Confronting Our Own Contradictions by Grace Lee Boggs


By Grace Lee Boggs

Michigan Citizen, Oct. 29-Nov.4, 2006

I hope this reflection by an activist in her late 20s will encourage reflection and discussion by other activists.

“In the Black Political Study for Social Change, a group of grassroots activists, we discussed the slogan ‘Change yourself to change the world.’ Diehard militant and black nationalist that I believed myself to be at the time, my response was ‘We ain’t the problem. It’s capitalist oppression that creates chaos and insanity in our lives. ‘

It’s obvious that this chaos is directly attributable to capitalism which places profit seeking above the welfare of humanity. It’s also obvious that we must ultimately confront the social and political forces maintaining the current order if we are to usher in a new order. As James and Grace Lee Boggs put it, this is our “awesome task.”

What do we need to do to prepare ourselves for this task? The answer is simple, yet easier said than done. We have to confront our own issues. It is one thing to understand the role that oppression plays in separating us from our humanity. It is another to use this understanding to justify remaining on that level.

Those of us genuinely interested in social change have a responsibility to struggle with ourselves and those around us to confront the myriad of backwards, inhuman, anti-social behaviors that are impeding our ability to struggle.

How can we, as a leadership force, struggle with people to confront the status quo in a contest for power without first asking them to confront the contradictions in themselves? In their communities? How can we ask people to struggle for a just social and economic order when their consciousness has been abused and warped enough to accept the most gross injustices?

Teaching in an urban public school has allowed me to see firsthand just how far we have sunk.

One of my students brought a video to school. It was a series of live, amateur footage of extremely violent scenes in black neighborhoods. It showed black women smashing each other’s heads into car windshields and black men choking, stabbing and robbing each other. In one scene a young black man pours a container of gasoline on a homeless black man lying on the ground, then takes off the man’s shoes and stuffs them down the sewer. When the homeless man gets up, the young dude stabs his feet with the point of an umbrella, laughing as the man yells out in pain.

In another scene a group of young black men beat a black man within inches of his life, and then speculate on whether he is still alive as blood gushes from his mouth. Completely unnerved by the whole thing, I demanded that the student who brought in the video turn it off. Yet most students cheered and laughed, while the few who voiced some concern limited it to ‘that’s messed up.’

Where are we? Can a people so separated from basic human dignity effectively struggle for a social order in which human dignity is placed above economic gain? Malcolm X, who often chided the black masses, dealt with this question. James and Grace Lee Boggs caution against excusing backwards, anti-social behavior simply because the person is oppressed.

This tendency is rooted in Marx’s assertion that workers, when politicized, will rise to the occasion and carry out their revolutionary task of seizing governing power. In our movement, identifying the black working class as the social force most equipped to engage in a struggle for justice, has translated into a tendency to ignore or explain away serious contradictions in our social lives. pI have begun to see that there is nothing inherently glorious about us. This is as true of working people as it is of black ‘leadership.’ Being a worker, especially in the U.S., doesn’t automatically mean that you are capable of struggling for social change. It doesn’t mean that you are automatically prepared to accept the task of changing society or that you even unite with it. And being a self-avowed “leader” or “activist” doesn’t automatically mean that you are worth a damn.

Anyone can claim an idea. But how many are really willing to apply such high ideals in every sphere of their lives? Not just standing in front of a group of people yelling about what capitalism is doing to us, but what we are doing to ourselves.

So it goes right back to changing ourselves first. Before we can fight for humanity, we have to understand and embrace our own humanity and that of people around us. Before we can fully embrace high principles on how society should be organized and governed, we have to embrace principle in our own lives. It’s a simultaneous process.

At this point I am 100% committed to the struggle to put governing power in the hands of the masses. I am also 100% committed to doing what is necessary to prepare the masses to assume governing power.”

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