This is the first time I’ve entered a writing contest, and I’m very encouraged by the response to my essay. I’ve always wanted to be a creative writer. But my professional life went in another direction. For years, I worked with government agencies and national organizations to develop and promote public health campaigns targeted to policymakers, providers, consumers, patients, and the media. I loved the work. I still believe the health messages and materials we created helped people make lifestyle choices that improved the quality of their lives. But my life changed several years ago when my husband was diagnosed with lung cancer. First, I became a caregiver. Then, I became a widow. Watching him and loving him through his transition both humbled me and left me depleted. Along with my family and friends, prayer and meditation, yoga, and walking saved me. Once I regained my equilibrium, I knew I had to reset and focus on my next life chapter. One day I “discovered” the WOW website (I don’t believe in coincidences!), and was fascinated by the array of online writing classes. After a week, I hesitantly registered for a class on writing personal essays, one of the best things I’ve done for myself in a long time. My butterfly wings are finally beginning to open slowly but surely, giving my heart the courage to release stories I yearn to tell.
Check out her essay here and then come back for her interview.
WOW!: Jacqueline, congratulations on winning second place in the contest with your essay, "The Colors of My Life." In this essay, you tackle the theme of colorism. Can you explain to our readers what this is and how it has affected your life, and why you chose it as a topic of your essay?
Jacqueline: Margo, thanks so much. I’m really humbled by this second place. While I appreciate your question about colorism, I’m hardly equipped to explain this complicated issue. As referenced in my essay, Alice Walker is credited as the first author to use colorism in print. She defined it as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people” based solely on the color of their skin. Although colorism is found in many cultures, my essay speaks to my experience of colorism in the African American community. Here’s a little background on colorism in this country: European colonialists created the system of “racial hierarchy” in which White people were privileged over Black people. They then used differences in skin color to justify their enslavement of non-White peoples. During slavery, lighter-skinned enslaved people were favored and were more likely to be educated than darker-skinned enslaved people. Over the years, some African Americans adopted this racial hierarchy among themselves, assigning lighter-skinned men and women higher status in their own communities. In this way, the oppressed adopted the thinking of their oppressors. Hope this helps. Though I didn’t always know the name for it, I’ve experienced colorism in the broader community and in my own family. Growing up in the South, I saw how African American girls with light skin were singled out for special treatment (for example, awarded leading roles in school plays, chosen for special projects at church). When I applied to a historically Black all-women’s college, I was required to submit a recent photo to complete my application for admission. I didn’t know it at the time, but I learned that this was a requirement instituted years ago by the Europeans who established the college as a way to deny admission to darker-skinned Black women. I didn’t submit a photo and was admitted. Ironically enough, I was selected as the first “brown” girl to be part of what was then called “the queen’s court.” I didn’t even know it was such a big deal until one of my classmates told me. Imagine that! I could write more about my experiences with colorism, but I think you get my drift.
I chose this topic for my essay after we discussed the use of color in essays in one of my WOW! writing classes. The exchanges among my classmates caused me to flashback on how, as a child, some family members discouraged me from wearing certain colors because of the color of my skin. The more I worked on this essay—with the encouragement of my classmates and very thoughtful feedback from our instructor, the wonderful Chelsey Clammer—the more I remembered how color affected my life. Like unraveling a skein of yarn, the more I tugged, the more memories surfaced.
WOW!: Thank you for explaining colorism to us as you understand it and a bit about the United States history. Thank you even more for sharing a bit of our story with our readers! Your writing is so descriptive and beautiful. I like all the ways you described different colors in your essay. It was like reading a painting, if that makes sense. How did you choose just the right words to describe the colors, especially all the shades of purple in the end?
Jacqueline: Thank you for saying that. I’ve always enjoyed color. I loved my childhood coloring books and boxes of crayons, especially fresh Crayolas. In fact, I still do. My father grew many different colors of roses in our front yard. A tall, handsome man, he regularly dusted his beauties with a tiny brush. After his second stroke, he learned to paint beautiful scenes using those old-fashioned “paint-by-numbers” kits. I’m not sure that I chose “just the right words,” but I tried to describe the various shades in a way that readers could visualize them. literally looked at the various shades of purple in my closet, amazed at how much clothing and accessories I have in shades of purple. As for the ending, I credit my instructor, Chelsey Clammer, with encouraging me to explore the various purples in my closet. Truthfully, I was amazed at how many items of clothing and accessories I have in shades of purple. Guess I really like that color. I also did some research on the color purple, its meaning and how its been used over time. All this helped me paint the ending in vivid shades of purple.
WOW!: So interesting! And thank you for all the great words about Chelsey. We love her so much at WOW! You also chose to not tell your story in a chronological order. There are events from your childhood mixed in with events as an adult. How did you organize your essay? Why did you choose to organize it this way?
Jacqueline: In Chelsey’s writing class, Grief, Bluets by Maggie Nelson is required reading. In fact, I took that class twice. Third time’s the charm, huh? The first time I read the book, I didn’t like it at all. For me, Nelson’s format of numbered entries with no obvious chronology was jarring and uncomfortable. I finished the book but I didn’t get it—at all. However, when I read it the second and third time, it all made sense. So, I challenged myself to tell my story without the confines of chronology, to learn a new writing format. Nelson’s book was my inspiration for this essay. I wrote the segments/”vignettes” as they came to me, all related to the overall theme. Encouragement from the other writers in the class and Chelsey’s precise feedback helped me throughout the process.
WOW!: It sounds like you were very determined, and I love that a class and book inspired you to try something new. And obviously it worked! I read that this is the FIRST time you've ever entered a writing contest--and you got 2nd place! That is so awesome. Your essay is also amazing. Why did you decide to enter this piece into WOW!'s contest?
Jacqueline: Yes, this is the first time I’ve entered a writing contest. From the time I first visited the WOW! website almost two years ago, I’ve read about the contests but never seriously considered entering one. I didn’t have the courage to put my writing out there, to expose myself in that way. Over the past year, the wonderful women in my WOW! writing classes and Chelsey (yes, I’m a big fan!) suggested I submit my writing for publication. Finally, I decided to submit, never expecting any type of recognition.
WOW!: Awesome! We are also so sorry to hear about your husband. Thank you for sharing that piece of your life with the WOW! community. We know from your bio that part of your healing process has been taking classes. So what's next for you? More essays? Fiction? Any longer pieces?
Jacqueline: Thank you for your kind words. Yes, the writing classes have truly been a balm to my spirit. They’ve helped me remember how good it feels when I get into my writing zone and everything else fades into the background. It’s freeing in many ways. What’s next? Well, I want to do more things to nurture my creative side. Recently, I signed up for an online drawing class, which I know will be fun. Of course, I’ll definitely continue to take more writing classes. And, yes, I plan to keep writing—poetry, essays, even longer pieces. One of these days, I’d love to write a memoir about the wonderful women who poured into my life. Although I’ll forever be a Daddy’s Girl, I acknowledge the wisdom and sense of wonder I gained from the women who raised me. Who knows? I may even try my hand at fiction. One thing I know for sure: I’ll glide in whatever direction my wings take me.
WOW!: That sounds like the perfect plan. Thank you again for your time today! Best of luck to you!