LIVING FOR CHANGE
By Grace Lee Boggs
Michigan Citizen, Dec 28, 2009
At the University of Michigan Winter Commencement the weekend before Christmas, I was awarded an honorary doctorate for, among other things, bringing “optimism and aspiration to our state and country.”
As I participated in the various weekend festivities with the other honorees (journalist Helen Thomas, socio-biologist Edward Wilson, and Jeff Daniels, Purple Rose of Cairo actor, musician and community theatre entrepreneur), I was reminded of the many different individuals who over the years have created the ties between the university and Detroit that have culminated in this award to me. For example:
- 1970s alumnus Rich Feldman who settled in Detroit after graduation and is now playing a pivotal role in its rebirth as a 21st century post-industrial city of Hope.
- Professor of Architecture Jim Chaffers to whose class in Urban Design and Social Change Jimmy and I spoke every November for 20 years, where UM student Jackie Victor got her inspiration for Avalon Bakery.
- School of Natural Sciences and the Environment Professor Bunyan Bryant whose students and alumni have been Detroit Summer volunteers, Allied Media Conference founders, and are now organizers of the 2nd U.S. Social Forum which will bring 15-20,000 people to Detroit next June.
- Charlie Bright, Stephen Ward, Scott Kurashige, Emily Lawsin, Janie Paul, Shari Saunders, Wang Zheng, a few of the many professors in Education, Art, American Studies and Women’s Studies who have brought their students to Detroit and the Boggs Center over the years.
At the Sunday commencement I was troubled by the huge numbers of young people going out into a problematic world with bachelors, masters and doctors degrees.
Saturday afternoon I participated in a lively evolution conversation hosted by CAAS (Center for African and African American Studies). This is how I began the conversation:
“My first response when I heard that UM was giving me an honorary doctorate for my community leadership was that the degree should be going to Jimmy Boggs, my late husband, from whom I learned most of what I know about community leadership. Jimmy was an organic intellectual who never attended college but whose work will be remembered long after that of most BAs, MBAs and PhDS is forgotten.
“Born and raised black in a little town in the Deep South, Jimmy made his way after graduating from high school, by freight car and hitchhiking, to Detroit. He worked for decades on the line at Chrysler, and during the post WWII years watched automation make workers expendable. Meanwhile, day in and day out he struggled for a better world both in his community and in the plant.
“Out of these experiences he wrote groundbreaking books like The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Workers Notebook and Revolution And Evolution in the 20th Century, both of which have recently been re-issued with new introductions. The pamphlet “Towards A New Concept Of Citizenship” came out of the speech he made after the 1976 election in Jim Chaffers’ Urban Design and Social Change class.
“The last time he spoke to Jim Chaffers’ class was in November 1991 after he had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. On that occasion he challenged students to stop thinking like minorities because, he said, when you think like a minority, you think like an “underling.” These remarks begin the wonderful 11 minute film made for his Memorial Celebration in October 1993. It can be viewed on the Boggs Center YouTube channel.
In the discussion that followed I was struck by the seriousness with which people from many different backgrounds are now grappling with the question of how we organize at this extraordinary moment on the clock of the universe.
Several people recommended encouraging people to tell their own stories as a way of empowering people. I referred to the 2008 American Scholar article by University of Washington Professor and award-winning novelist Charles Johnson, warning that with the emergence of Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell and Barack Obama, we have come to the end of the American narrative of blacks as victims. So we need a new, much more complex story.
Copies of Johnson’s article and my recent column on “Obama’s War “were given out.