Channeling Voices of Black Women to Tell Stories of Race

maxine maxwell


“It is important to recognize that the past has everything to do with our future,” said actress and lecturer Maxine Maxwell at the beginning of her performance during a special Williston Northampton School assembly to mark Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

She proceeded to step into the roles of five historical characters, black women, some who who experienced slavery, and all who took steps to change our world for the better. Through these voices, she made the case for acknowledging difficult truths about being black, and how all people strive for dignity, freedom, and safety.

The first character was Henrietta King, who had been born enslaved and was injured as a child as a punishment by the female master of the house in which she was kept. Maxwell told a harrowing story that riveted the audience and elicited gasps of emotion.

She then took on the mantle of Sojourner Truth, the free woman, formerly enslaved, who delivered a transformative speech on women’s rights to a Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851. Men had argued that men were intellectually superior to women, and that women were the weaker sex. Truth challenged that idea, saying she pushed a plow, ate as much as a man, endured the lash, bore 13 children—”and ain’t I a woman?”

Maxwell acted out train traveller, Ida B. Wells, who sued the railroad for moving her from her seat in an all-white car, documented lynchings in the American South, and co-founded the NAACP. She became Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, who tried to attend a formerly white school in Arkansas. She portrayed Winnie Mandella, who fought Apartheid in South Africa as “the anger of young black children reached a boiling point.”

“They marched toward heavy machine gun fire,” she said. “They knew white men were armed to the teeth. That’s what happens when you hunger for freedom.”

Maxwell concluded by reading a poem by Alice Walker, “They Were Women Then.”

They were women then
My mama’s generation
Husky of voice—stout of
With fists as well as
How they battered down
And ironed
Starched white
How they led
Headragged generals
Across mined
To discover books
A place for us
How they knew what
Must know
Without knowing a page
Of it