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Transcript:

August 31, 2007

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL. The combined age of the two people you're about to meet is 172 years. They have lived full and original lives. And they're still going trong. The iconoclast H.L. Mencken once said, "I go on working for the same reason that a hen goes on laying eggs." He had nothing on Grace Lee Boggs and Robert Bly.

I first met Robert Bly back in 1979. He was reading from his poetry at Cooper Union here in New York:

ROBERT BLY: POET AT LARGE: A CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT BLY: "How amazed I am after working hard in the afternoon that when I sit down at the table with my elbows touching the elbows of my children. So much love flows out and around in circles.

BILL MOYERS: It wasn't hard to figure out why Bly was exerting such influence on aspiring American poets. He already enjoyed a large following — appealing to poetry lovers with powerful images of intimate subjects:

POET AT LARGE: A CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT BLY: More of the fathers are dying each day. It's time for the sons and the daughters. Bits of darkness are gathering around them. And the bits of darkness appear as flakes of light.

BILL MOYERS: Bly was daring in word and example, he was also controversial. In 1966 he had co-founded American Writers Against the Vietnam War, and when he won The National Book Award two years later for THE LIGHT AROUND THE BODY, he contributed the prize money to the resistance.

Over the years Robert Bly has ranged far and wide in his poems, with thirty or more books touching on spiritual insights and deep and dark truths about American culture. His IRON JOHN became an international best seller, and brought untold numbers of men to poetry:

A GATHERING OF MEN: It is a massive masculine shadow, 50 males sitting together in halls or crowded room lifting something indistinct up into the resonating night.

BILL MOYERS: I've encountered Robert Bly again and again at poetry festivals and interviewed him about the passions of his life — including his work as an eminent translator of the Islamic poets Rumi and Hafez.

LANGUAGE OF LIFE: LOVES CONFUSING JOY: ROBERT BLY PERFORMING AND READING HAFEZ AT THE PAUL WINTER CONSORT: My ego is stubborn often drunk, impolite, my loving finely sensitive, impatient, confused. Please take messages from one to the other.

BILL MOYERS: He was in town recently and I invited him over to the studio. He came, bearing as always, a satchel of books and eager to talk, as always, about poets and poetry.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL.

ROBERT BLY: Thank you.

BILL MOYERS: I love what the English professor said about you last year. He said, "Robert Bly is an important guy. He's important." He said, "Robert Bly is an important guy. He's so famous, I'm sometimes surprised to find he's still alive."

ROBERT BLY: I am surprised, too.

BILL MOYERS: Do you ever wake up surprised that you are still here?

ROBERT BLY: Yes, I do. Very much.

BILL MOYERS: Present company excepted, who do you thinks been the greatest American poet up to now?

ROBERT BLY: Well, Walt Whitman? You have to bring him in immediately.

BILL MOYERS: Why?

ROBERT BLY: He does everything. And whenever you have a person in another culture like India who is trying to make us understand what religious life is like in India, they quote they quote Whitman.

When he begins calling out his beautiful list of people that he loves and things that he loves, the divine always comes into it in some way. So you just feel he is pretending to write about human beings. Maybe he's some sort of messenger from god.

BILL MOYERS: You know, when I first met you, you were just barely 50. And you read this little poem. You remember this one?

ROBERT BLY: "I lived my life enjoying orbits. Which move out over the things of the world. I have wandered into space for hours, passing through dark fires. And I have gone to the deserts of the hottest places, to the landscape of zeroes. And I can't tell if this joy is from the body or the soul or a third place."

Well, that's very good you find that because when you say, "What is the divine," it's much simpler to say there is the body, then there's the soul and then there's a third place.

BILL MOYERS: Have you figured out what that third place is 30 years later?

ROBERT BLY: It's a place where all of the geniuses and lovely people and the brilliant women in the-- they all go there. And they watch over us a little bit. Once in awhile, they'll say, "Drop that line. It's no good."

Sometimes when you do poetry, especially if you do translate people like Hafez and Rumi, you go almost immediately to this third world. But we don't go there very often.

BILL MOYERS: Why?

ROBERT BLY: Well I suppose it's because we think too much about our houses and our places. Maybe I should read a Kabir poem here.

BILL MOYERS: And Kabir?

ROBERT BLY: Kabir is a poet from India. Fourteenth century.

"Friend, hope for the guest while you are alive.
Jump into experience while you're alive. Think... and think... while you're alive.
What you call salvation, belongs to the time before death.

If you don't break your ropes while you're alive,
you think that
ghosts will do it after? The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic
just because the body's rotten--
that's all fantasy.
What is found now is found then.
And if you find nothing now, you will simply end up with an apartment in the City of Death."

I was going through Chicago one time with a young poet and we were rewriting this. And he said, "If you find nothing now, you will seemly end up with a suite in the Ramada Inn of death." That's very interesting to see how that thing really comes alive when you bring in terms of your own country. You'll end up with a suite in the Ramada Inn of death. If you make love with the divine now, in the next life, you will have the face of satisfied desire.

So plunge into the truth, find out who the teacher is, believe in the great sound. Kabir says this, when the guest is being searched for - see they don't use the word "God". Capital G, "Guest". When the Guest is being searched for, it's the intensity of the longing for the Guest that does all the work. Then he says, "Look at me and you'll see a slave of that intensity." So he's the first one that I ever went into who wrote true religious ones.

BILL MOYERS: You've been working a lot lately in Islamic-- poems of Islam, right?

ROBERT BLY: The Muslims have a great literature and fantastic poets. Rumi and Hafez have been the guiding light, Rumi especially, of American poetry for the last five or ten years. But also it seems to me that if we're doing so much attack upon the Muslim world, criticizing the Muslim world so much, we should be able to give thanks for the genius that is there.

ROBERT BLY: So, this is Persian poetry-14th century.

"The foods turned out by the factors of time and space are not all that great. Bring some wine because good things of this world are not all that great."

"The true kingdom comes to you without any breaking of bones. If that weren't so, achieving the garden through your own neighbors wouldn't be all that great. In the five days remaining to you in this rest stop before you to go to the grave, take it easy, give yourself time, because time is not all that great."

Two more.

"You Puritans on the stone floor, you are not safe from the tricks of God's zeal. The distance between the cloister and the tavern we love is not all that great."

And the last stanza is "The name of Hafez has been well inscribed in the books, but in our clan of disreputables, the difference between profit and loss is not all that great."

You see how he is withdrawing all our obsessions? I've gotta get this done. I don't have much time left. So, he's a tremendous spiritual poet.

BILL MOYERS: Help me understand the popularity of Rumi. The 13th century mystical poet?

ROBERT BLY: Yes--

ROBERT BLY: I like geniuses. And--

BILL MOYERS: Rumi was a genius?

ROBERT BLY: Yeah, he was. I'm gonna give you one that I did.

BILL MOYERS: Translated?

ROBERT BLY: "I don't like it here. I want to go back. According to the old knowers, if you're absent from the one you love even for one second, that ruins the whole thing. There must be someone, just to find one sign of the other world in this town would be helpful." I feel that in Minneapolis.

"Just to find one sign of the other world in this town would be helpful. You know the great Chinese Saimer bird got caught in this net. What can I do? I'm only a wren. My desire-body, don't come strolling over this way. Sit where you are. It's a good place."

"When you want dessert, you choose something rich. When you choose wine, you look for what's clear and firm. What is the rest?" Talking about-- "What is the rest?" The rest is television. "What is the rest? The rest is mirages and blurry pictures and milk mixed with water. The rest is self-hatred and mocking other people and bombing. So, just be quiet and sit down. The reason is you're drunk. And this is the edge of the roof."

It's a good poem, even for the United States right now.

BILL MOYERS: Why?

ROBERT BLY: Um, look for what's clear and firm. "What is the rest? The rest is mirages and blurry pictures and milk mixed with water." That is the way to cheat in the old days. "The rest is self-hatred and mocking other people and bombing. So, just be quiet and sit down." That'd be a good thing to say to Bush. "Just be quiet and sit down. The reason is you're drunk. And this is the edge of the roof."

BILL MOYERS: Your mature life has been bracketed by two wars, two long wars: Vietnam and Iraq. And you wrote poems against Iraq, and you wrote poems against Vietnam. And both of them went on.

ROBERT BLY: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: Poetry didn't stop the war.

ROBERT BLY: No, it's never been able to do anything of that sort. It merely speaks to the soul, so the soul can remember -- so it's quite proper to have all the poems against the war. And it's proper not to be disappointed if nothing changes. Would you like me to read the poem I have against — this is probably the first poem written against the Iraq War in August of 2002.

BILL MOYERS: This was before the invasion.

ROBERT BLY: Yeah. "Tell me why we don't lift our voices these days and cry over what is happening. Have you noticed the plans are made for Iraq and the ice cap is melting? I say to myself, 'Go on, cry. What's the sense of being an adult and having no voice. Cry out. See who will answer. This is call and answer.' We will have to call especially loud to reach our angels who are hard of hearing. They are hiding in the jugs of silence filled during our wars." I was thinking of Grenada. Remember we invaded Grenada? Why did we do that?

"We'll have to call especially loud to reach our angels who are hard of hearing. They are hiding in the jugs of silence filled during our wars. Have we agreed to so many wars that we can't escape from silence. If we don't lift our voices, we allow others who are ourselves to rob the house."

"How come we listen to the great criers? Neruda, Akhmatova, Thoreau, Frederick Douglas. And now we're silent as sparrows in the little bushes." It's a very bad pun, but I left it in. "We are silent as sparrows in the little bushes. Some masters say our life only lasts seven days. Where are we in the week? Is it Thursday yet? Hurry. Cry now. Soon Sunday night will come." And Sunday night came when we bombed Baghdad. "Where are we in the week? Is it Thursday yet? Hurry, cry now. Soon Sunday night will come."

BILL MOYERS: Why isn't there more outcry?

ROBERT BLY: Well, If there were a draft, the outcry would be just as great as it was in the Vietnam War. Many of the people getting killed are the sons of people in Northern Minnesota or somewhere who don't have any access to protest. But it was a disastrous choice like most of the other decisions he made.

BILL MOYERS: I go back to that acceptance speech you made in 1969 when you accepted the National Book Award, but you gave your $1000 prize to the resistance against Vietnam. You said (quote) "As Americans we have all..." Remember this is 1969. "As Americans we have always wanted the life of feeling without the life of suffering. We long for pure life, constant victory. We've always wanted to avoid suffering, and therefore, we are unable to live in the present." Do you think that's still true today?

ROBERT BLY: Yes. Isn't that amazing that it's happening again that the people in Washington are not suffering at all, but the ones who are suffering are those young men who had a bad education and needed to escape somehow from the tramp of American life, and so they go there and get their legs and arms blown off?

BILL MOYERS: You went to Iran a few months ago. Tell me about that.

ROBERT BLY: Yes, they flew us to Shiraz where Hafez's grave is. So, we got up in the morning, and we went to the grave. And about 8:00 in the morning, you know, children started to come. Maybe third grade children. And they stood around the little tomb and sang a poem of Hafez's. Really charming. And then they went away, and now some fifth graders came. And they stood around the tomb and sang a poem of Hafez.

And, of course, every poem of Hafez is connected with a tune, so you teach the children the tune, and then they have the poem. So I said to myself, "Isn't that unbelievable? And why don't we do that? Why don't we go to the grave of Walt Whitman and have children come there?" Do you understand what it is--

BILL MOYERS: I do. I don't have an answer. Why don't we?

ROBERT BLY: Because we don't love-- we don't bring Walt Whitman and love him in the way that the Iranians bring in their poets and love them. So, that'd be great if children could go to Walt Whitman's grave and recite little poems.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think it would mean if we went to the graves of our poets?

ROBERT BLY: You'd bring the poets into the heart, instead of having them in your head in graduate school. And that's what you do with children. You bring children in, and they get associated with the heart when they're very small, and then they can feel it all through their lives.

BILL MOYERS: You've been talking and writing a lot lately about the greedy soul.

ROBERT BLY: I'm glad you caught that. Read this.

ROBERT BLY: "More and more I've learned to respect the power of the phrase, the greedy soul. We all understand what is hinted after that phrase. It's the purpose of the United Nations is to check the greedy soul in nations. It's the purpose of police to check the greedy soul in people. We know our soul has enormous abilities in worship, in intuition, coming to us from a very ancient past. But the greedy part of the soul, what the Muslims call the "nafs," also receives its energy from a very ancient past. The "nafs" is the covetous, desirous, shameless energy that steals food from neighboring tribes, wants what it wants and is willing to destroy to anyone who receives more good things than itself. In the writer, it wants praise."

I wrote these three lines. "I love very close to my greedy soul. When I see a book published 2000 years ago, I check to see if my name is mentioned." This is really true. I've really done that. Yes, I've said that. So, in writers, the "nafs" often enter in the issue of how much-- do people love me? How much people are reading my books? Do people write about me? Do you understand that? It probably affects you too in that way.

BILL MOYERS: Us journalists? Never.

ROBERT BLY: Never. Okay. "If the covetous soul feels that its national sphere of influence is being threatened by another country, it will kill recklessly and brutally, impoverish millions, order thousands of young men in its own country to be killed only to find out 30 years later that the whole thing was a mistake. In politics the fog of war could be called the fog of the greedy soul."

ROBERT BLY: You know, the reason that one says things like the greedy soul psychologically there's no point in this war at all. It's not achieving thing, never would achieve anything. Only something as mad as the greedy soul could want it to begin and continue.

BILL MOYERS: It doesn't make any sense. As you say, the insanity of empire.

You know, Robert, you told me once when we-- you told me once many years ago that you tried to write a poem everyday. You still do that?

ROBERT BLY: Yes. It's a joyful thing. Especially when I'm doing the ghazels, because then I can do a poem and I get a few stanzas done everyday anyway.

BILL MOYERS: Here are a couple of yours that I like. Read both of those.

ROBERT BLY: Yup. "Think in ways you've never thought before. If a phone rings, think of it as carrying a message that's larger than anything you've ever heard, vaster than 100 lines of Yeats. Think that someone may bring a bear to your door. May be wounded or deranged. And think that a moose has risen out of the lake and he is carrying on his antlers a child of your own whom you've never seen. When someone knocks on the door, think that he's about to give you something large, tell you you're forgiven, or that it's not necessary to work all the time, or that it's been decided that if you lie down, no one will die."

And that's for you too, isn't it? "When someone knocks at the door, think that he's about to give you something large." Tell Bill Moyers that you've "been forgiven, that it's not necessary for you to work all the time or that it's been decided that if you lie down, then no one will die." So- well, that's a beautiful quality in you, the feeling that you that it isn't right for you to lie down, and I'm glad you're still working all the time.

BILL MOYERS: What about this one. This is one of your earliest that you read to me many years ago. And I wonder if it still resonates with you.

ROBERT BLY: "For My Son, Noah, Ten Years Old."

Night and day arrive and day after day goes by,
and what is old remains old and what is young
remains young and grows old
The lumber pile does not grow younger,
nor the two-by-four's lose their darkness,
but the old tree goes on, the barn stands without help
so many years;
the advocate of darkness and night is not lost.

The horse steps up, swings on one leg, turns its body,
the chicken flapping claws onto the roof, its wings
whelping and walloping,
but what is primitive is not to be shot out into the
night in the dark.
And slowly the kind man comes closer, loses his rage,
sits down at table.

That's the second stanza. And the end of it, I can feel that when I was about 35 or 40 or so on, and I had children, I realized that what is primitive in me is not to be shot out all the time into the dark. "Slowly the kind man comes closer, loses his rage." Someone that sits down at table.

"So, I am proud only of those days that pass in
undivided tenderness. When you said drawing or making books, stapled
with messages to the world or coloring a man with fire coming out of his hair," (this is for my son, Noah,)
"or we sit at a table with small tea carefully poured.
So we pass our time together calm and collected."

BILL MOYERS: Where do you reconcile that in the end?

ROBERT BLY: Well, what I've learned from the Muslims about the "nafs" helps me to understand that if I am demanding or hopelessly aggressive with my children whenever, that isn't me. It's the "nafs."

BILL MOYERS: The greedy soul.

ROBERT BLY: And that greedy soul is very powerful and doesn't want to be looked at. And my hope is that the greedy soul will hear my words and understand that-- it isn't necessary-- I'm 80 years old. How much more do I need or have to obey the greedy soul? Isn't this enough? Aren't I famous enough? Haven't I published enough books?

BILL MOYERS: I remember the first time I came to see back in the late 70s. You were living in Moose Lake--

ROBERT BLY: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: Minnesota.

ROBERT BLY: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: You still there?

ROBERT BLY: I still am. We have a house in Minneapolis, but I sometimes go back up to Moose Lake when I want to be by myself.

BILL MOYERS: Do you have a favorite from up there?

ROBERT BLY: My favorite from Moose Lake?

BILL MOYERS: How about "After Drinking All Night With A Friend?"

ROBERT BLY: Oh, that's good.

BILL MOYERS: That sounds like Moose Lake.

ROBERT BLY: Yes. This is a poem from the '60s really. A friend and I went up to a lake up north and-- "After drinking all night with a friend, we go out in the boat at dawn to see who can write the best poem." This is Bill Duffy.

These pines, these fall oaks, these rocks,
This water, dark and touched by wind —
I am like you, you dark boat,
Drifting over waters fed by cool springs.

Beneath the water since I was a boy,
I have dreamt of strange and dark treasures,
Not of gold or strange stones, but the true
Gift beneath the pale lakes of Minnesota.

This morning also drifting in the dawn wind,
I sense my hands and my shoes and this ink —
Drifting as all of the body drifts above the clouds of the flesh and the stone.

A few friendships, a few dawns, a few glimpses of grass,
A few oars wedded by the snow and the heat,
So we drift towards shore over cold water,
No longer caring if we drift or go straight.

So, the last line is pretty good, 'cause it's got you see something of the hope that my "nafs" will get smaller. I didn't even know the word at that time. But, "so we drift towards shore over cold water, no longer caring if we drift or go straight."

BILL MOYERS: I like these three lines from the poem in your book, MY SENTENCE WAS A THOUSAND YEARS OF JOY. You say, "Robert, those high spirits don't prove you are a close friend of truth, but you have learned to drive your buggy over the prairies of human sorrow."

ROBERT BLY: Oh good, yeah.

BILL MOYERS: You like that one?

ROBERT BLY: Yeah, I do.

BILL MOYERS: So what now for you?

ROBERT BLY: Well, I'm gonna read something else here. I want to read this one poem before we quit.

ROBERT BLY: I want to do one more for you.

ROBERT BLY: I'll do one more here. Stealing sugar from the castle, this has the word joy. We are poor students who stay after school to study joy. We are like those birds in the Indian mountains. I'm a widow whose child is her only joy. The only thing I hold in my ant-like head is the builder's plan on the castle of sugar. Just to steal one grain of sugar is a joy.

Translating great poetry, you know, is a way of stealing sugar. "The only thing I hold in my ant-like head is the builder's plan on the castle of sugar. Just to steal one grain of sugar is a joy." This is from Beowulf. "Like a bird we fly out of darkness into the halls which are lit with singing then fly out again. Being shot out of the warm hall is also a joy. I'm a laggard, a loafer, and an idiot." One of my boys said to me, "Dad, you're not a loafer."

"I'm a laggard, a loafer, and an idiot. But I love to read about those who caught one glimpse of the face and died 20 years later in joy. I don't mind you saying I will die soon, even in the sound of the word soon I hear the word you. Which begins every sentence of joy. You're a thief, the judge said. Let's see your hands.

I showed my calloused hands in court. My sentence was a thousand years of joy."

ROBERT BLY: Are you happy at 80?

ROBERT BLY: Yeah, I'm happy. I'm happy at 80. And-- I can't stand so much happiness as I used to.

BILL MOYERS: You're Lutheran.

ROBERT BLY: And sometimes maybe one day out of the week I'll become depressed. But the rest of the time, especially if I'm writing poetry, I'm never depressed.

BILL MOYERS: What depresses you?

ROBERT BLY: Who knows? Depression comes up from underneath. And it just grabs you. It's an entity on its own. We are built for depression in a way. Because the nafs is so strong in us it doesn't want us to be happy and give away things. It wants us to pull back inside and say, "My mother wasn't good enough to me. My father wasn't good enough to me." You know they-- oh, that whole thing.

BILL MOYERS: Let's bring the circle around. Because when I first met you 30 years ago you told me this was a poem that had marked you. Remember it?

ROBERT BLY: Yeah.

"I live my life in growing orbits which move out over the things in the world perhaps I will never achieve the last. But that'll be my attempt." Well, that's a very-- a '60s, isn't it? "I live my life in growing orbits which move out over the things of the world. Perhaps I can never achieve the last. But that'll be my attempt."

This is Rainer Maria Rilke, translated from the German. "I am circling around God." From the word made him nervous. So he said, "Around the ancient tower." And I have been circling for a thousand years. And I still don't know if I am a falcon or a storm or a great song." Genius poem, isn't it? Genius.

BILL MOYERS: Rilke.

ROBERT BLY: Rilke. I am circling around God-- around the ancient tower. And I have been circling for a thousand years. There's a part of you that has been circling for a thousand years.

BILL MOYERS: And you.

ROBERT BLY: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: And all of us.

ROBERT BLY: Yeah, yeah. And then--

BILL MOYERS: Those echoes we don't know the source of.

ROBERT BLY: That's right. And that wonderful energy that you can see in a human face even when walking down the street. In New York you see this incredible energy that's inside there and is being blocked all the time by family and business and all of that. But it's still there--circling around God, around the ancient tower. And I have been circling for a thousand years. And I still don't know if I am a falcon, which means someone who goes in and grabs things and steals them, or a storm. Storms circle too. Or a great song. Well, we both hope that we're great songs.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I'm glad I've heard some.

ROBERT BLY: Thank you. And it was so wonderful to be with you.

BILL MOYERS: Same here, same here.

BILL MOYERS: Robert Bly must seem a kid to my next guest. He's 80; Grace Lee Boggs is 92. That's right, 92. She was born in the first term of President Woodrow Wilson, in 1915. But I'm here to tell you that when she was In New York on her last visit, she ran our producing team ragged just trying to keep up with her. And they're a third her age!

What's her secret? Well, somewhere along the way she seems to have given the boot to her nafs — those greedy souls Robert Bly said can drown us in toxic-self absorption. She's also proof that no matter how gray the hair, it's always in season to be learning something new.

When I met Grace Lee, I remembered how that wise old Greek, Diogenes, answered when as an old man he was told he should rest. 'If I were running in the stadium,' he asked, 'ought I to slacken my pace when approaching the goal? Ought I not rather to put on speed?" Look out on the highway. Grace Lee Boggs has the accelerator pushed to the floor.



BILL MOYERS: Grace Lee Boggs has lived in this same house in Detroit, Michigan for almost fifty years. that's over half her life.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: I warn you, I'm a terrible housekeeper

BILL MOYERS:It's a life that's taken her down many roads in the struggle for civil rights. At 91, she's still going strong.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: I'm sorry, but I think if we stick to those categories of race, class and gender, we are stuck.

GRACE LEE BOGGS:: (talking to woman) "Would you send three or four petitions to ..."

BILL MOYERS: From the analysis of Karl Marx to the agitation of black power...from Martin Luther King's non-violence to grassroots activism in the inner city, this philosopher activist has never been afraid of change.

Her story begins here in New York City, where she was born to immigrant Chinese parents. During the roaring 20's her father ran a popular Chinese restaurant on Broadway near Times Square. But to buy the land for their first house across the river in Queens, he had to put the deed in the name of an Irish contractor because Asians were prohibited to own land there.

Every week, Grace spent hours at the local library, and won a regents scholarship to Barnard College, earned a Ph.D in philosophy from Bryn Mawr, and would soon be testing her ideas of a good society from the ground up.

I met her recently when she came back to town from Detroit.

BILL MOYERS: Is it true that the waiters at your father's Chinese restaurant, when you were born, said, "Take her out and put her on a hillside, she's just a girl?"

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Yes, I attribute some of my activism to that. I think being born female in a Chinese restaurant on top a Chinese restaurant gave me an idea of a lot of things in this world that need to be changed.

BILL MOYERS: How did it happen that you came to identify, over the years, far more with the Black American world than with the Chinese American world?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: When I was growing up, Asians were so few and far between, as to be almost invisible. And so the idea of an Asian American movement or an Asian American thrust in this country was unthinkable.

BILL MOYERS: What I'm trying to figure out is how it is that a daughter of a Chinese entrepreneur in New York City goes to Bryn Mawr at a very early age, gets her PhD in 1940, before the Second World War, becomes a Marxist theorist, an activist in the Socialist movement, moves on to become an apostle, disciple of Martin Luther King, and here at 91, having outlived all those theories and all those characters and leaders and people, is still agitating for what she calls democracy.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, I had no idea what I was gonna do after I got my degree in philosophy in 1940. But what I did know was at that time, if you were a Chinese-American, even department stores wouldn't hire you. They'd come right out and say, "We don't hire Orientals." And so the idea of my getting a job teaching in a university and so forth was really ridiculous. And I went to Chicago and I got a job in the philosophy library there for $10 a week, And so I found a little old Jewish woman right near the university who took pity on me and said I could stay in her basement rent-free. The only obstacle was that I had to face down a barricade of rats in order to get into her basement. And at that time, in the black communities, they were beginning to protest and struggle against rat-infested housing. So I joined one of the tenants' organizations and thereby came in touch with the black community for the first time in my life.

BILL MOYERS: One of her first heroes in that community was A. Philip Randolph, the charismatic labor leader who had won a long struggle to organize black railroad porters. In the 1930s. on the eve of World War II, Randolph was furious that blacks were being turned away from good paying jobs in the booming defense plants.

When he took his argument to F.D.R., the president was sympathetic but reluctant to act. Proclaiming that quote 'power is the active principle of only the organized masses,' Randolph called for a huge march on Washington to shame the president. It worked. F.D.R. backed down and signed an order banning discrimination in the defense industry. All over America blacks moved from the countryside into the cities to take up jobs — the first time in 400 years — says Grace Lee Boggs, that black men could bring home a regular paycheck.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: And when I saw what a movement could do, I said, "Boy, that's what I wanna do with my life."

GRACE LEE BOGGS: It was just amazing. I mean, how you have to take advantage of a crisis in the system and in the government and also press to meet the needs of the people who are struggling for dignity. I mean, that's very tricky.

BILL MOYERS: It does take moral force to make political decisions possible.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Yeah. and I think that too much of our emphasis on struggle has simply been in terms of confrontation and not enough recognition of how much spiritual and moral force is involved in the people who are struggling.

BILL MOYERS: Well, that's true. But power never gives up anything voluntarily. People have to ask for it. They have to demand it. They have-to--

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, you know as Douglas said, "Power yields nothing without a struggle." But how one struggles I think is now a very challenging question.

BILL MOYERS: She would learn a lot more about struggle from the man she married in 1952 — Jimmy Boggs, a radical activist, organizer, and writer. They couldn't have been outwardly more different — he was a black man, an auto worker and she was a Chinese-American, college educated philosopher — but they were kindred spirits, and their marriage lasted four decades until his death.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: I think that I owe a great deal of my rootedness to Jimmy because he learned to write and become a writer because in his illiterate community nobody could read and write. He picked cotton, and then went to work in Detroit. He saw himself as having been part of one epoch, the agriculture epoch, and now the industrial epoch, and now the post-industrial epoch. I think that's a very important part of what we need in this country, is that sense that we have lived through so many stages, and that we are entering into a new stage where we could create something completely different. Jimmy had that feeling.

BILL MOYERS: She and Jimmy worked together in the Socialist Workers Party at first, agitating through newsletters and books. They were drawn to the burgeoning Black Power movement — offered Malcolm X a place to stay when he visited Detroit — and argued in any available forum that black power couldn't be worse than white power. Jimmy was drawn into a round of correspondence with the famous British philosopher, Bertrand Russell.

BILL MOYERS: Help me understand what Jimmy Boggs meant when he wrote to the philosopher Burton Russell, "Negroes in the United States still think they are struggling for Democracy. In fact, Democracy is what they are struggling against."

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, for folks who don't understand, say for example, how the Democratic Party was a coalition of labor and liberals from the North, and people like Eastland and all those Klu Klux Klanners down South--

BILL MOYERS: The racist in the South.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: That was American Democracy. People sort create a whole lot of love for it, and all that. Without understanding what the conditions that people were living under, and that that was called democracy.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: And finally, fortunately, we broke through that in the '60s.

BILL MOYERS: But that breakthrough came only with great pain.

In the summer of 1967, a police raid in Detroit exploded into violence. Fires raged across the city, including in the Boggs neighborhood. President Johnson called out the U.S. Army, and the nation watched on television, horrified as the city burned. The press called it a violent spasm of riot and lawlessness.

But Grace Lee Boggs saw something in those flames that many outsiders missed. Her beloved neighborhood was suffering the slow bleed of manufacturing jobs from the city, and an unemployment rate double that of whites.

BILL MOYERS: Let me take you back to that terrible summer of 1967, when Detroit erupted into that awful riot out there.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: I ask you to think about your calling it a riot.

BILL MOYERS: What would you call it?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: We in Detroit called it the rebellion.

BILL MOYERS: The rebellion?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: And because we understand that there was a righteousness about the young people rising up — it was a rising up, it was a standing up, by young people.

BILL MOYERS: Against?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Against both the police, which they considered an occupation army, and against what they sensed had become their expendability because of high-tech. That what black people had been valued for, for hundreds of years, only for their labor, was now being taken away from them.

BILL MOYERS: And you think that this question of work was at the heart of what happened-- or it was part of what happened in Detroit that summer?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: I don't think it's that they were conscious of it, but I thought-- what I saw happen was that young people who recognized that working in the factory was what had allowed their parents to buy a house, to raise a family, to get married, to send their kids to school, that was eroding. They felt that-- no one cares anymore.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: And what we tried to do is explain that a rebellion is righteous, because it's the protest by a people against injustice, because of unrighteous situation, but it's not enough. You have to go beyond rebellion. And it was amazing, a turning point in my life, because until that time, I had not made a distinction between a rebellion and revolution. And it forced us to begin thinking, what does a revolution mean? How does it relate to evolution?

BILL MOYERS: The violence in Detroit brought some new thinking about a strategy for change. After seeing how anger and frustration could turn so quickly into chaos, Boggs began to take a closer look at the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr.

She had been slow to appreciate King's spiritual journey or his belief in non-violence. But now she discovered that King, too, was wrestling with how to go beyond the civil rights movement to a profound transformation of society.

By this point, King had realized it wasn't enough just to end racial segregation in the south. In the spring of 1967, he came to New York's historic Riverside Church to challenge inequality throughout America — and to link conditions at home to the nation's war in Southeast Asia.

MARTIN LUTHER KING: I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam... The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.

BILL MOYERS: The conundrum for me is this; The war in Vietnam continued another seven years after Martin Luther King's great speech at Riverside here in New York City on April 4th, 1967. His moral argument did not take hold with the powers-that-be.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: I don't expect moral arguments to take hold with the powers-that-be. They are in their positions of power. They are part of the system. They are part of the problem.

BILL MOYERS: Then do moral arguments have any force if they--

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Of course they do.

BILL MOYERS: If they can be so heedlessly ignored?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: I think because we depend too much on the government to do it. I think we're not looking sufficiently at what is happening at the grassroots in the country. We have not emphasized sufficiently the cultural revolution that we have to make among ourselves in order to force the government to do differently. Things do not start with governments--

BILL MOYERS: But wars do.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: There's big changes--

BILL MOYERS: Wars do. Wars do.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Wars do. But positive changes leaps forward in the evolution of human kind, do not start with governments. I think that's what the Civil Rights Movement taught us.

BILL MOYERS: But Martin Luther King was ignored then on the war. In fact, the last few years of his life, as he was moving beyond the protest in the South, and the end of official segregation, he was largely ignored if not ridiculed for his position on economic equality. Upon doing something about poverty. And, in fact, many civil rights leaders, as you remember, Grace, condemned him for mixing foreign policy with civil rights. They said; That's not what we should be about.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: But see, what I hear in what you're saying is a separation of the anti-war speech of the peace trajectory, from the other things that Martin said. He was talking about a radical revolution of values. And that radical revolution of values has not been pursued in the last forty years. The consumerism, and materialism, has gotten worse. The militarism has continued, while people are going around, you know just using their credit cards. All that's been taking place. And so, would he have continued to challenge those? I think he would. But on the whole, our society has not been challenging those, except in small pockets.

BILL MOYERS: He said that the three triplets of society in America were; Racism, consumerism or materialism and militarism. And you're saying those haven't changed.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: I'm saying that not only have those not changed, but people have isolated the struggles against each of these from the other. They have not seen that they're part of one whole of a radical revolution of values that we all must undergo.

BILL MOYERS: Whose failing is that?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: I'm not sure I would use the word 'failing.' I would say that people who have engaged in one struggle tend to be locked into that struggle.

BILL MOYERS: When you look back, who do you think was closer to the truth? Karl Marx or Martin Luther King? The truth about human society.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: King was an extraordinary thinker. He understood — he read Marx. He was serious about reading Marx. He was also serious about reading Hegel, about reading Gandhi, about the Bible, Jesus Christ and Christianity. So Marx belongs to a particular period. I think that the anti-Marxist King was not an anti-Marxist. He was a man of his time.

BILL MOYERS: I've often wondered, Grace, if Martin Luther King would have been more effective, if he'd been slightly more radical.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: First of all, I find it difficult to understand what "more radical" means.

BILL MOYERS: If he had challenged the system more, the interlocking relationship between power, both in the economy and power in Washington.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: You know, Bill, to develop your ideas to meet the crisis that you're faced with, takes time. King, from '65 August to April 1968, only had three years, and he was moving very fast. It takes time. what we need to do is not to fault him for not having done in the few years that he had. What we need to do now, we need to build on what he did. That's what the movement's about, building on what you learned from the past.

BILL MOYERS: Yes, but where is the sign of the movement today?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: I believe that we are at the point now, in the United States, where a movement is beginning to emerge. I think that the calamity, the quagmire of the Iraq war, the outsourcing of jobs, the drop-out of young people from the education system, the monstrous growth of the prison-industrial complex, the planetary emergency, which we are engulfed at the present moment, is demanding that instead of just complaining about these things, instead of just protesting about these things, we begin to look for, and hope for, another way of living. And I think that's where the movement -- I see a movement beginning to emerge, 'cause I see hope beginning to trump despair.

BILL MOYERS: Where do you see the signs of it?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: I see the signs in the various small groups that are emerging all over the place to try and regain our humanity in very practical ways. For example in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Will Allen, who is a former basketball player has purchased two and a half acres of land, with five greenhouses on it, and he is beginning to grow food, healthy food for his community. And communities are growing up around that idea. I mean, that's a huge change in the way that we think of the city. I mean, the things we have to restore are so elemental. Not just food, and not just healthy food, but a different way of relating to time and history and to the earth.

BILL MOYERS: And a garden does that for you?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Yes. A garden does all sorts of things. It helps young people to relate to the Earth in a different way. It helps them to relate to their elders in a different way. It helps them to think of time in a different way.

BILL MOYERS: How so?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, if we just press a button, and you think that's the key to reality, you're in a hell of a mess of a human being.

BILL MOYERS: So it is that this woman who marched and agitated and argued in mass movements and social protests for over 70 years...has come full circle...to find seeds of hope in small places where people work quietly and patiently on every imaginable front.

Man # 1: We work on trying to change policies for homeless people.

Man # 2: I think information is power

BILL MOYERS: They get little public attention....although they're concerned with the most basic human needs...

Man # 3: We want jobs that actually empower us, you know, and make it so that you actually have a say in what happens at your workplace.

BILL MOYERS: These days, Boggs works through what's known as the Beloved Community Initiative to encourage people like this in cities across the country to see themselves as crucial to how democracy works. And for whom.

BILL MOYERS: You know, you didn't have to come here this past weekend. You're 91 years old. Why did you come?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Because I think the initiative that I am part of, the beloved communities initiative, is identifying and helping to bring together small groups who are making this cultural revolution that we so urgently need in our country.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: And I see this as part of a pilgrimage which human beings have been embarked on for thousands and tens of thousands of years. People think of evolution mainly in terms of anatomical changes. I think that we have to think of evolution in terms of very elemental human changes. And so, we're evolving both through our knowledge and through our experiences to another a stage of humankind. So, revolution and evolution are no longer so separate.

BILL MOYERS: But the economic system doesn't reflect this evolution. Outsourcing of jobs, the flight of capital, the power of capital over workers. All of that has-- the system isn't catching up this.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, just don't expect the system to catch up, the system is part of the system! What I think is that, not since the 30s have American-- have the American people, the ordinary Americans faced such uncertainty with regard to the economic system. In the 30s, what we did, was we confronted management and were able, thereby to gain many advantages, particularly to gain a respect for the dignity of labor. That's no longer possible today, because of the ability of corporations to fly all over the place and begin setting up-- all this outsourcing. So, we're gonna have - people are finding other ways to regain control over the way they make their living.

BILL MOYERS: You know, a lot of young people out there would agree with your analysis. With your diagnosis. And then they will say; What can I do that's practical? How do I make the difference that Grace Lee Boggs is taking about. What would you be doing?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: I would say do something local. Do something real, however, small. And don't diss the political things, but understand their limitations.

BILL MOYERS: Don't 'diss' them?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Disrespect them.

BILL MOYERS: Disrespect them?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Understand their limitations. Politics — there was a time when we believed that if we just achieved political power it would solve all our problems. And I think what we learned from experiences of the Russian Revolution, all those revolutions, that those who become-- who try to get power in the state, become part of the state. They become locked in to the practices. And we have to begin creating new practices.

BILL MOYERS: What will it take for this next round of change that you see as promising? What would it take?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: It takes discussions like this. I mean, it takes a whole lot of things. It takes people doing things. It takes people talking about things. It takes dialogue. It takes changing the whole lot of ways by which we think.

BILL MOYERS: Do you see any leaders who are advocating that change? I mean, people that we would all recognize, anybody we'd all recognize?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: I don't see any leaders, and I think we have to rethink the concept of "leader." 'Cause "leader" implies "follower." And, so many-- not so many, but I think we need to appropriate, embrace the idea that we are the leaders we've been looking for.

BILL MOYERS: Grace Lee Boggs, thank you very much.

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