Grace Lee Boggs, 1915-2015

Many people know Grace Lee Boggs as a moving force behind efforts to re-grow Detroit in the post-industrial age.  Those who have read her autobiography, Living for Change, know that behind this work stretched a lifetime of political action and thought. In the 1940s and 1950s, for instance, she was involved with some of the writers whose lives and work I described in Ending British Rule in Africa: Writers in a Common Cause – West Indians and Africans who formed a political community in London in the 1930s and played a significant role in the postwar African independence movements.

When I was writing that book, I visited Boggs in her Detroit home on August 12, 2007, to ask for her perspective on these men whose writing lives were so entwined with a political cause. She had known both  C.L.R. James and Kwame Nkrumah in the United States.  She met James’ fellow Trinidadian George Padmore when she spent four months in London in 1954, originally to  work with James, although in the end her chief accomplishment was helping Kenyan  Mbiyu Koinange write The People of Kenya Speak for Themselves, which she later raised money to publish in the United States. We talked for a long time, she and I, about a community of writers I knew only through the written word. She was very nearly the last survivor.

Following is an edited transcript of  our conversation – offered now as small window on the breath-taking complexity of Grace Lee Boggs’ long life as a writer, a thinker, and a most political woman. She began by offering her perspective on key figures of my story: George Padmore, C.L.R. James, and Kwame Nkrumah, who would lead the Gold Coast to independence as Ghana.

Carol Polsgrove: A major point of my book is the degree that socialism was heart and soul of the political program for Padmore, for Nkrumah. They were really struggling to figure out how to transform that world. What they wanted to do was to transform it into a modern industrial state, and they were quite uncritical about that plan, but they were just going to make a new world.

Boggs: I think that there are a number of things that have to be emphasized. James – C.L.R. James – was born in 1901, and he came to maturity in a period when industrialization was all the rage. It seemed to be the height of civilization. We are now living in a period when we can see what industrialization has done to the earth, and we can see that whatever it is we are creating it’s going to be something very, very different, but I remember sitting with Nkrumah in the lodge that Sékou Touré had given him in Guinea, and he was thinking in terms of Africa becoming industrialized along the lines of Germany, and what it recalls to me is how the leaders of the African struggles for independence were people who had gone to the West, and how catching up with the West was so much of the thinking of radicals during that period – the whole idea of the Soviet Union catching up with the West – that was part of what socialism was, and it was understandably that because Marx had emerged in a period of scarcity, and his main goal was to increase productivity, to speed up development forces to make communism possible, and they were all steeped in this kind of thinking.

For us in 2007 it’s impossible to think that way, so that so much of the socialist thinking and the socialist Leninist, Marxist-Leninist thinking of that period was a trap. And James was the one who was most trapped in that. In fact our split with him [his split from the Detroit group with which he had been associated] came about because he was still talking about the working class constantly expanding at a period when the working class obviously was shrinking because of high tech and it was impossible for him to free himself from that – he was really stuck in it, and not only was he stuck in it but his approach to Africans as a West Indian was very patronizing.

There was something very sick about the inability of the West Indians to understand that Africa was something very different. So, much of the writing that Padmore did during the Fifties, which was very widely published in the black press in the United States, was all written from this point of view. He had been very much influenced by the Third International, he had been very influenced by his stay in Moscow, and he never abandoned that.

So for them, imperialism was something that was seen completely from the point of view of Lenin in 1915. What I think also – I don’t know whether you know Basil Davidson’s book Black Man’s Burden . . . Black Man’s Burden grasps the key to the limitations of the independence movement, because he said that essentially all the leaders for African independence were trying to function within the framework of the nation-states that had been created at the Berlin Conference, and these were set up only for the interests of the western imperialists. They did not serve the needs of the African people.

Polsgrove: But Nkrumah and Padmore were pushing the idea of a United States of Africa.

Boggs: Let me tell you about Nkrumah. Nkrumah said: political freedom is the key to everything. When he said that, number one he was very much under the influence of western ideas, and specifically American ideas – he had very little understanding of agriculture and community in Africa. (He had very little understanding of the role of women, which was true of all those guys. They were all as sexist as you can imagine anybody being.) … It was all about how we can catch up, it was all catch-up [with the West], and I think it’s only possible, now that we have come to the end of the industrial epoch, to recognize the profound limitations of that point of view.

One of the things that – I don’t know if you’ve read the American Revolution by Jimmy, my husband? I think that that book was extraordinarily important, because Jimmy had the sense that he had linked the agricultural epoch to the industrial epoch and now we are living through the post-industrial epoch. So he felt that he had to do  for this epoch what Marx had done for the industrial epoch. It was an extraordinarily bold and courageous thing to do, but it’s the kind of thinking I think we need to do.

Padmore couldn’t think that way, C.L.R. James couldn’t think that way. Nkrumah couldn’t think that way, and I don’t know enough about [Nigeria’s Nnamdi] Azikiwe or how [Kenyan Mbiyu] Koinange – Koinange turned out to be the most savage secretary of state that anybody had ever known. I think that Koinange was a very different person from Padmore and James and also Nkrumah. Koinange was much closer to the whole question of tribalism and the antagonisms between the Kikuyu and the Masai, and I don’t know that much about it – I myself was not thinking in those terms in those days, but as I think about  the emotional tone – I remember Koinange telling me how uncomfortable he felt in London, how he felt almost tongue-tied, because there was something – the demands that were being made upon him by the West – which conflicted with something very fundamental in himself.

Polsgrove: Which was not the case with James or Padmore –

Boggs: When you think of how at home James was in Thackeray. I’ll never forget being in Trinidad and hearing Episcopal hymns coming out of the churches – such a sharp contrast with what you would hear from black churches in the United States. Trinidad was genuinely a colony of the British.

The other things I want to say – I first met Nkrumah in 1945. James and I were working together and Raya Dunayevskaya [a Workers Party comrade] had met him in Harlem some place and said, Look, go and see C.L.R. James. So they both came down, and I was working in the plant, and the young women that I was working with – black women – were having a party and so we invited [Nkrumah] to the party. And he came, and he was a very young, very naïve young man but he had written a thing on colonialism – he gave me a copy when I saw him in Conakry in 1968 – it’s like a term paper.

So Nkrumah meets C.L.R. James, C.L.R. gives him a letter to Padmore, he goes to Padmore, Padmore welcomes him, George and Dorothy [Pizer] had this apartment in Camden Town, and then they organized the Fifth Pan African Congress. And C.L.R. was not there by the way, but they held the conference, and then Nkrumah goes back to Accra and his name was sufficiently known by that time because he was working with Padmore, so within months he was speaking to these huge audiences without the faintest idea of Africa! He’s been gone, he’s been in the West, he’s been going to college …Then he’s made leader of government business in 1949, because he has all these votes, and the whole thing began taking on the trappings of running the country.

Polsgrove: There’s a set of letters in Moorland-Spingarn [at Howard University] – Padmore’s letters to Nkrumah, telling him what to do.

Boggs: And C.L.R. would do the same thing. Having been on the receiving end of letters from C.L.R., who thought he knew it all, and would begin telling you what to do down to the smallest detail – it was disastrous, it was really disastrous. He had not the faintest notion about how to run a country. He had not the faintest notion about Africa. He had written The History of Negro Revolt, he’d written a lot of very brilliant stuff, but it was essentially the brilliance of a historian and a man who was a lover of books. Most of it, by the way, women helped him very much to write.

Polsgrove: I don’t know if you’ve read a book by a very early lover – she helped him do research for World Revolution.

Boggs: World Revolution in my opinion is a disgraceful book. C.L.R. arrived [in England] in 1932, and in six years published A History of Negro Revolt, Black Jacobins, World Revolution –

Polsgrove: Minty Alley –

Boggs: and Minty Alley but the script for Minty Alley had been done before

Polsgrove: and the West Indies book –

Boggs: The Case for the West Indies, but I think he had gone to London with those manuscripts already. But to have written that many books in that many years is a disgrace! It’s not an achievement, it’s a disgrace. It’s meant that someone has done a whole lot of research in libraries and so forth and so on, but you have to understand – and this is just to get things in some sort of perspective – the idea that black people can even write –

Polsgrove: This is something I talk about in an early chapter when Padmore was trying to get his first book published, and his pitch to the agent and the publishers was that it was time for black people to speak for themselves, that white people had been writing all the books. One of the things I’ve looked at is how the publishers framed Padmore as an African, which he was not, and his identity was protean – through the years he goes through all kinds of permutations. That idea of who gets to speak is what I wrote about in my civil rights book, which is called Divided Minds – which of the public intellectuals got to speak on the Civil Rights Movement in the magazines and books for audiences, and who were excluded. So one of the things that I’m doing in this book is showing the ways in which this group of people who had virtually no financial resources of any substance – who were tucked in the corners of London society – how they managed to publish.

Boggs: You know [publisher Fredric] Warburg’s book, An Occupation for Gentlemen? Just imagine what it was like to be Warburg, and you had C.L.R. James quoting Shakespeare – just dazzling the intellectuals. It was a little bit like the emergence of Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison on the scene in the Forties and Fifties here in the United States, and then of black women writers in the Seventies and Eighties. It was that sort of thing that was happening.

And the [1935] invasion of Ethiopia by Italy provided a sort of trigger that gave them a political cause – and then there were huge conflicts going on between the Stalinists and the Trotskyites. That passage in Living for Change in which I quote Warburg is really delicious because I’d been in London long enough – I stayed in London in ’54 for about four months while I was working with Koinange and I was there for four or five months in ’57. In ’57 the British were holding their first Commonwealth prime ministers conference. Nkrumah came from Accra, Eric Williams came from Trinidad. Nkrumah was staying at the Dorchester. I was staying with C.L.R. and Selma [James]. Padmore, Williams, C.L.R., Selma and I all went over to visit with Nkrumah at the Dorchester. Nkrumah would pay attention to nobody but me, because he had these fantastic ideas that somehow because I was Chinese and American, if he and I were to link up, we would unite all of Africa. That was the headiness of the period.

Polsgrove: Was it just because you were Chinese-American but because he understood you were extremely bright?

Boggs: I think both. People thought that I had been working with C.L.R. – it would be sort of a coup for him. As we were returning home in the taxi, I said to C.L.R., it was simply silly for Nkrumah to be spending so much time talking to me, and C.L.R. said he’s doing that because you’re so close to me! Male peacock –

Polsgrove: This is my image of James so I’m never sure whether to believe anything he says. When he writes in this letter — he writes that Nkrumah wanted him to write an analysis of the material in Nkrumah’s autobiography from a theoretical perspective which James says poor George Padmore was unable to do. You know Padmore had written The Gold Coast Revolution, which is a very descriptive book, and James is pretty snotty about George. He says, “Our only trouble – GP has been left behind. It is very sad. N wants more than GP can give. He” – that’s GP – “may be bitter and fight us.” So I don’t know whether to believe James when he says Nkrumah said Padmore couldn’t – it’s true that Padmore didn’t, in his book The Gold Coast Revolution, do the kind of thing that James seems to be talking about here. It’s simply a factual account. But I don’t know whether this is simply James puffing himself or whether there’s a kernel of truth in it.

Boggs: My personal impression of Padmore was a very positive one. I felt that he was doing what needed to be done, and that he and Dorothy were providing the young people who came from Africa with the understanding of imperialism, which he was able to give them. He wasn’t able to give them more, but I don’t think that anybody was able to give them more, I don’t think C.L.R. gave them any more.

When Nkrumah came to power in ’57, my husband and one of his co-workers wrote him a letter. They said what you’re going to have to do is to start working from the grassroots in terms of what is going to be the work of the Ghanaian people, and we are ready to help in any way that we can as people who are workers. Now whether Jimmy had the right approach or not I’m not going to say – I don’t know, because I think the question of Africa is such a deep one. But I know that what C.L.R. was able to give him was not what he needed.

C.L.R. was by that time in a very difficult position. You know about what happened when he went down to Trinidad – you know about his conflicts with Eric Williams? In 1960, Kathleen Gough – she’s an anthropologist – and Jimmy and I spent five weeks in Trinidad. … We had arrived early at their house in Trinidad and at the house also was a civil rights attorney and his wife, and Kathleen and Jimmy and I were on the porch of C.L.R and Selma’s house waiting for them. C.L.R. arrived and immediately said, “I want you to listen to the speech that I just made.” And he was so rude, and so pompous that Kathleen moved out the next day. And then what I saw happen – we arrived just as the auto workers went on strike – C.L.R. would send a message to Williams every day. What was happening as I saw it, was that these younger people he had mentored had come into power and were struggling, and he was trying to tell them what to do.

Polsgrove: That happened to Padmore when he went to Ghana –

Boggs: But he [Padmore] was a man who was very comfortable with himself, and I think he had the sense that while he was a mentor to these African young people, that he was also a very mature person. I have had now the experience – I’ve come to the conclusion that when people take power, they begin to take on the trappings of the state from which they have taken the power. That’s what happened to the Russians, that’s what happened to the Africans, and that’s what happened to blacks in this country, after Black Power. I had no sense in the years that I worked with C.L.R. that he understood this.

Polsgrove: One of the very ironic moments is when Padmore has moved to Ghana and he’s sitting on a committee that’s hearing reports of sedition in Ghana, after all those years when he was the object of surveillance by the British and they were banning his books in the colonies, and now Nkrumah’s in power and the Nkrumah folks are doing just what the British have done to their subjects. So it’s an exact illustration of what you’re talking about. This was the government they inherited and they perpetuated.

Boggs: And it wasn’t always the people who bought gold beds for themselves for example, which was very flagrant corruption, but the other kind of corruption, of administering a state that you inherited, is much more fundamental. I don’t know that Padmore understood this, but he might have understood this because he lived in Moscow for so long. I know that C.L.R. didn’t understand it.

Polsgrove: I think that Padmore understood that they had to create something different. He had bent his whole life to getting rid of British rule, and now he had to start over in the Fifties thinking what the new thing should be and then of course he died before he got very far.

Boggs: It’s a very difficult question – these questions are so profound, and so complex….

Polsgrove: I think that Padmore had ambitions to be accepted as a scholar, he wanted his work to be seen as scholarship and didn’t want it just to be propaganda or political.

Boggs: Padmore’s articles – I can remember reading his articles in the Baltimore Afro-American. They meant a great deal. They were propagandistic, but they were part of our education – all part of the twentieth century. Try and get a feeling for the twentieth century as a period when we are learning, we are developing, we don’t really have a serious black movement, we don’t have a serious independence movement, a third world movement until the twentieth century, so it’s a lot of trial and error. I think we have to see each one of these individuals as part of the developing movement, playing their particular role, making their particular contribution.

With thanks to Grace Lee Boggs for her own particular contribution. – Carol Polsgrove, October 6, 2015.