“People didn’t hear me for a long time because I was so concentrated on those issues,” US representative Maxine Waters (D-California) said this week during an interview on The Breakfast Club, the contentious New York City morning radio show. She was alluding to her tenure on the House Financial Services Committee, where she has gone toe to toe with Wall Street and helped to temper the subprime mortgage calamity of the late aughts. “But when Trump showed up,” she continued, “then I had to show up.” On the internet, the rhetoric of resistance is co-opted for amusement with a devout, unabating frequency. And in Maxine Waters, one of the longest-serving public servants in the House of Representatives, the cognoscenti have found an emblem of humor and justifiable outrage.
Just days earlier, Waters’ skyrocketing relevance had hit a tipping point: After Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin attempted to sidestep her question during an end-of-July committee meeting, she interrupted him and repeatedly uttered the phrase “reclaiming my time!” In doing so, she cemented her biggest viral imprint to date, though it was hardly the first. Weeks and months before that, there was Waters’ response to Bill O’Reilly’s hateful comment, infused with a tinge of racial animus, about her hair—“I am a strong black woman, I cannot be intimidated,” she volleyed back—and the five-minute disquisition on MSNBC in which she referred to cabinet members with Russian ties as “scumbags.” Yet, in being anointed by the internet as Queen of Memes, the Los Angeles congressperson has become an avatar of convenient—and unsettling—black expression.
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Our oscillating perception of contemporary politicians—especially in online ports, where brevity is a tool of necessity rather than context—finds substantial root in the decorative vernacular of memes. Waters has been a fiery combatant against self-serving Republican policy for 40 years, a true descendant of the Shirley Chisholm “unbought and unbossed” style of statecraft, but only recently has the 78-year-old representative been fashioned into a kind of digital shorthand, one illustrative of a mood that has seized internet-savvy Trump dissenters: uproariously outspoken and not easily bulldozed. She is a welcome fury in a time of feverish strife.
But because Waters is a black woman of firm convictions who carries out her business in public, appearing on talk shows and calling for impeachment on Twitter, her symbolism has come to convey manifold meanings. She is not simply a veteran lawmaker who voted against the Iraq War and has taken on the Tea Party; now, her image consumed and recontextualized by the restless churn of the internet, she has fueled a movement. Waters has been memed, GIFed, quoted, remixed (and remixed again), and hashtagged a thousand times over as a classically trained thrower of shade, a bringer of tea and receipts, a snatcher of wigs, a champion of the people, and a seasoned reader of filth molded in the form of the archetypal Black Auntie. “She’s shaking it up and telling the truth, and we all owe her for it,” Campaign Zero cofounder Brittany Packnett said in April, just three months into the anarchy that was becoming the Trump administration. “She’s the Auntie Boss: As real as your Auntie and as powerful as only a black woman could be.”
But consumption on the internet is an erratic, inequitable matter. By projecting loose cultural sentiments—sass, rage, intimidation—onto Waters’ public-facing persona, we have, in partial measure, occluded the gravity of her work. It would not be an overestimation to state that the black woman has never had full control of how she is regarded in the registers of the American conscience. “The black body has been misrepresented, absented, distorted, rendered invisible, exaggerated, made monstrous in the Western visual imagination,” poet and professor Elizabeth Alexander wrote in 2004. The contagion of racism contaminates completely, and this disfiguration is only made louder on the internet, where, as Lauren Jackson recently wrote, blackness functions as an outsider’s bridge to a gross form of adoration: “We are your sass, your nonchalance, your fury, your delight, your annoyance, your happy dance, your diva, your shade, your ‘yaas’ moments.”
The internet can generate a false perception of a person, and Waters is no exception. (US Senator Kamala Harris of California and gospel singer Shirley Caesar both experienced brief streaks of virality, fashioned into emblems meant to capture the tenor of a particular emotion: Harris as the look of unflappable stoicism and Caesar as an anthem of raucous gratitude.) In the course of the past eight months, she has become an unlikely repository for the hopes, expectations, and assumptions of a progressive brigade caught in the conservative hellfire of health care reform and immigration overhaul.
But what will we choose to hold onto? Waters’ humor, her earned anger (which, in the face of criticism, she says she has every right to), her Black Auntie proclivities? Or are we actually listening to what she’s saying, committing to memory her many grievances of Trump and his conspirators and turning it into action? It is only natural for pride to develop in a time of resistance, and the need to funnel a fraction of one’s unease into a figure like Maxine Waters becomes a kind of survival—we want her to speak for us when we lack the courage; we want her to be the reflection of our impeachment fantasies. But let us not forget why we reached for her in the first place. “Many of our young people have been taught: Go to school, graduate, get a yourself a good job, and don’t make too much noise,” she said in her Breakfast Club interview, pointedly adding: “No, life is about a lot more than that. Life is about not only aspiring to opportunity but about not allowing people to dismiss you, to undermine you, to intimidate you—you have to find a way to not only speak up for yourself but to organize with others so we can challenge injustice.”