By Krystal McKenzie
When I called to set up an interview with Ms Florenz Webbe Maxwell, I asked for the “Lady Florenz” as her reputation preceded her. Also, I was a little intimidated by her writing, and what I know of her. Yes, I had her on a pedestal.
The voice on the line chuckle-sighed, “Well, there’s a Florenz here, but I don’t know about any lady…” I felt connected to her from that instant.
When she arrives for the interview, her distinctive, gorgeous hair stands out from her elegant, albeit casual, attire. She pseudo-apologizes for having a bite to eat, and, chewing only on one side of her mouth, she coolly explains: “the teeth are still on that side!” Yes, this is my kind of lady.
Known for her books, such as Girlcott, and The Spirit Baby and Other Bermudian Folktales alongside many other works, she is very much in demand for her storytelling prowess. Indeed, it’s a challenge to not fall under her spell and remember my interview questions!
In addition to her professional career as a storyteller and librarian, she was a key member of the now highly praised Progressive Group, which led the Theatre Boycotts in 1959. Can I be like her when I grow up? What is the template?
It turns out her initial interest in storytelling was kindled by her parents, particularly her father, who was the more dramatic griot. As he told his Bible stories, they were so real to her that, in the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den, she recalls: “I could see the lion’s teeth and couldn’t sleep!”
That religious upbringing influenced her, in the sense that she wanted to be like Jesus – as he told parables. Her favourite Bible story? A little-known encounter between Susanna and the Elders, found in the Catholic Bible of Daniel 13 – look it up. It might help you to understand the passion for social justice that young Florenz developed.
“I have had a strong sense of justice since childhood,” she shares. “Not that I always do right, though. It has just always concerned me when people ill-treated others.”
Storytelling and social justice became intertwined when it came to folktales. Whilst in university, Florenz became perturbed that there weren’t any real folktales for Bermuda, while many other cultures seemed to have them. Her university professors guided her on how to look for motifs, and research in the context of the people, and encouraged her to not ask for folktales, but to ask the people about themselves. That’s how the informants, or persons who share their stories, end up sharing folktales. Folklore, folk medicine, folktales – they are all surprisingly ingrained in the culture.
“What’s fascinating is that, when you trace the stories, the locations and details might change based on a setting or culture, but the theme is the same,” Florenz explains. “The stories are older, cautionary tales that have travelled from country to country that are full of drama.”
So, for the curious, yes, stories like Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit, Uncle Remus, Anansi, etc. are all versions that have been taken by folks outside of black culture, and popularized. It’s unfortunate, but there seems to be a colourism, or shadism, that is popular among Blacks that Ms Webbe Maxwell would be glad to discuss with you.
“My aim has always been to tell the story from the lion’s point of view, not the hunter’s,” she smiles.
And what of her activity within the Progressive Group? Well, that rather happened by accident, as she wasn’t there at its inception, but about three meetings later.
Florenz recalls, “I was dating Clifford Maxwell, and we were both teachers at the time, and could only see each other on Sundays. Well, he started coming late for each visit, and I wasn’t about to be playing second fiddle because I thought it was something else (someone else – you understand what I mean) being managed. I got tired of him coming late, and I wanted to break up with him, but it was difficult, because I liked him.
“Well, he came late again, and told me he was taking me someplace special. Turns out it was a Progressive Group meeting! He was late because of the Progressive Group!
“He wanted me to join, but this was not a sentimental group. We had to be very careful, you know. Clifford raised his voice because the group was cautious if I should join, but Marva Phillips, who was already part of the group was like, ‘Florenz! She should have been in this group from jump!’ And that’s how I became part of the Group.”
Florenz describes herself as fortunate because her mother raised her to know what she was going to run into as a ‘dark-skinned female’ and prepared her for it. Florenz’s mother died when Florenz was twelve years old, but she says with elegant pride that it was because of her mother that, “I was told to appreciate who I was before the negative comments came.”
She unashamedly confesses that the main character in Girlcott was dark-skinned for a reason.
“It’s learned … too often the main, dark-skinned, character in most media is dysfunctional in some way. You don’t know it until you hear it, and it becomes part of your psyche.” She epitomizes self-love in her living, and her writing – Florenz is truly walking the walk, and not simply talking the talk.
With all the positive work she has done, as a mother to fascinating children, and a teacher, librarian, author, and as an advocate for social reform, I was curious to know what Florenz wants to be remembered for. She gets surprisingly quiet and reflective.
“I’d like to be remembered for … how can I put this … for trying to help people feel good about themselves, especially children. I want them to be independent, and know how to love themselves.”
Well done, Lady Florenz. Mission accomplished.