Dey Street, 256 pages, $26.99
Congresswoman Maxine Waters. Queen of memes. Giver of gifs. Inspirer of song. How did the gentlelady representing California, the most senior Black woman in the U.S. House of Representatives, become a social media darling for millennials and beyond?
Helena Andrews-Dyer and R. Eric Thomas are here to tell you in their new book, Reclaiming Her Time: The Power of Maxine Waters. This political biography — that’s anything but your grandma’s political biography — zeros in on that moment in 2017 when Waters, questioning Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin during a House Financial Services Committee hearing, lit the Internet (and Mnuchin’s insides) on fire by simply following procedure. As he sidestepped her question, she repeated “Reclaiming my time” — delivering three words with the glasses-halfway-down-the-nose assuredness of a seasoned stateswoman who will not be danced around — and boom, Waters became a hero for a whole new generation.
While Andrews-Dyer (a staff writer for The Washington Post) and Thomas (who coined the moniker Auntie Maxine on his Elle.com blog) devote their first chapter to that “Peak Maxine” exchange, their book does not dwell on a mere two minutes of glory. Instead, they are here to enlighten or remind readers that Waters has done a whole lot in her nearly 50 years of community activism and public service. They do so through a celebration of Waters and the decisions, efforts, legislation, relationships, even outfits that have defined her.
To highlight key moments, the authors pepper the book with “Time Out” sections, which look at events like the unrest in 1960s Watts, the Los Angeles neighborhood where she was a community organizer and Head Start teacher; the National Women’s Conference of 1977; and her relationships with the presidents.
These are important pauses, but the book is strongest when focused on the long road, the slog of local government, what she’s had to face as a Black woman in Congress who is unapologetic about her power (take Bill O’Reilly’s 2017 comments about Waters’ appearance, for example), and just how long she has been fighting against police brutality and for social justice, women’s rights, and “education as a ladder out of poverty.” On the Waters way of handling the opposition, the authors write: “She’s not melting down or freaking out. She’s not flying off the handle. She’s telling you, in no uncertain terms, what she thinks, and if you have a problem with that, well, maybe that’s on you, my dude.”
And there’s also plenty of funny on these pages.
If you’re looking for a very serious or neutral take on the 30,000-plus days of Maxine Waters, keep on searching. “I like living in a world where there’s a Maxine Waters,” Andrews-Dyer declares in her author note; Thomas talks about “being awed by her work, her words, and her wit.” The writers are unabashed fans, writing for those who share the love and making the case that political biographies shine bright when they have as much panache as their subject.