Embracing Contradictions: Grace Lee Boggs’s Philosophic Journey and Political Emergence

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The following excerpt is taken from In Love and Struggle: The Revolutionary Lives of James and Grace Lee Boggs by Stephen M. Ward

Grace Lee Boggs was both product and producer of an improbable history. “I grew up in New York as a first generation Chinese American in an all- Caucasian community with no role models,” she once told an audience. “So I realized early on that I had to blaze my own trail.” It was this back- ground, she continued, that likely “predisposed me to make so many unconventional decisions when I became an adult, for example, to become an activist in the African American community and to marry an African American worker.” On other occasions, she attributed the origins of her “revolutionary activism to a combination of my mother’s rebelliousness and my father’s commitment to country and community.” By mapping what can be known of her childhood, early intellectual development, and formal education, we can identify central experiences and influences during the first quarter century of her life that called forth and shaped her subsequent political commitments and intellectual work.

If Grace’s background was the source of qualities that would later provide a foundation for her activism—independence, resolve, and commitment to change—it also generated a contradictory set of experiences around her ethnic identity. As a Chinese American growing up in a largely white world during the 1920s and 1930s, a sense of social marginalization marked her formative years. “Asian Americans were so few and far between,” she recalled, “that from an early age we were raised to make ourselves as inconspicuous as possible, in part because so many of us had relatives or knew people who were illegal immigrants.” Indeed, she came of age during the era of exclusion, as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (extended in 1904) remained in force well into her adulthood. It was repealed during World War II as she approached the age of thirty, marking her as a member of the last generation whose childhood and young adulthood unfolded before the Chinese in America saw significant opportunities “to move out from the shadows of exclusion and become fuller participants in American life.” She did not have available during her formative years the concept of “Asian Americans” or of a pan-Asian ethnic identity, which did not emerge until the 1960s. Furthermore, her parents transmitted conflicting attitudes toward Chinese identity. While her father proudly embraced his Chinese heritage and sought to instill an appreciation of it in his children, her mother increasingly identified with the United States and derived fulfillment from seeing herself as more American than Chinese.

As a teenager and young adult during the 1930s, Grace grappled with these conflicts surrounding identity in the midst of the Depression. Initially, she responded by turning inward, pondering questions about the meaning of life and her place in the world. This led her to the study of philosophy in college and graduate school, and it was there that she discovered Hegel and the dialectic method. Dialectics gave her a way to connect her inward struggles around social identity and her place in the world with outward struggles revolving around social conflicts and political contestation. More broadly, dialectics offered her a framework—one that was intellectual but also profoundly personal—with which to understand and resolve the contradictory realities she observed around her. Rather than avoid contra- dictions, she learned to accept them as productive and necessary. This set an enduring foundation: she would make the practice of embracing contra- dictions and dialectical thinking hallmarks of her intellectual and political activities for the rest of her life.

Born with Two Names

Grace Chin Lee was born on June 27, 1915, to Yin Lan and Chin Dong Goon, immigrants to the United States from China four years earlier. The year of her birth marked profound developments in two distinct patterns of American racialization. That year saw the release of the film The Birth of a Nation, based on the 1905 novel The Clansman, and the formation of the second Ku Klux Klan. The widely hailed film—which romanticized the old South, lambasted black political empowerment, reinscribed racial stereotypes such as the black rapist and the faithful servant, and celebrated the Klan— reinvigorated and gave cultural authority to national articulations of black inferiority. The film also sparked protest, most notably the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s national campaign against the film that would help to build the young organization, then in its sixth year, and establish the parameters of twentieth-century black protest. The year 1915 also saw the emergence of what one scholar describes as “a distinctive Chinese American identity.” The formation, for example, of the China Mail Steamship Company as a purely Chinese American venture (as opposed to a joint venture with the Chinese government) and the founding of the Chinese American Citizen Alliance, both in 1915, reflected this emergent consciousness of Chinese in America as a cohesive ethnic minority.

For Grace, however, this consciousness and identity as a Chinese American would not be straightforward. She was the fifth of seven children. Her parents gave each of their children a Chinese and an American first name, foretelling Grace’s somewhat bifurcated and conflicted relationship to these two facets of her identity. Her father chose to name Grace after the American missionary who taught him English when he first arrived in the United States. Grace’s Chinese name was Yuk Ping (Jade Peace). She was called Ping at home and at her father’s restaurant, where all of the workers were Chinese. She was called Grace everywhere else, in an overwhelmingly white world. These two names thus corresponded with the two racially and culturally distinct worlds of her childhood. Even Grace’s last name evolved. Her father’s last name was Chin, but after he took a new first name, Lee, he became known as Mr. Chin Lee or Mr. Lee. Eventually, Chin Lee and then Lee became the family’s surname.

Stephen M. Ward is associate professor of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan.