If the glossy pages of my elementary school history books had told me stories like that of Grace Lee Boggs, I would have paid more attention. Like me, Boggs is Asian-American who was born to immigrant parents—if I’d learned her story growing up, I might have felt invested in our country’s history instead of feeling disenchanted by it.
New documentary American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs is a welcome history lesson about a writer and organizer whose work in the Black Power movement and hand in rejuvenating Detroit provides insights into what activism can look like. Picture this: a Chinese-American woman and her African-American husband at the helm of the Black Power movement in 1960s Detroit. The FBI has a thick file on her (and her various aliases) and she wrote books exploring revolution.
Conventions about what Lee Boggs was supposed to become didn’t bind her. Lee Boggs was born in Rhode Island just three decades after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, a policy that halted the immigration of Chinese laborers amid growing anti-Chinese sentiment. Convention would have it that Lee Boggs should not live in this country, much less work to shape its policies and inspire a generation of progressive change.
American Revolutionary, which is streaming for free this month on PBS, traces the history of her work from her days as an upper-middle-class student at Barnard College where she discovered philosophy (eventually becoming a Marxist theoretician), to her present-day work as a community organizer in Detroit. The film collects many photos and audio clips that seem extraordinary just for existing. In black-and-white photographs of her college class in the 1930s, Lee Boggs is the only student of color, standing out in her rayon dress and woolen athletic clothes. In a similarly intimate detail, 1963 audio recording of Lee Boggs capture a talk she gave about how the Black Power movement isn’t about black folks aspiring to whiteness, but rather for the black community to have the ability to reach their own full potential as black citizens in America.
Lee Boggs graduated with a PhD in philosophy from Bryn Mawr in Philadelphia in 1940, but was unable to find work. Some potential employers told her, “We don’t hire Orientals.” So she moved east to Chicago, finally settling in Detroit because, as she says in the film, that’s where the workers were and where the struggle was. In Detroit she met her husband, James Boggs, a worker’s rights and civil rights activist and writer. They wrote together and worked together as part of the leadership of the local grassroots civil rights movement.
Grace Lee, the filmmaker behind American Revolutionary, had met Lee Boggs during her first full-length documentary The Grace Lee Project where she went on a search for all of the Grace Lees in America as way to think about what it meant to be an Asian-American woman. For more than a decade, Lee followed Lee Boggs, and in the film we witness Lee Boggs aging from a spry 85-year-old to her late 90s where she needs a wheelchair to get around. But all the while, Lee Boggs remains laser-sharp in her ideas and how to shape a true revolution in this country.
Lee Boggs with filmmaker Grace Lee.
This film will speak to activists, young and old, as it shows Lee Boggs’ journey and the evolution of thought behind her work. One of the more subtly heart-wrenching moments of the documentary is when Lee Boggs is giving a talk to a small room and during Q&A session, a young activists’ eyes fill with tears while she asks a question, “Sometimes when we’re on the ground, working in the field people are up against some really hard conditions. How do you prevent yourself from burnout?” Lee Boggs has been an activist her entire adult life, and she offers that she feels invested in her community and that she learns from her mistakes.
While the documentary is successful in offering us insights and the work of Lee Boggs, the filmmaker herself brought up a missing piece to Lee Bogg’s story: The film does not delve into self-examination on the part of Lee Boggs. She talks about how after her husband passed away, she approached publishers about writing a biography about James. She was surprised when they asked for an autobiography about herself instead. I’m unsure if the lack of self-reflection is due to Lee Boggs’ own lack of desire to to examine her own life or a hiccup in the process of filmmaking. It’s tough to fathom that a person who thinks so damned much about her world does not apply that same type of examination inward. But it’s perhaps possible, as Lee Boggs admits that she seldom thinks of herself as a woman or as Chinese-American. It’s also possible that her forward thinking is beyond our narrow categories, that she’s an example of how to live beyond labels.
American Revolutionary is a primer about her life and work, a Grace Lee Boggs 101, if you will, as it is impossible to fully explore her complex life in less than an hour and a half. American Revolutionary should be required viewing, and Living for Change: An Autobiography will provide the nuance about her life that is missing from the film. While watching this film and learning more about Lee Boggs, one begins to wonder why her story is missing from history class. Perhaps it’s the same reason so many grassroots activists aren’t mentioned alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gloria Steinem, that for the most part these community organizers would rather the spotlight be on the mass of people that make up the movement rather than singling out individuals. But that ignores the inherent need that people want examples, folks to look up to and inspire them.
Lee Boggs cautions against falling into the trap of pinning all of our hopes on a messiah, someone who we invest so much in to create change. Instead, she says, “we have to get to that point that we are the leaders we’ve been looking for.” She reiterates that the changes needed will not come from the top, that it must come from the mass of voices of folks on the ground. With this film, and her story, people will have an example of how to evolve and help grow one’s community. Though it seems overzealous to call Lee Boggs a revolutionary, it feels right. Her mere existence—as a woman of color born in the early 20th century with cultural norms and legislated policies going against her—is a revolutionary act, one destined for the history books.
Amy Lam is the Associate Editor at Bitch and also teared up during the Q&A scene with the young activist seeking guidance.