Thoughts on "American Revolutionary"

I had a half-finished post for NaCreSoMo already, but that got mentally stomped by American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, showing as the centerpiece presentation of CAAMFest 2014. So instead, here are my (tumultuous) thoughts coming out of this film.

But before I do that, a disclaimer. These thoughts are being shaped now, as I am writing them. They are coming from someone who is fairly ignorant of politics, who does not follow real-life issues or movements. They are coming at this instant in time: March 16, 2014, after watching this movie. They of course do not reflect the views of my employer, but they may not even reflect my own views in the future. Most likely they won’t.

Apologies for the pretension, but this is me showing a bit of my inner mind here. If I am wrong, please don’t just tell me so, because it’s more interesting (to me and hopefully to you) how I got to this wrong place. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

It is almost certain that this post reveals I am an ignorant fool. The best I can say is that I am at least trying to be aware that I am an ignorant fool.

I have two main thoughts on the movie, a small-but-interesting one and a big-but-obvious one. Small one first.

If, like me, you haven’t heard of Grace Lee Boggs, here’s the thirty-second version (something director Lee was fond of doing in the film). She went to college, became somewhat disillusioned, found and studied philosophy, joined a leftist group, married a fellow revolutionary named James (“Jimmy”) Boggs, worked with him for decades in the African-American Civil Rights Movement and afterwards, and continued (and continues!) to work today in bringing Detroit forwards, and maybe the entire US while she’s at it.

You might not have guessed from that description that Boggs is Chinese-American. And indeed, the film does end up hitting that at numerous points: humorously, that the FBI believed (for a while) that she must have been part African-American; strikingly, when Boggs realized she knew basically nothing about the 21st century Asian-American movement; and seriously, in how she started out as partly in and partly out of the African-American movement and community (did I mention James Boggs was African-American?).

…and eventually ending up very much in it: accepted by the other leaders, and using the word “we”, though without trying to pretend that she was African-American or had faced the same struggles.

But the most interesting moment was when a fellow revolutionary leader who was African-American (and whose name I sadly forgot, because it was only about half-way through the movie) said something like, “We didn’t think of her as Chinese-American. She was just…Grace!”

I must admit I still think of this as the end game. We’re nowhere near this, and it won’t happen in our lifetimes, which is why I need to get over it. But this is still what things are supposed to be like. Obviously once you know someone, they’re just a person, but before you know them…they should still be their actions, their choices, and not where their way-back ancestors happened to live.

I would like to think people agree with me that this would be a desirable future. Not erasing differences, or culture, or even heritage…but not assuming someone’s culture based on their macroethnicity.

The other interesting thing, though, is that I’m pretty sure this is what people—okay, white people—are trying to say when they say they are “race-blind”, or *cringe* “don’t see color”.

I have mostly climbed out of the hole of these ideas (a friend recently condemned them as something like “dealt with in Racism 101, and so problematic even Colbert makes fun of them”), and yet they are still in my brain sometimes, causing me to say some incredibly stupid things (which I should never actually repeat, especially not online).

Paradoxically, this one quote in American Revolutionary made me feel much better about this. Do you really see me as your white friend? Do you really want me thinking of you as my Latino friend?

It’s not that it should be forgotten. It’s that it should be the same sort of auxiliary characteristic as “my red-haired friend”, “my friend from Michigan”, “my really really skinny friend”. All of these things may actually say something about you (with natural hair color being the least likely of course), but they don’t need to be part of someone’s identity, and they don’t need to be in the other person’s mind all the time.

(I’m not going to pretend I don’t have totally inappropriate stereotypes, either. That hurts to admit to myself, but the first step is admitting you have a problem. And if you say you are “color-blind” even when meeting people for the first time, stop and think about it a little more. In this society, I would guess there’s a good chance you are lying to yourself, or at least that it’s not wholly true.)

I may sometimes forget what you face as trans, as gay, as a woman, as a person of color—but I’m not trying to pretend you are, or have to be, cis, or straight, or male, or white.

But of course I can’t speak for all people who are cis, or straight, or male, or white.

The big-but-obvious thought, of course, is that I am a straight white cis male with a B.A. from a good university, a job in a very well-paying industry, and an apartment in San Francisco…who grew up in a good school district in the suburbs in an upper-middle class family. I have pretty much all the privilege it is possible to have without your family actually being famous.


It hurt tonight to be reminded of this, even though the film didn’t bring this up, not explicitly. I don’t mean that it did it subtly, either—it just wasn’t what Lee was talking about. And yet, there it was.

I’d like to think I’m not actively contributing to problems, but at the very least I am part of the crowd of “techies”, the SF yuppies, who are driving up housing prices and causing existing institutions to get replacement merely by our mass presence. I’m not making a joke, either: almost none of us are individually doing anything wrong, and many of us chose to live in San Francisco specifically because we love the city. But that does make us both a force of displacement, which is combining spectacularly poorly with SF’s existing housing issues, and it makes us a target market for new businesses that might just appeal to us more.

I’m not sure what we do about this. I’m glad the protests aimed at the busses have died down: they were getting unnervingly personal and violent (picketing someone’s house and throwing rocks through the bus windows). Of course, if these things are “unnerving”, we’re a long way from actual hardship…though I feel really bad for the bus drivers who get caught in this.

In any case, I personally don’t want the discussion to go away. Because nothing’s changed. And we still don’t have an answer. And I’d prefer the answer isn’t “eventually all of SF is upper-middle class”.

The latter half of the film focused on how Boggs is working currently to make things better, but also on how she is very good at making people think. Even before that, she (and the film) placed great emphasis on conversation and the power of conversation for ideas.

These are issues I care about, and I’ve written about them on this blog before. But I haven’t actually done anything.

I know that tomorrow I will go back to work and go back to not thinking about the people less fortunate less privileged than me. (Yes, those two things are different, and require different kinds of changes.) But when I go back and revisit this post in the future, it’ll be a little prick, a little thorn reminding me about tonight. And eventually I will snap.

And the part of me writing this wants it to happen sooner rather than later.

This post and the discussion following it inspired “Paint” and “Paint, Part 2“.