How Did a Chinese-American Woman Become a Black Power Activist?

A new documentary examines the life of Grace Lee Boggs, a leading voice in Detroit’s African-American community.

Grace Lee Boggs
Grace Lee Boggs Quyen Tran

Every once in a while, someone comes along who challenges your assumptions and forces you to rethink everything you thought you knew about history, culture and identity.

Take, for instance, Grace Lee Boggs. Before Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X emerged as leaders in the civil rights movement, Boggs—a 99-year-old Detroit resident born to Chinese immigrant parents—was agitating on the frontlines of movements that presaged the events of the 1960s. She became an outspoken activist in the black power movement and was so connected to the struggle that the FBI mistakenly thought she was Afro-Chinese.

A new documentary, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, examines how a Chinese-American woman, raised in a middle-class family in New York City, evolved from a Marxist radical to become one of the leading activists in Detroit’s African-American community. It airs at 10 Monday night on PBS.

The film’s director, Grace Lee (no relation), first met Boggs when she began working on her 2005 documentary, The Grace Lee Project, which examined the “model minority” stereotype of Asian Americans through the eyes of women who shared a common name.

“I was so blown away by her existence in Detroit and the community around her, that I knew at the moment I had to make a longer film about her,” Lee told The Root.

For Lee, Boggs’ story was an opportunity to examine Asian-American identity in the larger context of American history.

“As an Asian-American woman, there weren’t any role models. To see somebody like Grace Lee Boggs—what she stands for, what she represents in America—her story is an American story. It’s American history,” Lee told The Root. “Personally, I feel that we’re so ignorant about our own history as Americans. This is a strain of American history worth taking another look at.”

So how did Boggs become a vocal activist in one of America’s largest black communities and what role did her identity play?

“Had I not been born female and Chinese American, I would not have realized from early on that fundamental changes were necessary in our society,” Boggs wrote in her 1998 autobiography, Living for Change.  

The idea of evolution is a central theme of the film and a core tenet that inspired Boggs to action. She believes that you first have “to change yourself in order to change the world.” One of the early moments in her evolution happened in 1940 shortly after she earned a doctorate in philosophy from Bryn Mawr. Unable to find work at a time when businesses felt completely comfortable telling her, “We don’t hire Orientals,” the then-24-year-old headed to Chicago, where, for the first time, she witnessed African Americans engaged in social action—in this case, tenants fighting to end rat-infested housing.