Though perhaps not quite as recognized outside the world of activism, Grace Lee Boggs is a legend before her time. Born June 27, 1915, Ms. Boggs was born in an apartment above the Chinese restaurant that her father opened upon immigrating from China. When she cried, the restaurant workers would say “Let’s just dispose of her outside—she’s only a girl baby." (source). Ms. Boggs graduated on a scholarship from Barnard College and received a doctorate from Bryn Mawr (her dissertation was on the work of social psychologist George Herbert Meade). However, after receiving her doctorate, Ms. Boggs could not even get hired at a department store. As Ms. Boggs relayed in a 2007 interview with Bill Moyers, employers would explicitly say, "We don't hire Orientals" (source). Eventually, Ms. Boggs found employment at University of Chicago's philosophy library for $10 a week. Her meager salary forced her to move into a rat-infested basement apartment. This led to Ms. Boggs' first connection with the African American community as she joined a tenant organization protesting poor living conditions.
Her personal experience with discrimination, as well as her vast intellect, made Ms. Boggs a fitting, if unexpected, advocate for African Americans and civil rights. Ms. Boggs would later, along with her husband James Boggs, become a leader in the Detroit Black Power movement. When asked how a Chinese American came to be so invested in the cause of African Americans, Ms. Boggs responded, "When I was growing up, Asians were so few and far between, as to be almost invisible. And so the idea of an Asian American movement or an Asian American thrust in this country was unthinkable" (source). According to an NPR report, Ms. Boggs became so identified with the African American cause that some of her FBI files described as "probably Afro Chinese" (source). Today, Ms. Boggs calls for a change that transcends race. "[W]e need to undergo a very radical revolution in values. And we need to think about what it’s like to have become so materialistic that we think having a good job, and consuming like crazy to compensate for the dehumanization of the job, is living like a human being" (source).
For all the work she has done on the national stage, Ms. Boggs' exhortation for today's activists is to "do something local. Do something real, however small. And don't diss the political things, but understand their limitations" (source).
Ms. Boggs is a cultural icon and unique figure among Asian Americans. Her interviews and autobiography are intriguing to read, regardless of whether one agrees with her politics. Happy 100th Birthday, Grace Lee Boggs!