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This Is Maxine Waters, the Millennials’ Political Rock Star

But then I remember two things: Representative Maxine Waters is no one’s meme and, honey, she is here to get involved. She isn’t sipping tea, she’s spilling it. Buy shares in Lipton, everybody.

It’s odd to say that Rep. Waters isn’t a meme; since her quickly aborted press conference on James Comey and her subsequent appearances on All In with Chris Hayes in which she talked about the Kremlin Klan, the Internet has been obsessed with her. She’s shown up in videos, in GIFs, and above all, in memes. I have a shirt with her face on it, for goodness sake. You probably do, too. But despite this sudden popularity, meme-fame is not her end-game. And behind the viral videos, the over-the-glasses scowls, and the alliterative catchphrases, there is a black woman who is passionately, tirelessly fighting for the future of this country.

But that doesn’t mean she won’t let you call her Auntie.

It feels a bit like going to see the wizard, when they lead me backstage at Auntie Maxine’s Tax Day Open Mic, an event her staff has put together as part meet-and-greet, part-rally. She is larger than life in every respect; what if she turns out to be just another politician when the cameras are switched off? I step on-stage, she turns her eyes to me and lights up. Y’all, Auntie Maxine hugged me. I’m sure you heard my soul shouting all the way in Bethesda. “Where did you learn to write like that?” she asks as an introduction. I babble an answer that sounds something like “I dunno, the streets” and try to recall any of the 10,000 questions I have for her. True to form, however, she’s got more to say.

GETTY TOM WILLIAMS

Rep. Maxine Waters attends the Tax March rally on the west lawn of the Capitol on April 15, 2017.

She asks for a refill on tea and apologizes for her voice before continuing. It’s coming out as a hoarse rasp but she’s pushing through. “I have laryngitis,” she explains and I’m immediately shewk. Let me get even a little allergy-related post-nasal drip and I’ll take to my couch for a week. Save for her voice, she is a picture of health and a bundle of energy. She’d flown in from California that morning after doing an event in L.A. the night before. Tonight’s event is scheduled to go until 9 p.m. but she won’t leave until well past 10, only to get up the next day and lead the Tax Day March.

Auntie Maxine ought to be tired. I’m tired just writing those sentences, but from all appearances she is, to borrow a phrase from another iconic Democrat, fired up and ready to go.

So strong is her passion for justice, so deep is her commitment to getting the truth about the president, so ingrained is her skill as a community organizer, that staying home just isn’t an option. Maxine Waters knows that this moment of viral lift is a rarity; she knows that 20- and 30-year-olds don’t normally buy clothing with their congressional representatives on them. And so she’s taking advantage of what she calls the millennial excitement to rally a generation for change.

It’s working. Y’all may have had a good time at Coachella this weekend, but ain’t no party like MaxineCon. Busboys and Poets is filled to the doors well before the event begins. An immigrant-owned space that calls itself a “community where racial and cultural connections are consciously uplifted,” the popular chain is the perfect place for the diverse, energetic, and largely young crowd that Maxine Waters brings in. When she takes the stage, the windows shake with the cheers. You would think Beyoncé was there. She was, actually. Maxine Waters is Political Beyoncé.

“I am having the time of my life,” she says. “If I had known this is what it would take to turn your heads, I would have done this years ago!” Black women in the audience scream and chant her name. This is a rock concert and I’m living.

Auntie Maxine continues, “Everyone has a part to play. We have the power. You can do it.” And that’s why she’s brought me there with her. It’s clear from the adulation of the crowd that though they may not have known about her prior to the pieces in ELLE.com, it’s the woman herself, her thoughts, her fire, her tenacity, that has brought them out of their houses on this night. Still, she points to my columns as an example of how we all can contribute our gifts to the resistance. I immediately change my LinkedIn to a Snapchat of her saying that. It’s all I need.

Rep. Waters has also invited the extraordinary Brittany Packnett, an activist and educator known for her work in Ferguson, among other places, and for the hashtag #BlackWomanAtWork. The congresswoman invites me and Brittany on stage with her during a smaller, pre-event Q&A and then proceeds to interview us. Honey, I live! While I am tongue-tied and awestruck, Brittany and Maxine are going all the way in.

A voice in my head says “You should probably think of more brilliant things to say.” Then another voice says, “Honey, you will never think of anything more brilliant than what these two black women are throwing down.” Then a third voice pipes up, “Why y’all making so much noise? I can’t hear Maxine Waters. Like, what is the problem?!”

Auntie Maxine’s event at Busboys and Poets is a rally for millennial engagement, but it is also that rare but necessary thing: a space where brilliant black women are able to talk to each other, for each other, for the culture, and for the country. As one poet later says at the Open Mic, “Black women are going to save this country. Again.”