago's South Side Tenants Organization and A. Philip Randolph's call for a 1941 March on Washington to demand African-American access to wartime jobs. The movement's success convinced Boggs "to become a movement activist in the black community," she wrote in her 1998 autobiography, "Living for Change."

Living for change

Boggs migrated to Detroit in 1953 to work on a grassroots newsletter, the Correspondence. The editorial board chairman was James Boggs, an Alabama native and father of six who was going through a divorce.

Their first date was memorable. He arrived two hours late and thumbed his nose at her special lamb dinner. He hated the Louis Armstrong music she played, considering the trumpet player an "Uncle Tom." But before dinner was over, he proposed.

They married in 1954. On the way home from their northern Michigan honeymoon, they had to sleep in the car because no one would rent them a room.

Few of their inner circle objected to the marriage, but one of Boggs' close friends, West Indian Marxist C.L.R. James, worried that she would become a follower of her husband.

"I did follow Jimmy at first, consciously and openly," Boggs wrote. But eventually they interacted as peers, coauthoring "Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century" in 1974.

Boggs' parents never discussed the interracial marriage. Eventually, Chin Lee came to live with the couple in Detroit.

Yin Lan moved to Florida and seldom communicated with Grace and James. After her mother's death in Hawaii in 1978, Boggs discovered that her marriage to James may have prompted Yin Lan to shun her daughter.

Still mothering revolution

Grace and James, who died in 1993, never had children together. "I saw what having children did to my mother," Boggs said.

Ironically, Boggs seems to have an endless capacity for nurturing young people and obsesses about the need for education changes.

"I think that the dropout rate is really a walkout rate," she said.

Schools are designed for upward mobility, and that means leaving their neighborhoods behind -- something we can no longer afford, Boggs said. Instead, schools should engage children in urban farming and community cleanup.

"We need to teach them how to make a life, not make a living," she said.

Still a weekly columnist for the Michigan Citizen, Boggs is traveling to Milwaukee today to visit an urban farming youth group.

"The secret to my long life is that I am not afraid of change," she said. "And these days, the only other people who are willing to embrace it are the young."

Contact DESIREE COOPER at dcooper@freepress.com or 313-222-6625.

What's in a name?

  • To Korean-American filmmaker Grace Lee, it seemed that everyone knew an Asian woman named Grace Lee and thought of her as a dutiful, polite bookworm. That was the genesis of her documentary "Do You Know Grace Lee?" -- a film that explores the colorful, diverse lives of Asian-American women who hail by the same moniker. A standout among them is Detroit civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs.

    When: The documentary will be shown in Detroit at 8 p.m. March 18 at Barth Hall in the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, 4800 Woodward. After the film, the director and Grace Lee Boggs will speak.

    Tickets: Adults are asked to donate $10-$20. Donations are $5 for students and youths and $35 for anyone who also wishes to attend the VIP reception before the film, at 6:30. Anyone named Grace Lee may attend the film free with valid ID.

    Proceeds will benefit Detroit Summer, a youth program for community involvement cofounded by Boggs, and the Detroit Asian Youth Project, a social justice and leadership development organization.

    Details: Call 313-333-3112 or e-mail mlinz@riseup.net.