My black-girl soul soared high above my pajama-clad body in March when Representative Maxine Waters said on national television, "I am a strong black woman, and I cannot be intimidated." She became an instant heroine, and I watched her clip nearly 100 times. It became my new bop, the song I listened to when I needed to be reminded of my own particular greatness in a world where women and girls like myself are told to be grateful to be let in.
Like millions of millennials and movement-makers who follow the 78-year-old congresswoman, I have clung to her every side-eye, her every call for impeachment, her every grandstanding attempt to speak truth to power. She feels close to home for me. She sounds like the women in my family: powerful, melodic, and straight to the damn point. It's the reason why the Internet dubbed her Auntie Maxine, claiming her as their own, striking an adoring familial connection. My admiration for Representative Waters followed me as I entered her office at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC, to interview her for the latest episode of my Lenny Letter podcast, Never Before (click here to subscribe).
Representative Waters has been in Congress for nearly three decades, representing California's 43rd congressional district, which is centered in South Central Los Angeles. Though she's in her fourteenth term, Auntie Maxine became a political "It" girl, errr, woman, of sorts in the wake of Donald Trump's election as the 45th president. Representative Waters has called for Trump's impeachment on the record more than any other person in Congress. This has made her a life-giving political leader of the resistance and an easy target on the right, particularly with Fox News hosts. One went so far as to compare her to Whitney Houston and advised the congresswoman to "step away from the crack pipe," while Bill O'Reilly insulted Waters's appearance on air by calling her hair "a James Brown wig."
But Auntie Maxine is clear that there is nothing wrong with her appearance, her words, and her work, and in our hour-long conversation, some of which is excerpted below, she addresses the criticism, but, more important, she discusses how her roots in segregated Missouri shaped her as a young black woman, how her mother taught young Maxine to raise her voice, and how the burgeoning feminist movement helped her win her first election.
Janet Mock: I want to go back to the beginning. I feel like so many who know you as Auntie Maxine may not know your roots in Kinloch, Missouri, the first African American town to be incorporated in Missouri. How did that vibrant black community shape you?
Maxine Waters: Well, I was very young when I was there, but it was a very warm community where everybody knew everybody. Of course we were accustomed to black entrepreneurs where we shopped at our grocery store and at our bakery. Our schoolteachers were black. We had a very positive image of black leadership throughout our community. Churches were very supportive. It was a very warm and supportive community.
JM: Do you remember the first time you used your voice and got a reaction as a young woman?
MW: Oh, no. My mother was like this, she was very outspoken. She had no filters, really, so I think that most of her children grew up that way. We didn't know that we were speaking out, we didn't know that that was different from the way that other people are taught to react to other people, and to voice their opinion. It was quite natural for us, and I think most of us have done that all of our lives.