We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society.
When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
― Martin Luther King Jr.
I went to see Grace Lee Boggs and Angela Davis speak together in Berkeley last week, and I can’t say I’ve felt the same since.
It was a free event held at the student union at Cal as part of the Women of Color Conference being held that weekend. My sister and I got there more than an hour before the 4pm talk and there were already at least 500 people in line ahead of us. By 3:30, we were easily in the middle of the line. A line full of young and old, all waiting in anticipation for these two life-long revolutionaries to give us some perspective and direction to face the fucked up state of the world around us.
We were unfortunately one of the first ones to be put in the spill over room to watch the talk remotely, but I didn’t care once the talk began. As I watched these two incredible women drop their bits of wisdom left and right, my heart raced as I furiously took notes. They spoke about the socio-political state of the world in light of our long history as human beings…the problems in agriculture, democracy, sexuality, and our understanding of work and labor. But most importantly, they talked about revolution.
This weekend, I watched the entire talk and transcribed all the parts that struck me most (this may or may not have taken me more than a few hours to do…). Then I’ve edited down to some quotes that I thought were the most profound and mind-altering. I have a lot of new topics I plan to hash out from being shaken up by this talk, but I’ll save those for another day.
First some short descriptions of these two revolutionaries:
Grace Lee Boggs (GLB), who is now 96 years old, is a Chinese-American philosopher-activist and feminist who has been involved in activism for over 60 years, working on civil rights, sustainability, and the economic struggles of her city of Detroit where she was lived for the past 50 years.
Angela Davis (AD) is famous for her activism against the prison-industrial complex. She was a Black Panther and active member of the US Communist Party, and is now a retired professor from UC Santa Cruz’s History of Consciousness department. The focus of her philosophy and activism centers around critical theory, feminism, African American studies, and Marxism.
Typed excerpts of their talk is below.
Grace Lee Boggs on the revolution:
The time has come for us to re-imagine everything.
We have to re-imagine work, away from labor. We have to re-imagine Revolution, and get beyond protests. We have to re-imagine revolution and think not only about changing our institutions, but the changes that we have to make in ourselves.
We are at the stage, where people in charge of the government, and of industry, are running around like chickens with their heads cut off. And it’s up to us to re-imagine the alternative and to not just protest against them and expect them to do better.
We are at the point of a cultural revolution in ourselves and in our institutions that is as far reaching as a transition from us hunting and gathering to agriculture 11 thousand years ago, and from agriculture to industry 200 years ago.
How do we re-imagine education? How do we re-imagine community? How do we re-imagine families? How do we re-imagine sexual identity? How do we re-imagine…everything? In light of a change that is so far reaching and that is our responsibility to make. We cant expect them to make it, we have to do the re-imagining ourselves. We have to think beyond capitalist categories. We have to re-imagine.
And how do we do that? We do that, I have found, by combining activism with philosophy. And that is why it’s so important that Angela and I are here on this platform. That we are both philosophic activists, we are both activist philosophers.
We can’t think anymore that all we have to do is to act, we have to do a lot of thinking. We have to do a lot of imagining. We have to do a lot of visionary organizing. We have to see every crisis as a both a danger and an opportunity. Its a danger because it does so much danger to our lives, to our institutions, to all that we have expected, but it’s also an opportunity for us to become creative. For us to become the new kind of people that are needed at such a huge period of transition. That’s why it’s so wonderful that we’re all here today! So we can talk about revolution, in such fundamental terms.
How do we take advantage of high tech, to create a new mode of production? How do we use it make ourselves more self-reliant and productive? I mean, we have to re-imagine work. Work? We can’t talk about jobs anymore. We can’t beg for jobs or hope for jobs. And we have to recognize that jobs in the industrial period was actually a way of a fragmentation of our humanity. So then we rely on high wages, and consumer goods, to compensate for our dehumanization. We have to create forms of work that create community, and that expand our humanity. And that’s where we are. And that’s how we have to talk about revolution these days, and that’s how each of us, as we get rid of our all the old ideas of leadership or followship, and begin to use our imaginations to create the new.
We have been very lucky in Detroit. Out of the devastation, we have recognized the need to create a new post-modern, post-industrial society. We are doing that. And I urge you to come to Detroit this July, and get an idea of the shared experience of the American Revolution that we’re making. And to begin to do your own visionary organizing back in your own community.
We have the opportunity and we have the challenge at this period of the clock of the world, to create a new humanity and to create a new society, to create a whole new paradigm of education. We have to think of education as young people, not as the problem, but as the solution. We have to enlist them as the solutions to the problems of our community. As a whole new way of imagining youth and the relationships between generations. And that’s an enormous challenge. That’s an enormous task. And it’s up to you to do it. I’m very old. I’ve very hard of hearing. I’m very shaky on my feet. Thank goodness Charles is here, who’s captioning everything being said so I can read it. Because my eyesight is better than my hearing. And so..anyway that’s all I have to say.
Grace Lee Boggs on the difference between work and jobs:
It seems to me that we don’t need to only talk about the hours of work, but about the difference between the way women look at work, and the way you have a job. You have jobs that demean you, that dehumanize you, that fragment you, that make you a […] machine, and you make up for it by demanding higher wages or shorter hours. What we need is the kind of work that women do, not counting the hours, because they care. And that’s a real transformation from a patriarchal concept of work, and to a matriarchal concept of work. And that’s where we are.
I mean, we are so deeply fundamental in terms of our human identity at this moment, and until we’ve approached this moment, with that challenge in mind, we are going to get lost.
If we can think of work as what the artist does, in the love of the material and in the vision that he or she has, and instead of thinking of it as a way that we have colonized the materials, that we have colonized people, that we have colonized the earth…I mean the abuse that we have done not only to each other, not only to people of color, but to the earth and to ourselves, to our own humanity, has been horrendous. And to recognize that, how horrendous it has been and therefore the need to create an alternative that is more human, is the kind of revolution that we have to make. And with all the good the Occupy Wall Street movement has done, I don’t find that their language, their ideas, are profound enough. They are against the corporations…rightly. They are against the greed, and the avarice that corrupts our society. But the need to imagine an alternative, in philosophical and human terms. The need to grow our souls, and to say that proudly and unashamedly. To talk about the kind of tremendous human transformation we have to make. We must be courageous enough to think that way and to talk that way and to relate that way.
AD: But I do think that the Occupy phenomenon is important, but it isn’t a solution, it’s an opening. It’s a beginning.
GLB: How do we take advantage of the opening?
AD: Exactly! That’s the question. How do we take advantage of the opening?
Angela Davis on the Occupy movement:
One of the things I heard some people saying “oh there’s just a bunch of homeless people around the encampments.” But why wouldn’t there be homeless people around the encampments?! I mean one of the things I thought was really important about that period when there were encampments in 900 cities around the world, was that people who were relatively affluent had to learn how to cohabit the same space with homeless people. And to begin to work through strategies of being together. And again I think that was a promise, that was a moment of promise, but I don’t know maybe I’m too, maybe I’m the inveterate optimist.
GLB: No I think you’re right. When we stopped just marching and began to stay in one place and to face the issues that were challenging, like the homeless, we could move our imaginations, of the new way of creating a harmonious society. We’re challenged. And that’s where we are. It’s a wonderful, wonderful time to be alive!
Grace Lee Boggs on materialism and the state of agriculture:
How do we reintegrate the next generations? Let’s begin tomorrow to do those things, to do those very human things. To begin creating those relationships, those human relationships, that we need to evolve. To continue evolving. Let’s see that as our work. Martin Luther King said that”We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society.”
Let’s take that as our challenge. How do we do that? How do we take responsibility for our all our security? How do we restore the neighbor to the hood? How do we take responsibility for growing our own food? Instead of depending on these huge corporations, which use all this gasoline to produce global warming, and to give us polluted, contaminated food with additives. These are very human questions. And the revolution needs to ask questions like that not just questions like how do I get more money?
It would be revolutionary to develop a habit of imagining the human relations and non-human relations behind all of the objects that constitute our environment.
Grace Lee Boggs on her concept of “growing our souls”:
I first used the concept of growing our souls about 10 years ago, in a speech, and radicals usually don’t talk about souls. I think we have to be courageous enough to be talking about what I mean by “soul”, that is the capacity to create the world anew, which each of us has. How do we talk about that with one another? Cause it’s important to talk, it’s not only important to act. When you talk you begin to create new ideas, you create new language. And we have all been damaged by this system. Not only the capitalist scoundrels who are the villains, we are all part of it, and we all have to change what we say, what we do, what we think, what we imagine.
In this era of neo-liberalism, we have all learned how to imagine ourselves as individuals. It is as if we have forgotten that we are always members of communities and I’m totally seduced by your notion of growing the soul, and growing a soul that experiences itself in the context of communities and collectivities. There is a tendency to think of ourselves as isolated individuals, and of course this is what the capitalists have achieved. Capitalism is grounded in that notion that the individual, that the possessive individual, is the primary unit of society. And if we are to move toward revolutionary approaches, we have to relearn.
Grace Lee Boggs on the issue of non-violence:
This relates to the topic of growing our souls…I was not a supporter of Martin Luther King during the early period, because I was more in Detroit, talking about black power, and Malcolm. But when violence began to break out among us, I think we had to be rethinking.
Why is non-violence such an important, not just a tactic, not just a strategy, but an important philosophy? Because it respects the capacity of human beings to grow. It gives them the opportunity to grow their souls and we owe that to each other. And I used to think about it purely political narrow superficial terms. But you grow older, and you grow wiser.
You know, its a philosophic question. It’s not just a tactical question. When I was a sophomore in college, I decided to drop all my courses and take philosophy. If you’d asked me what philosophy was all about, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you, I was only in my late teens. But as I’ve grown older, I realized that philosophy has to do with how we value ourselves as human beings. And how we look at ourselves, and how we relate to reality. And it’s something that requires a lot of courage, because everybody else wants to act. […] If we think a great deal more, and talk a great deal more, we would have learned that out of the respect for ourselves, out of the respect for each other, nonviolence is something that we have to embrace. And it took me a long time to learn that.
Angela Davis on the issue of non-violence:
That’s a very complicated question for me. Because when we raise the question of non-violence, I think that in the very first place we have to acknowledge that the purveyors of the vast majority of violence in the world are the nation states with their vast militaries, the US government for example, Israel for example, and so I would like, yes we need non-violence. But I would say, let’s start by abolishing the military, and disarming the police. Because it seems to me that so much of the violence that we inflict on each other, is linked in some way or another to that institutional violence.
This is one of the wonderful insights of what has often been called women of color feminism. That private violence, or intimate violence, or privatized violence is very much connected to institutionalized violence. Violence in the streets are connected to violence in the sweets. Violence that happens in terms of sexual violence is linked to the fact that violence strategies are embraced by the corporations, by governments. So a truly revolutionary strategy would allow us to imagine abolishing violence in all of its manifestations.
Grace Lee Boggs:
How do we rebuild, how do we redefine, how do we re-spirit our communities and one another? That’s our challenge. And we can’t say, expect Obama, or Mitt Romney, whatever, to abolish the war in Afghanistan. I mean, they have put us in those wars, they have created the crisis, they are not gonna solve it. We’re the ones that have to solve it, by creating another kind of society, and take advantage of their helplessness and their powerlessness to do it.
Angela Davis on American democracy:
I’m gonna say something that may be a bit controversial, since we’re talking about revolution. I’m remembering, when Obama was elected, a little over three years ago. And that was a moment that was so incredible…or a few days, the whole world was transformed. Do you remember? And I keep telling myself that I have to remember what it felt like, to walk down the streets of Oakland, and people that you did not know were coming up to hug you. And people were singing in the streets, and dancing in the streets. Of course…we’ve forgotten that.
An enormous amount of grass roots organizing enabled that victory. That was not a victory of an individual, that was a victory of people all across this country who refused to believe that it was impossible to elect a person, a black person, who identified with the black radical tradition. Now everybody said it was not possible. A vast majority of black people, did not support Obama initially. They supported Hilary because Obama was unelectable. The problem was, that I think we all assumed that was all we had to do was elect him. And then go back to doing what we were doing before.
The reason why I said I would say something controversial, was because despite all of the disappointments, you know we could go on and on and on about what Obama has not done, and about Afghanistan, and about Guantanamo, and about healthcare, and all of that.
We need to figure out how to prevent someone like Mitt Romney from getting elected. I think that this time around, we have to engage in that campaign with our own eyes open, and I say that as someone who never voted for a candidate representing one of the major candidates until I voted for Obama. That was the very first time. I’d voted for Communist, Peace and Freedom, and Green, or whatever. I think that this time around we have to recognize that we’re not campaigning for any individual, we are campaigning for ourselves. Because, as June Jordan said, “We are the ones we have been waiting for” and we can’t go home after election night, and we can’t assume that all is well.
Grace Lee Boggs on dialectical thinking:
You know, the Civil Rights struggle was a tremendous victory, to be celebrated. But it created new contradictions: it created a black middle class, it created black legislators, it created black presidents…So how do we understand that every victory creates new and more challenging contradictions. How do we prepare for that? How do we always think dialectically, and recognize that one divides into two? Otherwise we get stuck. And that is why philosophy is so important. To think dialectically, not biologically, because the danger in our society is to think biologically.
Grace Lee Boggs:
I would like to encourage folks, of not only thinking dialectically and philosophically, but to also think more about our brains. About neuroscience. About the capacity we have to think anew, but we can only think that if recognize the tendency in the structure of our brains, to get fixed to old categories. To get locked into old concepts, and that’s why philosophy is really important. So I hope that everyone will emerge from this conversation thinking dialectically, thinking philosophically, thinking about growing our souls.
So there you have it. I personally think that their statements hold the seeds for a new turning point for the Occupy movement, and social and economic activism more broadly. The movement needs to stop being on the defensive. We need to start thinking of the alternative because it’s plain as fucking day that the status quo is not working and it’s only going to get worse if we stay the course. I think that the majority of people are sick of hearing how bad things are, how hopeless and corrupt government has become, and how voiceless they are within the current democratic process. Maybe it’s just as important to be on the defensive, to blow holes into massive concentrations of power, as it is to promote and create a new sustainable, secure, and more equitable alternate reality. From when I visited Occupy encampments, I saw a glimpse of that reality. A reality in which people of the same community cared about their collective future, and cared enough to listen and to speak to each other about what’s going on…
Anyway, I’ll be blogging more about my various thoughts on this. It’s time for me to go to sleeeeeeep.
Watch the entire talk here (I suggest starting at the 2 min – 00:02:00 mark):