There are few human beings who have the cultural depth, breadth, and perspective of 96-year-old Grace Lee Boggs. Born during World War I to Chinese immigrant parents, she has lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and the Civil Rights, anti-war, women’s, gay rights, and disability dignity movements, then 9/11 and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. She effectively transformed herself into an African American through her marriage to black autoworker Jimmy Boggs and her immersion in the Detroit community over the past 60 years. Much of her new book, The Next American Revolution, reads as her philosophical autobiography, charting how experience shaped her political ideas, using the first person and the collective “we” grounded in her community activism.
Co-author Scott Kurashige, the award-winning author of The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles, collaborated as an editor, shaping the book by combing through an archive of Boggs-written articles, pamphlets, speeches, and correspondence. His introduction gives perspective for the ensuing narrative.
Nearly a century ago, Detroit was the high-technology capital of the world. In the 1930s and 1940s it was the vanguard of organized labor. By the 1960s the Motor City exported Motown music, and 20 years later pulled off the same trick with techno. Today, Detroit is arguably the most devastated post-industrial community in America. If you pay attention to the mainstream media, pretty much all that is left of Detroit is crime-ridden, Rust Belt woe—with a big helping of divisive racial posturing.
Boggs and Kurashige agree that Detroit’s days as the world’s industrial giant are over. That’s pretty much the end of their concord with conventional perspectives. They describe a transformation of vision and perspective going on in Detroit that is much more than a matter of rhetorical jiu jitsu. And they put it in historical perspective:
“We are in the midst of a cultural transition as far-reaching as that from hunting and gathering to agriculture 11,000 years ago and from agriculture to industry 3,000 years ago.”
Their view is that the struggle now is about what direction the world will take from here. To make that direction positive for the majority of people, nothing less than revolution is necessary. Not a violent takeover of the political-economic state, but rather a revolution in our ways of thinking and acting on a personal and community level, a transformation from victims to empowered citizens.
TNAR is partly a celebration of the sort of democratic community movements the authors see emerging as a critical force for creating the new Detroit, a new United States, and indeed a new world. They cite a number of organizations as evidence, like the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality. Led by a former Black Panther, it pushes for police accountability and works to reduce policing by resolving neighborhood conflicts. The Beloved Communities Center in Greensboro, N.C., is another. It uses truth and reconciliation to heal the community, where five racial-justice marchers were killed in 1979. An international example is Mexico’s Zapatistas, who defied NAFTA in favor of development grounded in their own culture and needs.
There are points where TNAR strays toward cataloguing what might be considered modest community achievements. But part of the “Why?” of the book is to show how these components weave together into a nontraditional, nonhierarchical force that defies efforts to control the stumbling world economy through political and military domination.
There are lessons here for activists that make this slim volume a handbook for personal, and therefore social, transformation. That, more than anything, is the revolution that Boggs seeks.