Grace Lee Boggs, the 97-year-old feminist, activist, and philosopher, was born in the United Stated in 1915 to Chinese immigrant parents. Boggs earned her PhD in 1940; these credentials were no shield against discrimination based on her Chinese ancestry. When Boggs married African American activist James Boggs, over a decade before the Supreme Court of the United States invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage, she made the choice to add his name to her own. Their marriage would last until James Boggs’ death 40 years later.
In observing debates around the politics of naming, especially when it comes to gender, I often think of Boggs. Someone who knows little of her life and politics, or of intersectionality, might judge Boggs’ last name as an acceptance of a patriarchal naming tradition that privileges men. But is it?
The argument could also be made that by adding the last name of her black husband to her own Chinese name Boggs was putting into personal action the political solidarity between people of color traditionally pitted against one another by white supremacy. Perhaps her acceptance of the name was even a revolutionary act that flew in the face of the laws of a country that said race must determine whom you choose to love?
Or maybe, in 1953, a deeply political Chinese American woman marrying a black man simply had bigger fish to fry than worrying about her last name? Of course, these arguments are just as much speculation as the first. Still, I’d argue it is Boggs’ life-long record as a thought leader in the labor, civil rights, women’s rights, and environmental justice movements that actually defines her identity.
Boggs put into action hooks’ concept of ideas over identity long before the rest of us even started talking about it. That’s an example that could do us all some good.