Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Memories of Grace Lee Boggs (1915-2015)

Tuesday Night Café, Little Tokyo, Los Angeles

Jenni Kuida with Tony Osumi & Maiya Kuida-Osumi

Thank you to Sean Miura for inviting us to share at tonight’s Tuesday Night Cafe.  Our deep condolences to Grace’s family and friends in Detroit and around the country, and our thanks to friends like Shea Howell at the Boggs Center who have taken care of her, especially in the last years.

My husband Tony and I met Grace Lee Boggs in 1998, the year her autobiography “Living for Change” was published.  Grace stayed at our house when she came for the “Serve the People” conference at UCLA organized by Scott Kurashige.  I had never heard of Grace, but Tony had read Grace and Jimmy Boggs’ 1974 groundbreaking book, “Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century.”

I remember Grace, then 83 years old, so full of life and interest in everything; sleeping on our futon couch, rummaging through the bookshelves in our den, showing us VHS tape of her husband Jimmy speaking, reconnecting with Nobuko Miyamoto after 30 years (and who will dedicate her performance to Grace later tonight), and having dinner with Grace and Yuri Kochiyama.  Yes.

After seeing the Aloha Grocery mural that Tony and I collaborated on in the Venice Culver community in LA, Grace invited Tony and I to Detroit to help envision a mural with Detroit Summer, whose passion it was to rebuild and re-spirit Detroit, from the ground up.  That’s what she does, she offers invitations, and challenges.  We had no funding, and no agenda; we just went, and it changed our lives.

We found ourselves baling hay from an abandoned crack house into the trunk of our rental car with Farmer Paul, sweating and hauling logs down city streets with Detroit Summer teenagers for a new community garden, and a crash course in Detroit’s history.  Since I had never been to Detroit, I knew nothing of its post-industrial decay, 10,000 empty houses or 60,000 abandoned lots.  

At the time, I was working for Nobuko at Great Leap, and we had been engaging communities in performance residences in Watts, Boyle Heights and Phoenix, so with Grace’s invitation to explore ideas for Great Leap, we went back to Detroit.

Grace introduced us to Gerald Hairston, who created over 200 urban gardens on vacant lots with youth and elders. In 2001, Gerald passed away unexpectedly, and Nobuko was inspired to write “I Dream a Garden,” a Japanese American Obon circle dance, Detroit-style, incorporating multi-ethnic rhythms and movements.  The Fandango Obon, which will take place at the JACCC on October 25th, was born out of the “I Dream a Garden” project.

On our many visits, we stayed at the Boggs Center, upstairs from Grace’s home.  Each morning and night, we would stop in to see her, and she would ask us how our day was, and give us more names of people in the community to meet and connect with.  

Tony and I went back to do another mural in Detroit’s Chinatown Association building in 2003.  The success of these projects would not have been dreamable without Grace’s guidance, the spark, energy and soul behind everything.

Grace continued to be part of our life after our daughter Maiya Grace was born in 2005.  Named after Grace, we continued visiting Grace every year or two. In the last 5 years, filmmaker Grace Lee’s documentary “American Revolutionary” and Grace’s book with Scott Kurashige, “The Next American Revolution” brought her more attention from the API and film communities, progressive, ethnic and mainstream media, and although she slowed down a bit, she seemed to gain energy from the good vibes of everyone she came in contact with.

Grace encouraged us all to think deeper, more creatively and more critically, thinking of ways to meet new demands and consider new approaches.  Grace’s circle of positive change is filled with murals, urban gardens, renovating vacant buildings, intergenerational book clubs, freedom schooling, teens and elders, neighbor to neighbor, with “visions for what Detroit can be and what America ought to be,” as she would say.

For all of you tonight, as activists, creators and producers of community arts, spoken word, music, and comedy, we should draw from Grace’s influence by listening, watching, and interacting with each other.

Grace lived 100 years.  You can read all of the amazing quotes that were trending all over Facebook, Instagram and Twitter yesterday, and even what Obama said about her.

I know that if she were here, and she is, with rockets on her wheelchair soaring high, she would love what happens in this space, on this stage in Little Tokyo on the 1st and 3rd Tuesday from Spring to Fall, and she would challenge us to continue to struggle and keep the conversations going.  We love you Grace.

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