Readings for Sustainable Activism

Readings for Sustainable Activism
By Grace Lee Boggs
Michigan Citizen, June 9, 2009

Hyphen, a magazine like People for Asian Americans, asked me to
share a few books that have sustained me over the years This is what I wrote:

Four books have been especially important to my activism over the years: The Analects of Confucius, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind, Immanauel Wallerstein’s The Modern World System, and Lewis Mumford’s The City in History.

When I was a child, my father used to use “Confucius said” homilies in his efforts to get us to do the right thing in our relationships with one another. As I grew older, I discovered gems of wisdom in Confucius for myself. For example, Confucius helped me look in the mirror because he saw every person as a “work in progress.” “At fifteen,” he said, “I thought only of study; at thirty I began playing my role; at forty I was sure of myself; at fifty I was conscious of my position in the universe; at sixty I was no longer argumentative; and now at seventy I can follow my heart’s desire without violating custom.”

My interest in writing, speaking and editing was also nurtured by Confucius’ assertion that “If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said.”

In my first year of graduate school, I read the Phenomenology of Mind by Hegel, the German philosopher, and discovered that history is the story of the continuing struggle by human beings like myself to made the Ideal real and the Real ideal. Hegel, 19 years old when the French Revolution began, experienced the contradictions that emerged during the Revolution and out of that experience developed the method of thinking dialectically. The Absolute (or what we call “Freedom”), Hegel said, is not achieved “like a shot out of a pistol but through the labor, patience and suffering of the negative.”

It was 1935 and I was only 20 years old, much too young to appreciate the profound significance of this statement. But it felt right, and I read and re-read it like music. The symphonies of Beethoven, who was born the same year as Hegel, came out of a similar experience; they also challenge us to grow our souls. By contrast, the music of Mozart, 1756-1791, despite its brilliance, is graceful and soothing, written for courtiers.

In 1975 when I was sixty, The Modern World System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World Economy in the Sixteenth Century by Immanuel Wallerstein gave me a sense of the centuries of catastrophes and struggles that had gone into the decline of feudalism and the development of capitalism. I still have the review which was on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Since then I have added other books by Wallerstein to my library and often share the statement “The world of 2050 will be what we make it” which he makes at the end of chapter 6 in his little 1998 book Utopistics or Historical Choices of the Twenty-first Century.

In the last 25 years, as my life has centered around the movement to rebuild, redefine and respirit a de-industrialized Detroit from the ground up, I read and re-read The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations and Its Prospects by Lewis Mumford. In this nearly 700 page classic, published in 1961, Mumford explains that whereas rural life is conservative and female, city life is dynamic and male. The city is where almost everything seems possible and where people are made and remade.

In Detroit we are bringing the country into the city by growing our own food on vacant lots and in the process also remaking ourselves by reconnecting with Mother Earth and re-uniting the best qualities of females and males.



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