reflection upon reflection: rethinking grace

GLB by rommy torrico
grace lee boggs by rommy torrico

originally published in hardboiled newsmagazine, issue 19.1 (november 2015). please check out more from the cover artist rommy torrico at their website: http://www.rommytorrico.com/

much of the difficulty i had in writing this piece came from that familiar feeling when i hear of an elder’s passing: a loss for words. i know what i say here will not deviate from what has been said by many who knew grace for much longer than i have been alive. yet i must speak, because now that grace has gone to rest, this is the least i can do to both engage with her work and rethink ideas of revolution.

throughout this piece, i refer to grace by her first name, but i have to accept that i will never have a real memory of her. i never met her; i never had her books until after she passed. i saw american revolutionary: the evolution of grace lee boggs several months after missing her whirlwind reception at CAAMfest last year in march. still, this piece is written for her, and i know it is after the fact of her passing. this is for grace, and also for those whose lives she touched and who continue on today, working toward liberation.

i struggled tremendously to write this, thinking that i came from an absence, a void. rather than see this as a point of weakness, i have come to realize that there are many voices willing to speak on grace, and i am in the best position to listen. one of these voices is rob yanagida, a social justice activist whom i met last october at a screening of american revolutionary, directed and produced by grace lee. rob’s unwavering support has guided me in my growth as a young radical, and i am able to share openly with him my experiences as a queer and transgender person of color.

following the two-hour interview with rob, during which he expanded on my questions and shared the personal impact grace had on him, i had to rethink my initial ideas of grace. from the documentary, i had gotten a sense that as fiery as she was in more intimate settings, in the public eye grace maintained an air of humility. during the interview with rob, i pointed out how remarkable it was that grace stayed so humble given her many accomplishments. rob laughed and noted, “i see how she is not a humble person,” going on to say, “something that is philosophical about grace not wanting to be an icon or getting more than a certain amount of attention [is that being] an icon would defeat her values, and [so would] people putting too much power into her, rather than putting responsibility on ourselves.” that forced me to examine how my comment on grace’s supposed modesty reflected my own consideration of her as a messiah figure, the very leadership model that grace vehemently opposed. i have to redirect myself to reflect deeply on how i can take ownership of my own activism, however isolated or inexperienced i may feel.

while this article serves as a sort of tribute to grace, i feel the urgency to do more than pay lip service: after distancing myself from radical and socialist spaces, i want to be involved again. and this time, even if it means being the only queer, or the only person of color, i want to be present in the movement because of the feminists of color who paved the way for me to exist.

grace may not have identified as queer, but i want to encourage folks to see how grace’s feminism and philosophy can inform the way queer and trans people of color fight for justice. two queer individuals who connect to grace are angela davis and bell hooks, both black feminists who merit a much lengthier acknowledgment than i have space for here. as mentioned by vy in their reflection, angela and grace spoke on revolution at uc berkeley in 2012, a dialogue that remains one of grace’s most quoted talks. angela, a powerful speaker who already draws hundreds at her speaking engagements, also appears in the documentary stating that “Grace has made more contributions to the Black struggle than most Black people have.” while this is certainly a strong statement to make about grace, what remains to be seen is how grace absorbed angela’s critiques of the prison-industrial complex and violence against black women and girls. in her classic text feminist theory: from margin to center, bell books engages with the reconceptualization of work written about in revolution and evolution in the twentieth century by grace and her husband james boggs. bell hooks observes that white feminists made the dominant argument that working outside of the home would liberate women, when in fact it alienated poor and working-class non-white women. grace and jimmy asserted that we can shift our attitudes toward work from one of hatred and repudiation to one that values work as essential to development of oneself as a human being. what i take from this is that the transformation of the economy must build from changing how we think about labor so as not to continue exploiting it. this makes me think of self-described feminist killjoy and professor sara ahmed’s writings on labor, specifically diversity work, how emotionally and physically laborious it can be to work within institutions and struggle to overthrow them.

through rob’s invitation, i recently joined a conference call among activists in the bay area interested in organizing a memorial for grace, tentatively scheduled for march 2016. during the call, rob expanded on a point made by shea howell, a longtime activist and comrade of grace’s, at the memorial in detroit: we should not be concerned with only planning the bay area memorial. rather, we must start working out how we are meant to carry grace’s work as a living legacy into the future. in his homage to grace, “thinking dialectically: what grace lee boggs taught me,” professor robin d.g. kelley looks back on the 22 years he knew grace. he concludes, “Grace, you’re not through with me yet. I’m still learning, still grappling with thinking dialectically, still trying to understand the epoch we’re in and the one we are desperately trying to bring about. I can hear you saying to us all, ‘What time is it on the clock of the world?’” dr. kelley expresses so lyrically what i cannot, but it resonates all the same. it is grace who is not through with us yet.

the way i have shifted my view of grace has much more to do with how different i am from her than how similar. the world she left is one i cannot imagine living in, for all my 23 years, because i know there are too many young queer and transgender people of color whose lives have been claimed by violence, either perpetrated by others or self-inflicted. either way, justice rarely if ever comes our way.

i echo what vy states in their reflection: the work was always ours, it’s just ours even more now. as long as we are surviving in this world, under anti-black racism and capitalism and heteropatriarchy and islamophobia and white supremacy, we have work to do.

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