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Theatre Boycott heroine tackles racism

If you are truly content in your own skin then no one on this earth can make you feel inferior.

Author and activist Florenz Maxwell learnt this valuable lesson as an adolescent in face of a society that treated black people as second-class citizens.

It is for this reason that her books are aimed at young adults, catching them in their formative years and setting them on a path to greatness. The award-winning scribe and former member of the Progressive Group writes about the “illness” of racism that plagued the island during segregation in her newly published book Girlcott.

Some seventeen years in the making, what started out as a manuscript charting the theatre boycott of 1959, which in its own right won second prize in the Code’s Burt Award for Caribbean Literature last year, is now immortalised in book form and will be hitting Bermuda’s bookshelves in due course.

Ms Maxwell was a member of the secret Progressive Group activists who organised themselves to challenge segregation at great personal risk. While she says the book is not based on her life, she admits there are many similarities with her own experiences.

Girlcott, published by Blouse and Skirt Books and Blue Banyan Books in Jamaica, is a coming-of-age story about a young girl who learns about segregation and racism through the theatre boycott.

She had done extremely well in her exams and so her parents wanted to treat her and her classmates to a trip to the theatre. However, due to the boycott the trip had to be cancelled and her journey fighting discrimination began.

Ms Maxwell was also a young girl when she learnt of Bermuda’s past divisions but thanks to the wise words of her mother, she never let racism get her down. “Fortunately, I didn’t have my self-esteem destroyed by racism — I learnt very early that nobody could make me feel inferior and that was before I became a teenager. That is one of the reasons that I stay with young people.

“If you have a good self image, you don’t have a problem. I don’t know why that myth became so powerful. I went through barriers. I really believe that if you like yourself — and it’s not going to be everything about yourself because I was really skinny when I was growing up — we all have something — but the important thing is that whatever it is doesn’t make you feel worse than anyone else.

“As a child, dark skin meant no pimples and my hair stayed in its place when it is combed. I didn’t understand this nonsense.

“Several incidents happened that made her realise that the boycott was more than seats in the theatre. She learnt the history of Bermuda and what was taking place.”

Ms Maxwell said that completing the book was “a dream come true” — writing has been her life’s passion and her role in ending the theatre boycott was a great milestone for her. When she was at school she wrote reams and reams and her school friends were ever curious about what she was working on next. She recalls: “I used to walk to school with [now radio host] Shirley Dill to Berkeley and she would ask what I have written. We would walk along she would read the books.

“I spent all of my time filling out exercise books with stories. I concentrated on positive expressions that came with writing.

The main character tells the story through her experience — she learns and she grows. I don’t want the book to be a political football. It is not about peering down at anyone — it is about telling a story.”

Ms Maxwell did not limit her wisdom to her books, the Sunday School teacher toured around Bermuda’s schools opening young people’s eyes to segregation and the role that the Progressive Group played weakening its grip.

“After it was known who the Progressive Group was, several schools asked us to come and talk about the group and what it was like during that time. I was surprised that very few students even knew Bermuda was segregated. The shock also came that there were adults who didn’t know that Bermuda was segregated. That made me curious and concerned that something of that magnitude was unknown.

“The big question is when you don’t deal with an illness, which racism is, you can’t heal and it gets worse.”

Ms Maxwell has dedicated the book to her late husband Clifford Maxwell, a former principal at Berkeley Institute. Dr Maxwell encouraged his wife to finish the book.

“My husband was really, really anxious to get the book published. He pushed me. He was going to take our hard-earned money out and pay for it to be self-published but that was too expensive. ‘This is an important story, it has to be told,’ he said.

“‘Bermudians need to know about this’ so it is in his memory. The saddest thing is that he’s not here.”

Speaking on the time it took her to write the book, Ms Maxwell added: “You don’t put a book in the microwave. It has to develop just the way a child develops. It has grown like a child. I learnt about Bermuda. I know there are also of Bermudians who want to write and if this encourages them then I have done my job. This is life’s gift to me before I pass on my dream has come true.”

Girlcott will soon be available at Brown and Co and Ms Maxwell hopes to host a launch party at the Bermuda National Library at the end of the month.

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The 58th anniversary of the 1959 theatre boycott and the role of the Progressive Group in bringing it about was celebrated by students at a special luncheon yesterday.

A dozen students representing schools from across the island not only enjoyed a pizza lunch in Flatts, they also indulged in conversation about this significant milestone in Bermuda’s history.

Activist Glenn Fubler of IMagine Bermuda said: “The students were able to retrace the footsteps of members of the Progressive Group from the aquarium, up to the former-home of Eduoard and Roslyn Williams. It was at that home that those local heroes met secretly for several weeks, deep in conversations shaping a vision for a better Bermuda.

“It was the aim to maintain that secrecy, by walking that quarter-mile, that the parking lot at the aquarium became one of the preferred options.

“It is important to note that it was in that spirit of envisioning a better future for Bermuda, that the idea of the boycott was hatched. It is arguable that this same spirit leveraged a speedy and peaceful success for that campaign.”

Students from Berkeley Institute, Bermuda High School, Bermuda Institute, Dellwood Middle School, Mount Saint Agnes, Saltus Grammar School, Somersfield Academy, Warwick Academy and Whitney Institute used the opportunity to reflect on the significance of the role played by the small group of ‘pioneers’ in transforming Bermuda into the society we enjoy today.

Mr Fubler added: “As we approach Heroes Day, the students considered those qualities of character exemplified by these heroes who all display the quality of humility.

“The students were encouraged to consider that how even in their young lives, they would have been called to display some heroism, no matter how small, in various life circumstances. This helps prove the adage: ‘we can all make a difference’.”

At the driveway of the ‘meeting place’, the students paused for a period of 59 seconds of quiet reflection before returning to the restaurant to debrief that “sacred moment”.

Mr Fubler added: “It is worth noting that this home served not only as an incubator for the removing formal segregation but also founded the campaign to guarantee the right to vote for all Bermudians.”

Student attending were Kal-Shae Mathews, Sophie Pettingill, Sion Symonds, Chervonne Hodsoll, Dori Caines, Delquan Trott, Jehkio Bean-Lightborne, Toriah Smith, Mason Outerbridge, Mya Gibbons and Seth Hardtman.

They were reminded that while the Progressive Group had a total of 18 members — at any one time there were no more than a dozen of them collaborating on their projects, serving as a reminder to them that small groups can make a difference in the world.

Imagine Bermuda is planning to involve the wider community in an observance of the anniversary of the successful conclusion of the boycott on Sunday, July 2.