Early Life and Background
Boggs’ early life was essential to her later interest in philosophy and activism. In her long life, Boggs witnessed and experienced racism, sexism, anti-immigrant sentiment, classism, the World Wars and the Great Depression. These were all pivotal moments in developing who Boggs would become. Below, we breakdown the factors that influenced Boggs throughout her childhood and young adulthood in a chronological order based on her autobiography, Living For Change. In her view, if she had not been born Chinese American and a woman, she would not have taught philosophy at university. She also would not have been an active participant in the various social movements for the betterment of human rights and dignity in the second half of the 20th century and become the civil rights icon she is today.
Boggs was born in 1915 in Providence, Rhode Island, to Chinese immigrant parents. Her father had immigrated to the United States from China in the early 1900s through legally doubtful means. His exact immigration date is unknown, as he routinely claimed to be born in the United States, especially after his birth certificate was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. Her father owned a successful chain of Chinese restaurants in New York and emphasized the importance of observing good employer-employee relationships in order to make money and be successful. He instilled his own sense of pride in being Chinese on his children, whom he raised with what he called “ Confucius ideas and behavior” in how to conduct oneself within the family, how the house should be constructed, and how to behave according to gender dynamics. According to Boggs, he was very old fashioned in his views on how his children should conduct themselves. He also attempted to guide his children away from American culture and had a Chinese tutor for them in order to ensure they remained connected to their Chinese culture, despite their resistance. Boggs recalls her family as being the only Chinese people in her all-white neighborhood in New York, where she experienced racial discrimination. These childhood experiences helped her realize early the necessity of creating defenses against racism. These sentiments would bear fruit later in the form of various activist movements.
My father never told us how he got around the restrictions of the Expulsion Act and we knew better than to probe because it was generally understood that the distinction between being here legally and illegally was a shadowy one.
Boggs’ mother defied what it meant to be an Asian American woman in the early 1900s. Boggs remembers her mother as continuously enduring and challenging the patriarchal authority exhibited by her father, whom she described as a “regular old fashioned tyrant.” He believed in Confucian concepts of gender roles, which relegated women, in this case her mother, as the the person who only knows “the inside boundaries of the house.” Boggs would later characterize the circumstances of her mother’s pregnancy with Bogg’s siblings as marital rape, and disclosed how her mother saw herself: as a victim of a loveless marriage that was a continuation of her oppression in China. When Asian Americans later asked what the inspiration of her work was, she credited her revolutionary activism to a combination of her mother’s rebellious streak and her father’s dedication to his country.
My father never saw my mother as an individual, never understood why she was so unhappy or why learning to read and write in English and becoming an American in her own name meant so much to her. I don’t remember ever hearing him address her by her given name. He never spoke to her directly unless he was shouting back at her. Usually he spoke of her in the third person as “Mother.”
My mother often spoke with gratitude of the American doctor who helped her give birth to my sister on the steerage floor. From this encounter, she concluded that American men treat women with a respect completely unknown back in China. As a result, she fell in love with America and began dreaming of the day when her children would be grown so that she could go to school to learn how to read and write enough english to become an American citizen in her own right. Meanwhile, she soon began dressing and conducting herself as if she had been born and raised in the United States.
Boggs attended Barnard College in 1931 for her undergraduate degree, where she was one of only two women of color in her class. Her education was influenced by Hitler’s rise in Europe and the Great Depression. While she was aware of the mass demonstrations and organizing around these issues by fellow students, she did not involve herself in political activism and instead decided to pursue a degree in philosophy, eventually attaining in 1940 a Ph.D. in the subject from Bryn Mawr University. There, she engaged with philosophical writings of Immanuel Kant and G. W. F. Hegel which heavily influenced her path to revolutionary activism.
I didn't think of myself as Chinese because the Chinese American movement hadn't emerged, and I didn't think of myself as a woman because the women's movement hadn't emerged.
Boggs´s activism began in 1941 in Chicago, where she joined the movement for tenants' rights, and then the Workers Party, a splinter group of the Socialist Workers Party. At the time, she was working in the philosophy library at the University of Chicago on extremely low pay while living rent-free in a rat-infested basement. This experience put Boggs in touch with the black community in Chicago, who were also experiencing poor living conditions. In her activist work at the time, Boggs focused on marginalized groups such as women and people of color. She was also involved in the 1941 March on Washington. A. Philip Randolph was calling upon blacks to march on Washington to demand jobs in defense industries because the Depression had ended for white workers, but not for black workers. Eventually, FDR issued Executive Order 8802 banning discrimination in defense plants for blacks. Seeing how the executive order changed the life for blacks seeking work, Boggs was inspired to dedicate her life to becoming a movement activist. (Living for Change).
Living For Change: An Autobiography. Grace Lee Boggs. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.