Erika Alexander started out as a child actor in Philadelphia before landing the iconic role of Maxine Shaw, Attorney at Law on the hit sitcom Living Single. Today, the veteran of screen and stage uses her storytelling skills to advocate for reparations for Black Americans. Host Ashley C. Ford interviews Erika Alexander about her career, family, and efforts to uplift Black voices.
Read Episode 11 Full Transcript Below
ASHLEY [VO]: I’m Ashley C. Ford. And this is Into The Mix, a Ben & Jerry’s podcast about joy and justice produced with Vox Creative. Let’s get into it.
[MUX] - (Licensed through Epidemic Sound)
ASHLEY [VO]: I want to tell you a story about a Black woman named Belinda Sutton. But first, we have to go back to the year 1775, back before the United States was even called the United States, back when it was still just known as the United Colonies.
Belinda Sutton was 63 years old in 1775, the year when she finally became free. She’d been enslaved since the age of 12, kidnapped from her home in Ghana and sent to work for the Isaac Royall household in Massachusetts. When her white masters fled during the Revolutionary War, they left their slaves to figure out their own emancipation. So that’s what Belinda did.
ASHLEY [VO]: With the help of abolitionists, Belinda wrote a petition to the commonwealth of Massachusetts, advocating for a pension. The petition reads like a somber poem, with passages like “her frame bending under the oppression of years, while she, by the Laws of the Land, is denied the employment of one morsel of that immense wealth, apart whereof hath been accumulated by her own industry.”
ASHLEY [VO]: In other words, she’d spent decades working for one of the richest families in Massachusetts, and her labor contributed to their immense wealth. Wasn’t she entitled to a piece of that fortune?
And in 1783, when Belinda was 70 years old, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts agreed: she was entitled to a pension. Little is known about the rest of Belinda’s life after that, but her story is one of the earliest examples of the state paying reparations for slavery.
Belinda Sutton’s story is pretty unique. There have been other examples of reparations in America for other historic wrongdoings - for example, in the late ‘80s Japanese American families were paid up to $20,000 after being interned during World War II. But the United States has never paid reparations to African Americans on a massive scale.
ASHLEY [VO]: That’s not for lack of trying. Reparations for slavery has been part of the conversation for generations, and politicians and activists like Representatives John Conyers and Sheila Jackson Lee have made reparations a centerpiece of their tenures in Congress. But legislation just to even study the possibility of reparations has never managed to make it past the house of representatives.
The reality is that it’s complicated. For one thing, who would be eligible, and who wouldn’t? Assuming you could get lawmakers to agree, how do you quantify a lifetime of enslavement for one person, or for millions of people? Something that happened hundreds of years ago? What about the ripple effects of white supremacy that have been felt hundreds of years after the institution ended - and then there are those folks who say slavery never really ended at all, it just took different forms. How do you make reparations happen when there’s no consensus on how, or even if, it should be done? Where do you begin?
One thing’s for sure: the idea is gaining more mainstream traction. People are joining the fight for reparations - and not just politicians. Business owners, church leaders, and even iconic actresses are getting on board.
Erika: We have power. We have power ungodly. And I’m just tapping into something that was already here for me. But I feel very empowered being a black woman.
Ashley [VO]: That’s Erika Alexander, a veteran of stage, film, and television. And for the last few years, she’s been a vocal advocate for reparations.
After the break, we’ll hear more about Erika’s journey; from child actor, to television superstar, to elevating stories, all while fighting the good fight.
— BREAK —
ASHLEY [VO]: Before the break, we learned a little bit about reparations. Now we want to hear from someone who is in the fight to make reparations a reality. Erika Alexander is an actress, writer, producer, director - and frankly, one of my favorite actors. I was thrilled to get to talk to her about her work, and let’s just say she’s a woman who wears many hats.
ERIKA: I became a multidisciplinary artist out of necessity. Um, it wasn’t because I wanted to. I think like a lot of marginalized communities, black women specifically, can’t survive usually on one career path alone. You have to learn all these other things. I’m an artist activist and an advocate And I’ve been that way for my entire career.
ASHLEY [VO]: Her voice might be familiar to you, especially if you’re one of the millions of Americans who watched her play Maxine Shaw, “attorney at law” on the wildly popular sitcom, Living Single.
I, along with thousands of other Black girls in the 90s, adored Maxine Shaw. She was intelligent, witty, successful, stylish, all of it. A dark-skinned Black woman with braids owning the room as an attorney.
[MUX - original composition inspired by Living Single theme song]
ASHLEY [VO]: It’s not an exaggeration to call Maxine Shaw ‘iconic’. And I wondered if Erika ever felt an added sense of responsibility portraying that character.
ASHLEY: I grew up thinking the character you played on Living Single was the coolest person I’d ever met in my life, you know. And I felt like I had met her. I felt like I knew her. Maxine Shaw, in my household, was not just a persona. She was a member, you know. That was who I thought I was going to grow up to be, especially when for a hot second I thought about going to law school but changed that very quickly. Um, but you’re, you’re part of the cultural zeitgeist through that role at least in that way. And what is that role meant to you?
ERIKA: Um If you wanted to be Maxine Shaw that meant you were partly crazy. [Ashley and Erika laugh] So I I I, you know I, cause she was absolute bonkers, um but I totally get it. And I really think that’s wonderful that she said, she was so cool.
It’s something called “the Maxine Shaw effect”. For years people kept coming up to me, judges, lawyers, people in C suites, saying ‘no, you have no idea the effect of that character.’
ASHLEY [VO]: Erika’s journey to success wasn’t straightforward, and her family was no stranger to hardship.
ERIKA: Right. So, I have um. A pretty small immediate family because, um.
ERIKA: I’m the child of two orphans and I’m one of six, I’m fourth. And my father was a preacher. My mother was a teacher. And um, I always say, I spent the first 11 years of my life in a hotel called Starlight off of Route 66.
ASHLEY [VO]: Erika was born in Arizona, and throughout her childhood her parents worked hard to make ends meet.
ERIKA: And we dumpster dived. We lived, we were the working poor. And so for many years that’s how it was.
ASHLEY [VO]: When she was a teenager, Erika’s dad got a job opportunity that moved the family to Philadelphia and things started looking up. Erika was discovered while performing at the New Freedom Theatre in Philadelphia. Since then she’s acted in films, including Get Out and Deja Vu; TV shows including The Cosby Show and Wutang: An American Saga. And on top of that, she’s performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company on stages around the world.
ERIKA: And once I did get discovered, I saw that very quickly my weekly check from one, uh you know, a week of, of of doing an independent film, um, dwarfed my mother’s check of working three jobs and also going to school. And so immediately, I just started to take on my own bills, like whether it was paying for anything that had to do with school, but then also trying to um, contribute to the household. And I did that for many years. She didn’t ask for it. I just did it. My father was sick, he eventually passed.
Uh, we would be homeless if I hadn’t bought the home with a parsonage in New York, east New York where they had placed him. And so I bought the home so we’d have a place to live. And I bought our home in Philadelphia that the other family was staying in so we’d have a place to live. And I started to put my sisters through school so they could have um uh resources that I didn’t.
They didn’t say they needed it. I just knew they needed it because of how we all grew up.
ASHLEY: Do you ever deal with that now? Like feeling that responsibility and, and how does that move you? How does that like um or if you don’t feel the responsibility how does that allow you to move? Mm-hmm
ERIKA: Yeah, that’s powerful what you’re saying. Um, yes and no. I do feel it I’m, I try to make choices based on the greater good.
And sometimes it’s two competing goods, not two competing harms. You’re just trying to figure out which one you should do. But often you might take the one that might be most lucrative and take the most outta you. people love to talk, especially um um CEOs and um Male CEOs, who tell us all the time ‘you have to do this you have to do that.’ I’m like, be Black for a day. Please. [Ashley: right} Be a Black woman for a day. a Black woman for a day. And tell us about passion and happiness. You see us, we’re often following our happiness and passions except we’re doing all these other things too.
So as a producer, um, I’m making things that’s something I could choose.
ASHLEY [VO]: Erika says that she knew at a young age that she’d have to learn how to do more than act if she wanted to do the kind of work that nourished her spirit. Eventually she co-founded a production company called Color Farm Media.
ASHLEY: Tell me about Color Farm Media.
ERIKA: So Color Farm Media is, we call ourselves the Motown of film television and tech. And our goal is to change the face of media. uh Me and my uh co-founder Ben Arnon came together because we were both um inside the space of being activists.
We started talking about some of the things that I had created that he kept saying, “but wait a minute, you have all these things you’re making and you’re not you’ve written them? and you’re not out there? Uh, are you selling and pitching them?” And I was like “no, I don’t really know how to do that.” But he did. He had a background in business so we were complimentary. Next thing you know we’re on a road.
We said we’d make a company for people like me. To get my projects out there but also to attract them. And that’s how Color Farm was born.
ASHLEY [VO]: Since starting Color Farm Media she’s produced a documentary about the late Congressman John Lewis called Good Trouble, and she also co-produced a podcast series called “Finding Tamika” about the disappearance of Tamika [ta MEE kah] Huston, and the ways in which the media often ignores Black women and girls when they go missing.
She says that that’s the (most) beautiful thing about writing and producing; she can develop projects that are important to her and align with her values. And what’s most important to her these days is uplifting Black people. Eventually she found her way to the topic of reparations. Easier said than done.
ERIKA: The idea and a discussion of reparations is an American Molotov cocktail. You throw it and everything starts to smoke and burn.
ASHLEY [VO]: Erika’s latest project is a documentary called The Big Payback.
[AX] from The Big Payback Robin Rue Simmons [1:24:15] “I realize that now I’m part of a movement, a national movement, one that has great momentum, to finally grapple with the injury afflicted by slavery and the deep-seeded racism that we grapple with today.”
ERIKA:The Big Payback is a documentary about reparations for African Americans. It’s directed by me and my white counterpart, Whitney Dow. He wants to bring it to white ears, He says. And so just so, everyone knows what we’re talking about, Reparations is making amends by paying money to the persons or persons who have been wronged. It’s compensation from that entity to that person people or whatever most people think of it as a check but it’s also um services and um an acknowledgement and even an apology for slavery. What drew me into the story is again my skin. I’m a black woman. I’m born in America.
ASHLEY: Do you have a family history connection to slavery? Or are, do you have a family that was spared that kind of you know enslavement?
ERIKA: No, my family was not spared. On both sides I’m, I’m sure that my family come from slaves. And that’s just what it is.
ASHLEY: What did you learn in the process of making this documentary? Like is there anything that you feel like, “oh people when they hear this? Okay.”
ERIKA: I think they’ll be surprised to find out that slave um people who were Slave own who owned slaves got reparations and black people didn’t
ASHLEY: Wait what?
ERIKA: They gave slave owners reparations for losing their slaves.
ASHLEY [VO]: Get this, in 1862 congress passed the Compensated Emancipation Act and paid former slave owners in Washington DC for their quote “lost property”. That said, there actually were intentions to give some payment to formerly enslaved people as well.
Following the end of the Civil War, Union general William T. Sherman, with permission from President Lincoln, issued Special Field Order Number 15. It set out to redistribute more than 400,000 acres of land to emancipated slaves. This is sometimes referred to as “40 acres and a mule”, which is how the land was to be doled out to Black families.
ERIKA: That land was about 400,000 acres and we block it off. It was the entire coast of Georgia, a piece of South Carolina and a piece of Florida.
Do you know if we could have had all that? How rich we would’ve– It was the entire coast of that, that area. And we block it off. When people see that they go “what? I think, can’t believe it.” Um they didn’t know how valuable coast land was in America, America was big. They were just giving pieces away like nobody’s business.
ASHLEY [VO]: But it didn’t stick. President Lincoln was assassinated a few months later, and when Andrew Johnson became president, he overturned Field Order 15 and returned the land to the Confederates. Just one of many failed attempts to compensate Black Americans for the horrors of slavery.
ERIKA: And um then we’re back to, to nothing. I mean that’s, that’s what they’ll find out that will blow their mind, how much we were given. And then how much was taken away. Literally in months.
ASHLEY: How should we even start thinking about the compounding traumas impacting all Americans, but especially black people? Like black people in America there are constant compounding traumas. And I think about something like reparations and yes that offers us the room, Right? To address those traumas? Maybe? But even then like what is it even Yeah Like where do we even how do we start?
ERIKA: I take my um, cue from Reverend Barber
ASHLEY [VO]: That’s Reverend William J Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign.
ERIKA: Who talks about this being the Third Reconstruction. The Third Reconstruction. The first one failed after slavery. The second one uh ended after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King. And we are in the Third Reconstruction. That means that we have an opportunity and an, an obligation maybe to be an architect of it to understand that it was flawed foundationally what was built. So we can now affect it.
I’m sorry Everybody does well. Everybody does well when Black people do, when Black women do well, everybody gains. So as far as I’m concerned, reparations is straight at the core of the heart. Like taking something that, the heart starts beating and you take one of those big shots and you go boom and you and it starts to beat again? We’re the heart of America. And if we are ailing it’s doomed. It’s doomsday. So to me reparations is preparation and, um, a remedy for what ails America.
ASHLEY [VO]: For generations, since the time of Belinda Royall’s petition to the commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1783, activists and politicians have tried to make reparations a reality. And few have made any headway. But there is one woman in Illinois who(se) is breaking the mold.
[AX] from The Big Payback, Robin Rue Simmons [1:25:01]: “my name is Robin Rue Simmons and I am here in solidarity with each of you as we fight for the issues we value. Reparations for people of African descent in America is long overdue. We don’t want just a piece of freedom. We want the whole package and that’s reparations!”
ASHLEY [VO]: Erika’s documentary, The Big Payback, follows the work of Robin Rue Simmons, a city council alderwoman in Evanston, IL. She made history in 2021 when she passed the first ever tax-funded reparations initiative benefiting African Americans. This victory was huge. This wasn’t just, as Erika would say, ceremony and optics. This was real cash, up to $25,000 for Black families in the form of housing vouchers.
ASHLEY: Can you talk to me a little bit about the work of alderwoman Robin Rue Simmons? Like what about her is so inspiring to you?
ERIKA: Well for one thing Robin Rue Simmons if you see her she looks a lot like us Um she’s uh a a young woman of color She wears braids Um and she lives right in the middle of the most redlined um had lined um neighborhood in Evanston Illinois.
She was successful because she didn’t know not to, she didn’t know what she didn’t know. Sometimes we can know too much about something that stops us. Sometimes the best thing to do is not know and just keep going toward yes. And it’s not mindless. It’s not ignorant. It’s just momentum.
But I think what happened with her is that she said solutions only, that’s her hashtag, and she got it done. And then it was now, well, what would do with it?
ASHLEY [VO]: The Big Payback premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this past summer, and when Ben & Jerry’s heard about it, they knew they had to lend their support. The message of the documentary is right in line with their values of advancing policies that promote racial justice, and they wanted to help the film reach as many people as possible. So Color Farm Media, along with support from Ben & Jerry’s, hosted a special Juneteenth screening - free to the public - at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem.
ERIKA: We had a huge Apollo screening on Juneteenth because of Ben & Jerry’s. they put again, their money where their might is. Not the money where their mouth is, but money where their might is and made that happen with us. And we were able to offer that the 300, over 350 people came on Juneteenth Father’s day to watch a reparations movie at the Apollo.
ASHLEY: What roles did allies play in your project? I know that your partner who worked with you on the film is a white person, right? [Erika: Yeah} So like, they’re, they’re in there. There’s a place for them. Can you talk to me about that a little bit?
ERIKA: Not only is there a place for them, let’s–to be clear. The system was built by white people. [Ashley: Right] Who do we need to dismantle it, but white people?
Black people could talk about it but if we were a source of power we would’ve been taking it down. We are not. [Ashley: Right] So it’s not allies we need. We need abolitionists. Ben & Jerry’s is an abolitionist company to be clear [Ashley: Yes] They’re not allies, they’re abolitionists and they know the difference. Allies do it when people, people ask and they’re oh okay Ben and Jerry’s does it when no one’s looking Ben & Jerry’s does it as a matter of course inside of their mission statement. It’s how they built their company. It’s the infrastructure and how they move.
As far as I’m concerned we can lay we can talk about it. We can be about it. But we don’t, the resources that we need and the people who own those resources are white men and white women. [Ashley: Right}
No, the idea of reparations and its implementation cannot be left to black people. It must be implemented and it must be moved and resourced and uh, upheld by white people. And so I say thank you.
ASHLEY: This is gonna be the last question I’m and I’m, this has been amazing getting to talk with you. I’m wondering, Erica, what is your role as a storyteller in making reparations a reality?
ERIKA: Well I can’t stop thinking about stories. And that sometimes could be a burden. Let me tell you, it’s not a curse. But I didn’t know that no matter how I move forward in the world I will be fueled by my love and passion and a gift to tell stories. So How best to move forward is to haul ass you know just do what you can where you’re at but haul ass get it done.
I hate when people say stay in your lane. I am an off-road vehicle. You hear me? And um, I I I I – don’t go the speed limit, I ignore the stop signs. It’s not for me. And so I’m fueled by love, by friendship, by your friendship, by people asking me to, to come and explain or uh have a conversation like this…
Excuse me. I’m [tearful] grateful Ashley, to meet you because I know that it takes a village, but it takes a nation. There is so much to be done in so little time and we must tell the young warriors. People like you, that it’s worth it. It’s not fair. It’s not balanced. It’s none of that but it is what you were born to do. And uh I’ll just keep doing the best I can. That’s all I can do.
ASHLEY: Thank you so much. I have a great gratitude for you. It’s not just Maxine Shaw. It’s it’s it’s the whole career. And I don’t know if you recognize how much of an example you’ve set for black girls and women. That’s um, that is a powerful thing. So thank you for always taking your power seriously enough to be responsible for it because so many of us have benefited from your example. Thank you very much.
ERIKA: Thank you. Thank you so much love.
— CREDITS —
ASHLEY [VO]: Into the Mix is a Ben & Jerry’s Podcast produced by Vox Creative and A-B-F Creative.
Thank you to The Big Payback, LLC and Color Farm Media for use of the audio clips and the opportunity to collaborate with Erika.
This episode was written by Bethany Denton, with production help from Ken Miles and Gary Swaby.
The Vox Creative team includes Executive Producer Annu Subramanian, Lead Producer Bethany Denton, and Production Manager Taylor Henry. The team also includes associate director of client success, Ryan Phelan
The team from ABF Creative includes Head of Production Wanda Reynolds, Executive Producer Anthony Frasier and Producer Mike Bisceglia. Sound design, mixing and mastering by Chris Mann. Original music by Israel Tutson. Fact checking by Girl Friday Productions.
The Ben & Jerry’s team includes Jay Tandon, Jay Curley, Emily D’Alessandro and Chris Miller.
I’m Ashley C Ford. Thank you for listening.