The Politics of Politics: Grace Lee Boggs Remembered
Rich Feldman of the James & Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership and award-winning activist and social justice organizer Tawana Petty discuss Boggs’ life and legacy
JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome, everyone, back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.
Grace Lee Boggs died this week at the age of 100. She was an activist, author, and remains an inspiration to many. Boggs was born the daughter of Chinese immigrants in Rhode Island, grew up in New York City and became a mainstay of Detroit activism with her late husband James. To offer at least a brief reflection and commemoration of Boggs are our next two guests. Rich Feldman is a community and labor activist, board member of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership. And also with us is Tawana Petty, who is a mother, award-winning activist, social justice organizer, poet, and author. She is the past recipient of the Spirit of Detroit award, Woman of Substance award, Woman Creating Caring Communities Award, and was recognized as one of who’s who in black Detroit in 2013.
Welcome to you both, to the Real News Network.
TAWANA PETTY: Thank you.
RICH FELDMAN: Thanks a lot.
BALL: So let’s just start, if we can, with the broad question of what is it that you think is best for us to most remember about Grace Lee Boggs at this time?
PETTY: I think right now at this particular time, especially in Detroit, it will be important that anyone who is commemorating the legacy of Grace, as well as Jimmy, not only pay attention to some, a lot of the disparities that are happening in Detroit among its residents, predominantly black residents, and lend their voice to the struggle for equality and against injustice. And I think that Grace would be telling us that, you know, for as much as we’re going to celebrate her legacy we also need to be creating our path. And you know, she would say, you lay your path by walking it. And so I think that it’s important that we take the time to reflect, think about what’s happening in our communities, and think about how we’re going to live on to be 100 and what contributions we’re going to make.
BALL: Rich, I ask you the same question. And maybe ask you also to elaborate if you would a little bit on the path that Grace was on at the time of her death.
FELDMAN: Grace clearly is an inspiration to tens of thousands of people around the country and around the globe, and in Detroit. But she would be very, very clear, I want to emphasize Tawana’s point, when a city faces 30,000 water shutoffs and 30,000-40,000 foreclosures, she believed more than anything that it was important to stand up and make sure that we’re building a kind of community and the kind of relationships and the kind of critical connections that allow us to both resist what’s taking place at this time of land grab and corporate takeover of Detroit downtown and at the same time, talk about the vision. Because we are very clear and Grace has always been very clear to talk about visionary organizing. Which is much more than protesting injustice. It’s about creating the future.
And therefore much of her work, from working with Malcolm, Malcolm X and the Grassroots Leadership Conference in the early 1960s to marching against crack houses and dope houses with Save Our Sons and Daughters and We The People to reclaim our streets, to creating Peace Zones for Life, to having a critical conversation about what is the purpose of education, which is to build community. And now the Boggs School, which is in its third year. To the urban gardening movement. It’s about how will we live in the 21st century.
So she’s–she, Grace, as one of our comrades said today, borders on reminding us to think back 100 years, to the 19th century. That was the basis of Marxism. To the 20th century, which is all the social movements that many of us are familiar with, starting with the Montgomery bus boycott through all the other social movement. To the 21st century. How we live in our cities. How we live on this planet, creating local, sustainable community production and new forms of democracy.
So she is the kind of human being, and then I’ll be quiet, I promise. She is the kind of person that said we have to think, we have to read, we have to study, we have to understand dialectical thinking, learning from reality, and make a commitment to people and place.
BALL: If we could I’d like to pick up there a little bit, at least for a moment. Because there are those on the left who were critical of how she applied dialectical thought. And she’s often quoted as saying something to the effect, you know, warning sort of against sticking with old ideas. And there are some who continue to, to–who over the last few years were critical of this notion you describe, or this, this philosophy of visionary organizing. And what seemed in some circles, at least, to be a move away from left and revolutionary thought to a more reactionary form of philosophy and political organizing that Grace adopted. Could you talk a little bit about that, and how she employed dialectical thought. This idea of dialectical humanism versus dialectical materialism. And maybe respond to what some of these critics have written over the last few years about this apparent, to some, move away from Marxism, Leninism, and what are considered left revolutionary ideas.
PETTY: I mean, I think we could look at the condition of this country right now and recognize that our failure to become more visionary, to utilize the ideas that Grace has been emphasizing with regard to revolution and envisioning a way forward towards human–what does it mean to be human? What time is it on the clock of the world? Those were questions that Grace was consistently asking. That we be reflective about what’s happening in the world, what’s happening around us. And a lot of time–and the reason why it’s significant that she emphasizes on not getting stuck in old ideas is because things are changing. We’re still facing the injustices, the racism, capitalism, materialism. Militarism. But they’ve taken on a new form. And it’s not as–for a lot of people it’s not as prevalent as it used to be.
So a lot of people have–you know, and these are my own words, been lulled to sleep. And so she’s asking us to self-reflect and to think about how we should respond at a particular time on a clock of the world. And a lot of people are not doing that. They’re just kind of cookie-cutting their response, and saying oh, this is the ’60s all over again, so we’ll respond like we did in the ’60s. And we can’t do that. I mean, you can look in all of the urban cities across the globe and tell that the old responses are not sufficient for the crisis that we face today. And so I think that it’s important that people do some inner thinking, some soul growing. Another thing she was saying, these are the times to grow our souls.
And if we do take that time to do some internal work and some thinking about the conditions around us, then I–you know, we could challenge some of the individualism and extreme materialism that has so many people being quiet during a particular time when so many people are facing disparity. So many people, you know, and so many people on the left are saying hey, if we just get more jobs, those people can lift their bootstraps up and just, you know, be better. And that’s not, that is not a sufficient answer. And Grace and Jimmy talked about that a long time ago. And they were very prolific in their thinking back in the ’60s and even now. And Grace–you know, even to the day she joined the ancestors was still challenging us to be thinking about those things.
And so I think, I think people are stuck at ideas. And I think that they need to take some of her advice to heart.
BALL: Of course, Rich, Marxists and socialists would argue that dialectical materialism isn’t an old idea, it isn’t about being stuck in the past, but applying a scientific reasoning and understanding of history to the moment, to the particular moment that people are in. and of course Mao and others elaborated on that, making the point that things have to be argued or understood or interpreted in their historical moment. But Rich, let me get you to respond to any of those, those critiques or questions. And then give you a chance to clarify for us where Grace was and where she was asking us to go.
FELDMAN: Let me–I think in a way to understand the philosophical and ideological basis of Grace and Jimmy and the Boggs Center is for all those activists and leftists I would suggest that they first read Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, and then do, which Grace and Jimmy wrote in 1974, which is when I came to do political work with them as a comrade in different organizations. And then I would suggest that they really check out two things. They check out why we believe what took place in 1994, on January 1 with the Zapatistas, where they began to redefine revolution for the 21st century. Because they understood the cultural change as well as the political and economic change. And they talked about creating power rather than simply taking power.
So I think it’s learning the lessons of revolutions, it’s learning the lessons of the stage of multinational capitalism, and in our country racism, and capitalism globally. And to understand that we talk about dialectical materialism humanism, where the role of conscious thought is as integral to the role of material reality, and that therefore the need to have a two-sided revolution, as Jimmy and Grace pointed out in their lessons from the rebellion of 1967, some almost 50 years go, to unite the importance of changing ourselves to change the world, to create the infrastructure for the new society while we’re transforming ourselves. And that’s a different concept of revolution put forward by leftists.
So we need, we believe we need to go way beyond, obviously, the brutality of capitalism and the limited vision of socialism that was birthed in another century, and to create what they have made a commitment to called the next American revolution.
BALL: Tawana and Rich, thank you very much for joining us here at the Real News and helping us to reflect a little bit at least on the life and legacy of Grace Lee Boggs. Thank you for joining us.
PETTY: Thank you.
FELDMAN: Thank you and have a great day.
BALL: And thank you for joining us here at the Real News. Again, for all involved, I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore saying as always, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace, everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.
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