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"Just Maybe," a reflection on Writing on Race & Immigration by ClaudetteJoy Spence

Queens writer ClaudetteJoy Spence participated in our memoir and autobiographical workshop last fall, as part of our Writing on Race and Immigration series, led by instructor Abeer Hoque. The series is hosted in partnership between Newtown Literary and Lewis Latimer House Museum. Here, ClaudetteJoy shares a bit with us about her experience in the class. For more information on ClaudetteJoy and how to purchase any of her four books, please check out her Facebook and website.

I was thrilled to be accepted as one of eight Queens residents to participate in the Race and Immigration memoir writing fellowship offered by Newtown Literary. Prior to submitting my essay application, I felt nervous. So much so that I reached out to the artistic director of the Caribbean Cultural Theater who was in Jamaica completing work on a doctoral program. “E. Wayne,” I agonized, “I don’t know what to write. Do I have to tell everything? How do I decide what to tell and what not to? Where do I start? And I’ve lived so long, there is so much to tell.” We have known each other for more than 20 years from our work in the arts in the Caribbean community in New York. His patient and reassuring words brought me to a centering space. It must have. The words I put on the page after speaking with him contributed to my being accepted for what has turned out to be an important experience in my journey.

Our teacher and guide Abeer Hoque set the guidelines and tone for our participation very early. There were timelines to be honored. Dignity would undergird our approach to critiquing each other’s work.

What I did not expect was the emotional response I had to the reading of my colleagues’ work. And even to mine. I like to tell myself that I have no anger issues, and I don’t—except when I experience injustice. My heart palpitates so much I can hear it bouncing against my rib cage. My eyes are overwhelmed with tears that slide along the rims of my eyes, until one slowly rolls down my left cheek. My compassion and my eyes were responding to my ears and my heart that heard the story of unscrupulous predatory lawyers taking advantage of immigrants seeking to legalize their status in the US. It wasn’t the first time I had heard this story. I just had not heard it in a long time. Each time this surfaces, I am angry at these attorneys who, from what I know, get away with their crime. How is it that we are not holding them accountable? Is my anger also self-directed, I ponder, because I am not doing anything towards seeking justice for those who are not in a position to advocate on their own behalf?

As we revised and re-read our work, I became aware of a common thread in our writing. Belonging. Identity. How does each of us claim individual and group identity in the USA? And when we are not accepted, or when we are rejected by that group with which we organically want to identify, how does that affect our sense of self? Or when one projects on us an identity with which we do not want to be associated, how does that affect us? How is our sense of identity shaped and reshaped when we venture to call USA our home?

It made me think about how we enter into and navigate relationships. Are we individually called to create conscious relationship-building that will affirm the other and self? Have we yet to learn how to? How to treat each other with dignity and compassion, regardless of the physical attributes of the person with whom we are interacting.

We are more focused on the physical, and less focused on the spiritual attributes that can bond us and build us to be less of a pain to each other.

Just maybe, if those of us who immigrate to the USA were to balance the pursuit of happiness through status, material acquisition and accumulation, with a pursuit of eternal qualities like truth, peace, compassion, and love; and just maybe, if those of us living here were to do the same, how different would our stories on race and immigration be? And just maybe, if peoples from all nations adopted a less physical approach to living . . .

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