Grace Lee and James Boggs Embodied Black-Asian Solidarity

In this time of anti-Asian hate, we need look to the couple who fought for civil rights in Detroit

Scott Kurashige
Published in
6 min readJun 27, 2021


Photo courtesy of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Foundation

By Alice Jennings and Scott Kurashige

In the 2016 Netflix movie Barry, viewers relive Barack Obama’s personal and political coming of age during his years as a college student at Columbia University. A Black man in a sea of whiteness on the elite campus, Barry (played by Devon Terrell) dates a white woman, Charlotte (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), and plays pick-up basketball in nearby Harlem.

With young Obama feeling stuck in the crack between these worlds, the dramatized narrative concludes with Barry’s intriguing revelation. Charlotte’s mother introduces him to a “brilliant” Black and Asian American activist couple named James and Grace Lee, who reassure him that his mixed-race background and international upbringing represent the future of the United States. The scene ends with James and Grace Lee Boggs metaphorically handing the baton of movement activism and struggle to the man who would become the first Black president.

This fictional account is one of the rare examples, albeit a cameo, of a Black-Asian relationship in film. It was inspired by the real-life works of James and Grace Lee Boggs, who were nationally renowned authors and human rights activists who worked to build multiracial and intergenerational movements for social transformation. This is the kind of inspiration we desperately need to reshape Hollywood, our schools, and our political system.

Interracial relationships depicted on-screen almost always involve a white-nonwhite coupling. With stories of so-called Black-Asian conflict saturating the news, as they did during the 1992 Los Angeles uprising and now in response to viral videos of anti-Asian violence, the dearth of holistic Black-Asian representation becomes even more pronounced. Taken out of context, these accounts of a seeming intractable clash of cultures become a convenient distraction from the focus on systemic white supremacy brought about by the brutalization of Rodney King and the killings of George Floyd and the Atlanta spa victims.

In response, thousands in the movement to Stop Asian Hate have held up the Boggses as models of Black-Asian solidarity for their personal lives and organizing practice. Grace—who passed away in 2015, and would have turned 106 on June 27—has particularly gained visibility as an Asian American role model. On Inauguration Day, Vice President Kamala Harris released a video dedicated to her mother and women activists “who came before her.” In a nod to her own Asian and African American ancestry, Harris’ tribute showcased back-to-back images of Grace and Shirley Chisholm. Grace was so immersed in the Black community during the civil rights and Black Power eras, police records (incorrectly) stated she was probably of African and Chinese descent.

To capture the true lessons from their extraordinary lives, it is vital that we see James and Grace Lee Boggs as more than curiosities or icons. Making a home and a movement based in Detroit, their relationship brought together some of the key strands of U.S. history, including the civil rights, labor, women’s, disability, public education, and environmental movements.

Better known as “Jimmy,” James (1919–1993) was a Chrysler autoworker raised in rural Alabama, where, as he said, “white folks were ladies and gentleman by day and Ku Klux Klansmen by night.” Drawing insights from factory and community organizing, he became one of the leading theorists of Black Power and the new disparities arising as automation eliminated jobs.

Born in New England, Grace (1915–2015) came from a different geographical and social background. Her father, an immigrant from China, ran Chinese restaurants not in New York City’s Chinatown but on Broadway, attracting star-studded patrons like Henry and June Miller. Grace graduated from Barnard College, where she recalled only encountering two other Asians, then received a PhD in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College.

In June 1953, Grace moved to Detroit to prioritize political organizing in a city bustling with factory workers, among whom Jimmy was already known for being an outspoken leader. Two months later, she summoned the courage to invite Jimmy to her home for dinner. He showed up two hours late and proceeded to criticize her choice of music and food. Recounting that first date in the documentary, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs (2013), Grace remarked that Jimmy “was very unpleasant, actually.” “But in the course of the evening,” she added, “he asked me to marry him, and I said yes.”

Grace Lee Boggs at the American Revolutionary premiere during the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival. Photo: Getty Images

Their partnership brought a deep, philosophical form of study together with the militant urgency of working-class activism. This rich and unique combination of reflection and action informs the Boggs-inspired approach to “visionary organizing,” which seeks to address the immediate problems of injustice while creating models of new relationships that will define a more just system.

Grace brought the two of us, an African American (Alice Jennings) and an Asian American (Scott Kurashige), together. Alice met the Boggses in the 1980s as they struggled to create beacons of hope amid economic devastation, white flight, police brutality, drug proliferation, neighborhood gun violence, and toxic pollution. Scott moved to Detroit in the 21st century and co-wrote Grace’s last book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century. Collectively, we have advanced urban farming, public arts, environmental justice, and intergenerational dialogues to foster a new generation of “solutionary” leaders.

Here are three key concepts we believe are essential for movement organizers today that can help to envision greater possibilities for cross-racial and intergenerational solidarity:

1. Don’t think like a minority

The Boggses wrote trenchant critiques of racism and white supremacy. However, they also stressed that movement builders must not get “stuck” in thinking about race as a fixed identity. Anti-racism for the Boggses was a step toward stretching our common humanity. “Don’t think like a minority” was one of Jimmy’s favorite sayings, drawn in part from Shakespeare’s famous passage in Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” The Boggses especially implored Black and Asian Americans not to remain victims or seek equality with whites, whose privileges were derived from systems of oppression. We can never expect those in power to initiate meaningful change. Instead, we need to recognize that we are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.

2. Change yourself to change the world

During the 1960s, Jimmy and Grace understood the righteousness of anger and rebellion, yet they ultimately asserted that protest and rejection of the existing system was only a first step in social transformation. In line with Martin Luther King Jr.’s concept of a “revolution of values,” they called on movement builders to define what we stand for rather than dwell on what we are against. Through the process of social transformation, we must also transform ourselves to be the change we wish to see in the world. This concept lies at the forefront of the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, a K-8 school in Detroit that rejects the standardized testing model to emphasize developing the skills and values our children need to solve problems in their communities.

3. Love America enough to change it

Despite being disturbed at the nation’s retreat from the advances of the civil rights and Black Power movements, the Boggses never lost hope in our ability to make the world anew. Their emphasis on an “American” revolution was not meant to affirm an old version of MAGA-type nationalism. It was a call for people in the United States to recognize the special responsibility we have to overcome this nation’s history of slavery, colonialism, and dispossession of Indigenous peoples. This is a question they especially insisted must be at the center of redefining the United States as Black, Asian, Latino, Native, Pacific Islander, and Arab Americans become the majority of the population.

In closing, the interracial marriage and radical politics of Jimmy and Grace placed them outside of the American mainstream for most of their lifetimes. Today, as people of Afro-Asian ancestry like Vice President Kamala Harris, Naomi Osaka, Nikki Manaj, and Anderson .Paak have moved to the forefront of our politics and culture, the Boggses’ history and legacy resonate strongly with younger generations grappling with 21st-century realities and crises. We have committed our lives to sharing their story, and we invite you to join us on this most fulfilling journey.



Scott Kurashige

Professor and Scholar of U.S. History and Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies