This trip to Detroit came about because of technological failure. It was a tremendous gift, and a revelation.
The technological failure was the connection between my voice and Grace Boggs. Her ears, after all, are 96. And when we weren’t able to have a real, fluid conversation between St. Paul and Detroit, I immediately decided we would fly to interview her in her home. This was a relief, really, as preparing for the interview had made me long to meet her.
Ever since my conversation with Vincent Harding last year, her name kept coming up. Her identity is full of unlikely conjunctions: Chinese-American and an icon of African-American civil rights, philosopher and activist, elder and change agent. She was born Grace Lee above her father’s Chinese restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island. She received a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1940. She had a heady life in intellectual, revolutionary circles of the early twentieth century, from Europe to Africa. She moved to Detroit when she married the legendary African-American autoworker, organizer, and civil rights thinker Jimmy Boggs. Together they were the heart and soul of civil rights in the Motor City.
Jimmy Boggs died in 1993. Already by then, years ahead of what most of us are experiencing as the new global economic crisis, the post-industrial future had begun to show itself in Detroit. In this emerging world, Grace Boggs is at the heart of reimagining, renewing, and “re-spiriting” this city — seeing the possibilities amidst the ruins of abandoned storefronts, houses, and industrial plants that have defined our cultural vision of Detroit in recent years. She learned, she says, to “make a way out of no way” from Jimmy Boggs. She draws on everyone from Hegel to Dr. King to Margaret Wheatley when she speaks of our capacity to “create the world anew.” With all she knows, and all the change she’s seen, the sheer magnitude of years she carries, you can’t help but listen when Grace Boggs describes the tumult of our time as a rare and precious opportunity: “What a time to be alive.”
This sweeping statement might be less infectious if it were not planted in a world of engagement that both affirms and continually informs Grace Boggs’ thinking. You walk into Grace Boggs’ living room — which is also the ground floor of the James and Grace Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership — and you are surrounded by joyful, passionate people who are literally recreating their corners of the world. She points them out as we speak. After our interview, we are taken on a tour that is like a trip into a parallel universe to the Detroit we’ve seen in the news.
We meet Gloria Lowe, who is not merely putting formerly incarcerated and injured vets to work, but making houses livable and beautiful while creating urban models that are affordable and green. We meet Wayne Curtis and Myrtle Thompson, a couple who are tending one of Detroit’s 1,600 urban gardens. They’re not merely growing food, as they tell us, they are growing culture. Their way of talking about “food sovereignty,” about the necessity of flavor, about “nutrient density” reminds me of the chef Dan Barber. They are a living response to the question he’s often asked, of whether the local food movement is just for pampered elites. Detroit’s urban agricultural movement began as a matter of survival and became a matter of consciousness, and of reimagining the essence of human identity and community.
So many of my conversations are ultimately about the vast, seismic changes of our time. No city could be held up more easily as a symbol of the destructive side of this change than Detroit. But nowhere have I encountered people as animated by change, as “privileged” to experience it, as in Detroit.
In recent decades, Grace Boggs has become ever more attentive to the word “evolution” wrapped inside the word “revolution.” The identity politics and rights focus of the rebellions of the 1960’s, she says, paved a way for a more enlightened and slower revolution now — a new and deeper sense of a common human identity, from how we work to how we eat to how we govern ourselves. Ever the philosopher, she reminds us that “we’re not only being, but we’re non-being and becoming.” In Grace Boggs’ living room, and in the Detroit of hope which she helps inspire, these lofty words become something to live by.