We Are All Works in Progress*

By Grace Lee Boggs

40th Anniversary Celebration The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Workerıs Notebook Detroit, Michigan, June 29, 2003,

Thank you for coming from near and far to add depth and breadth to this
celebration. My hope is that you will go away with more questions than
answers. The period we are living in is so unprecedented that almost
anything, both negative and positive, is possible. So we should be wary of
anyone who claims to know what the future will bring. In times like these,
the future depends on what we do in the present, as the University of
Michigan students, who helped organize yesterday's incredible 88th birthday
party for me in Detroitıs historic Chinatown, put it.

What we need in the present is a new willingness to ask questions of
ourselves and others. We no longer allow others to define our ethnic or our
sexual identity. But weıre still too ready to accept the narrow
definitions of  human identity, of society and of the nature of the cosmos
that the system has created for us. That is perhaps the most important
lesson we can learn from Jimmy's life, not to just go along but to keep
asking questions. To think of our human identity and of reality not as
fixed but as works in progress and in process.

It was because Jimmy had the audacity to ask questions that he became such
an independent and courageous thinker. And it was because he had the
audacity to ask risky  questions ­ like asking me to marry him on our first
date - that he had the nerve  to make statements that took everyone
listening to him to a new level.

For example, a few months after the publication of this little book, Jimmy
was invited to New York to speak to a Town Hall audience consisting mainly
of Monthly Review readers and subscribers, in other words, mostly
intellectuals and radicals. It was his first major speech to about a
thousand people and he must have been a little nervous. So he started his
speech by  telling his audience that that they had better understand his
Alabamese (or what we today call Black English) because one of these days
they would have to understand a billion Chinese.

I also recall a day in the 1960s when FBI agents came to our house
seeking information about Max Stanford. General Baker was sitting in the
living room and I can still hear him chuckling as Jimmy chided the agents
for allowing J. Edgar Hoover, to push them around, inviting them to come
to his next public meeting so that they could find out how to stand up to
their boss.

Another memorable occasion has been preserved on the video, produced by
Frances Reid for Jimmy's Memorial Celebration ten years ago, that you saw
earlier. It took place in 1991 in Jim Chaffers class in Urban Design and
Social Change at the University of Michigan. Jimmy had just had surgery
for bladder cancer and was not supposed to go to Ann Arbor with me. But
at the last moment he showed up in his suit and tie, and  once there, he
startled the students by saying " I donıt believe nobody knows more about
running this country than me." When they responded with nervous laughter, he
went on to say, "You better think that way. You better stop thinking of
yourself as a minority because thinking like a minority means thinking like
an underling. Everybody is capable of going beyond where they are, and I
would hope that everybody in this room thinks that way. That is going to be
one of the biggest challenges, to believe that you can do what has not yet
been done."

Where did Jimmy get this gumption, this audacity, which comes through on
every page of this little book? Recently Christopher Phelps, a historian
of left-wing groups who teaches at Ohio State, wrote to ask whether I had
proof that Jimmy had written the American Revolution because in leftwing
circles some folks were saying that it had actually been written by me.
The proof exists in the handwritten manuscript on yellow legal pads that are
in the Reuther Archives, but it is a sign of the narrowness of most
radicals that they need such proof.

Jimmy's ideas in The American Revolution are not something you can get
from books. They came mainly from his life experiences, experiences that a
lot of people have had.

For example, Jimmy was born and raised in Marion Junction, Alabama, a small
agricultural community with two or three stores on the main street. Very few
people in his little black community of sharecroppers, domestic workers,
and farmers could read and write. So when he was eight, Jimmy became the
community scribe, writing letters to Aunt Virginia and Uncle Jesse and
Cousin Willie Mae about who had been  ailing, who had recently been born,
and how the crops were faring. Listening to him tell the story again and
again, I got the sense that writing these letters was what started him on
the road of becoming a revolutionary theoretician. He wanted to write
because he experienced writing not only as an individual skill but as
something that served the people and  made a difference in their daily
lives.

His gumption also came from the way that his hands and mind worked together.
Jimmy not only loved to do things for people - like filling out their
income tax ­ but he loved to fix things ­ like clocks, radios, cars, TVs.
As I watched him fixing things, I could see him figuring out how each
thing worked and how each clock, each radio, each car that he tinkered with
, or each seed that he planted in the garden, represented thousands of
generations of human ingenuity and experience.

His relationships with elders also contributed greatly to his sense of
humankind as a work in progress. Constantly talking about the past with old
folks apparently provided him with a foundation for evaluating the past and
building the future. So when one elder, whom he had been visiting and
caring for, died, he would seek out another.

Jimmy also loved working with young people. He thought nothing of spending
hours helping the kids on the block with their homework. He was so patient
with them that as they grew older they thought nothing of ringing our bell
late at night to ask Mr. Jimmy for a dollar for bus fare. It used to drive
me up the wall because I was the one who had to answer the bell.

     It was not his experiences that made Jimmy exceptional. Millions of
people have had similar experiences. It was the way he thought about them,
his ability to see them not only as personal and individual, but as social,
as part of the evolution of humanity and of the cosmos. The social
movements of the last forty years have taught us that movements begin when
members of a particular social group or a particular country begin seeing
their conditions not only as personal and individual but as social, as part
of the evolution of humanity. In that sense I think we can say that the
secret of Jimmys creativity was that he had a Movement personality.

    Jimmy saw himself as a work in progress ­ which may be the way we all
should think of ourselves. Such enormous changes had taken place in society
during his lifetime - he was fond of saying that he had lived through
three epochs, agriculture, industry and automation ­ that the first
principle of dialectical thinking, that reality is not pre-determined but
is constantly changing, came natural to him.

Jimmys life experiences also helped him to take seriously another
principle of dialectical thinking, that everything contains contradictions
and that new contradictions are constantly emerging so that what was
progressive at one stage can turn into its opposite. Coming to Detroit in
the l930s when the labor movement was gathering momentum, he  experienced
the tremendous leap in his humanity that came from joining striking workers
on picket lines. But inside the plant during World War II he also
experienced the reluctance of union leaders to challenge white workers who
resisted the upgrading of blacks. And after the war it became clear to him
that the unions lacked the will and the power to resist the automation which
was turning production workers like himself into a vanishing herd.

Out of his experiences with the rise and fall of the labor movement, Jimmy
was able to anticipate the new contradictions that would emerge inside the
black struggle when blacks became incorporated into the system as school
superintendents, mayors and now Supreme Court Justice, Secretary of
Education, National Security Adviser, and Secretary of State

    When you think dialectically as Jimmy did, the new contradictions that
inevitably emerge from struggle are not seen as defeats but as challenges
to think more imaginatively, more audaciously, with more nerve, more
gumption, more depth and breadth That is how humanity evolves, as
individuals are constantly challenged by new contradictions to create more
audacious solutions to shape the future.

    At this point our challenge is to see the many issues we face, Race,
Work, War, Gender, Environment - not as separate issues but in their
interconnection ­ which is another principle of dialectical thinking.

    Thus, as we all know, black young people of Hi-Tech are a
disproportionate percentage of the U.S. armed forces because unable to find
jobs at home, they are being turned into outsiders. We also are becoming
increasingly aware that after participating in an invasion that most of us
opposed, they  now risk being killed in an occupation that could last for
decades. But if they were not in the U.S. military, what kind of useful,
life-affirming work would there be for them at home?

We need to be asking this question again and again of ourselves, of our
neighbors, of our families, of our co-workers. Asking and discussing this
question thoughtfully and courageously, we can learn  how to think for
ourselves and how to come up with imaginative, bold solutions. Out of
ongoing conversations at work, at home, over back fences with our
neighbors, in classrooms, in our dorms, we can create our own ideas and
thereby free ourselves from domination by the mass media. Together we can
discover that we are at one of humankindıs most momentous watersheds
providing us with the opportunity and the challenge to make a paradigm
shift in what it means to be human and what it means to be real.

In order to transform these outsiders into insiders who feel needed and are
needed, we will have to make a paradigm shift FROM the conventional wisdom
that our human identity is defined by our jobs to new more holistic
concepts of human identity. In the course of redefining our human
identity, we will also find ourselves making a paradigm shift beyond other
outmoded ways of thinking, such as making a sharp distinction between the
material and the spiritual. Instead of  viewing Space as a vacuum, we can
begin imagining it as a womb. Instead of thinking of  Time in terms of
minutes ticking on a clock, we can begin thinking of it as duration.
Instead of viewing the elements of reality as particles that move only when
they are pushed or pulled, we can begin viewing them as multi-centers of
possibility, potentiality and power.

I wish Jimmy had lived to see this day. But since he didnıt, I want to
repeat and expand on his challenge to you. Stop thinking in the polarizing
language of the present system, in terms of inferiority/ superiority,
minorities/majorities, victimization/ dominance, blame and guilt. Begin
rejoicing in our diversity and celebrating our commonality, that each of us
is a center of possibility, potentiality and power, and that we can do what
has not yet been done!

*formerly titled "More Questions Than Answers."