Only one of Kathleen Collins’s stories was published before she died of breast cancer at the age of 46 in 1988. Only one of her screenplays was made into a film. That film, Losing Ground, was completed but not given a full release in her lifetime. The world did not, and still does not, leave doors open for black women artists. ‘I wouldn’t blame you for being a failure,’ a black woman tells her son-in-law in Losing Ground. ‘Racial excuses are the best. I could always tell my friends that you were talented but unseen.’
No one would have had access to any of Collins’s writing were it not for her daughter, Nina Collins, who paid to have her mother’s movie released and worked to publish several dozen short stories that had been sitting in a trunk. Nina Collins has said that her mother was distant in her childhood: she kept to herself in order to write. At the risk of reading too much into the daughter’s decision to wait thirty years to publish this material, I imagine that thinking about her mother’s work wasn’t easy.
Vivian Gornick in the New York Review compared the stories collected in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? to Grace Paley’s; Parul Sehgal in the New York Times said comparisons to Paley are lazy. But they do seem apt. Collins’s stories, as Gornick says, are exercises in voice. What does it sound like when one person narrates her own life, and what does it sound like when two people narrate the same event but give quite different accounts? Collins loves the sound of people describing what they see and leaves the reader to figure out the element of delusion or think about the way one version immediately contradicts the other. She’s drawn to the gap between two people who believe they share a life.
Usually these people are a man and a woman. In ‘When Love Withers All of Life Cries’, Ricardo and Miriam narrate their relationship in a series of short statements arranged like a screenplay. While she is trying to understand what he’s thinking, his moods jump from friendly to angry. Here is Ricardo talking about leaving his wife, with whom he has a child, for Miriam:
There were times when we were just driving along in the car and she was telling me some story or another and I would start to sweat, get sopping wet from the tone in her voice. Man, absurd feelings for a life that had juice rang in her voice, my fingers kept slipping from the wheel, everything was serious, nothing was serious, everything was possible, life made complete sense because it made no sense but that was all right, it was enough, the tone of her voice was enough.
Enough, that is, to convince him that it’s worth upending one life for another. Later, Miriam wants to know why he is acting so unpredictably. ‘Why won’t you give excuses like anybody else? Babble on and on about why you don’t want to …’ He says: ‘Take the no and drop it. She could handle a no even if she did wince, she knew it was the only real answer. You want to do something or you don’t. Reasons are like smiles, man, useless games people play.’
The women in Collins’s stories are intelligent and talented, but they worry that their intelligence precludes some kind of deeper passion. They allow the man they’re with to make them feel special, even though they know the feeling will wear off as soon as his lust dissipates. The woman in the story ‘Interiors’ longs for her husband, even though he has twice left her for another woman. ‘I thought I was turning into cardboard … you were filling someone else’s belly … a cold longing weighted itself between my legs … the pain dried me out … summer was almost over.’ Collins is particularly good at describing the way falling in love can momentarily be mistaken for a kind of freedom. The crush of someone else’s ego might be a temporary release from one’s own anxieties, but those anxieties will eventually return. She has an affinity for male artists, who often happen to be narcissists, and whose destructive nature both attracts women and threatens to obliterate them. ‘It must be demanding and real, the odour he gives out,’ she writes in ‘Treatment for a Story’. ‘It must soak her up.’
The writing about lust is intimate and unassuming: ‘He watched. She knew she was being watched. It was like a wire going back and forth between them’ is the way Collins describes the beginning of a romance. What happens in bed is never fully separate from the world outside. Sex offers no protection from the confusion of daily life, but just refracts it. ‘Sometimes I felt like we made love inside a vacuum that must have been his loneliness,’ a woman reminisces in ‘Broken Spirit’. ‘Sometimes I felt like we were inside his cool, graceful humour. Only once did I feel we broke all the way through to each other.’
Collins was born in Jersey City in 1942. Her mother’s family came from a settlement called Gouldtown founded three hundred years ago as a safe home for mixed-race couples. (She wanted to make a movie about Gouldtown but couldn’t raise the money.) Her father worked as a funeral director, and then became the first black state legislator in New Jersey. In college, Collins was active in the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee, where she registered black voters in Georgia. During college she met Douglas Collins, ‘white, a compulsive philanderer, and a charismatic poet/painter/commodities trader/onetime inmate’, in their daughter’s words. After they divorced, Collins raised her two children in upstate New York while teaching film history and screenwriting.
Political awakening meant in some ways going against what her family felt it had achieved. It pitted her parents’ ideas of respectability against her generation’s desire not to capitulate to white society. One character had her hair
cut so short there wasn’t any use straightening it, so it frizzed tight around her head and made her look, in her father’s words, ‘just like any other coloured girl’. When she went to register for class she kept a scarf on her head and didn’t look at anyone (which would have embarrassed her father even more because he had always insisted that she stand erect, look people directly in the eye, and not act sheepish).
Collins’s characters are rarely political, but at no point do they forget the way politics affects their lives. In the screenplays and scripts collected in Notes from a Black Woman’s Diary, Collins frequently mentions not only which of the characters are black and which are white, but also who is light-skinned and whose skin is dark. Her characters themselves note how black they are – both their skin tone and how black they are perceived to be. They know that racism dictates who they can be, even what they allow themselves to say, ‘the forces that pressure African-American characters towards what we now call “respectability politics”’, as Danielle Evans writes in her introduction. ‘Coloured people don’t talk about sex,’ a woman says in one of Collins’s plays. ‘You ever notice that … they are so exposed in this life they are unwilling to admit to any further undressing.’
In the story ‘Stepping Back’, a woman boasts about how well she has accessorised herself in the expectations of white culture. ‘I myself have never known another one like me, not one with my subtle understanding of art, music, drama, food, people, places, ambience, climate, dress, timing, correctness … whatever.’ Later, she goes to the home of her lover, ‘a Negro with aristocratic tendencies’, who claims to be a white man reincarnated in a black body. His house is full of art, a monument to a cartoon version of whiteness. ‘That he should pass his hours among marble ruins, Grecian busts, Italian neoclassical paintings, velvet mid-Victorian couches, Renaissance murals almost undid me.’ She cannot bring herself to sleep with him. ‘How could I pass beneath the candelabras and undress? Tastefully enough? And make love? Tastefully enough? No coloured woman could. No coloured woman could. No coloured woman could.’
Collins’s work has been compared to that of the playwright Lorraine Hansberry. In a startling interview she gave shortly before her own death, Collins blamed Hansberry’s premature death – at 34 – on the stress of her work. ‘She died very young, and she died basically eaten up. My theory is that she was not only way ahead of her time, but that success came at a time when she was not able to absorb it without its destructive elements eating her body up … Talented women are probably frightened of themselves, very frightened of themselves.’ (Hansberry, Collins, Audre Lorde … is it possible to see the physical toll of racism in the fact that so many talented black women artists died so young?)
The interracial couples in Collins’s work downplay the effect of race on their relationships. But racism creates its own scripts. ‘I didn’t like being married but I was happy with her. Colour never had much part in it, I don’t think. She was very fair anyway and very middle-class in her attitudes,’ a white character thinks in Collins’s story ‘Nina Simone’. His wife, a black woman, is a struggling writer. She wants to write about Nina Simone. She goes to a record store and meets the owner, who is also black. She’s turned on by him and wants to know if he likes her too. When the story takes on the wife’s voice, it’s clear that her marriage weighs on her. ‘I told him I was married. But I didn’t tell him my husband was white.’ She goes back to see the owner of the record shop. Nothing happens. She tells her husband. Collins’s talent at presenting conflicting accounts is here complicated by the fact that her characters are coming to the relationship with expectations not only about the way men and women act, but how white people and black people act. When the husband learns about the episode, he’s disappointed: not that she strayed, but that she didn’t stray enough. He feels his wife is somehow broken, incomplete – a black woman who can’t offer him what he expects of a black woman. ‘I’d wanted her to have him. I’d wanted her to come back all frisky and playful and let me take her after him. But she ran before anything could happen. Pretty soon after that it was over for me.’
Collins unspools the pressures and lies created by racism most delicately in the title story of Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? It’s 1963, in Harlem. A white girl and a black girl are sharing an apartment. Each of them is dating a man of another race. The ‘(“white”)’ roommate Charlotte – Collins introduces her this way, with parentheses and quote marks – is ‘the kind of girl who was bred not raised’. She loves ‘a young Umbra poet (among whom in later life such great names as Imamu Baraka and Ishmael Reed will be counted the most illustrious members)’. The other roommate is Cheryl, a ‘(“negro”)’. She is dating a white freedom rider who has demonstrated his commitment to the cause by getting punched in the face in Mississippi.
It isn’t clear exactly when the story was written. But the distance Collins creates is the most interesting aspect of the account. Her story is tinged with nostalgia, yet gently mocks the desire to look on the 1960s with any kind of hope. Racism, here, can’t be healed by everyone coming to dinner. Collins doesn’t allow the civil rights movement to be romanticised. ‘It is a time that calls forth the most picturesque of metaphors, for we are swimming along in the mythical underbelly of America … there where it is soft and prickly, where you may rub your nose against the grainy sands of illusion and come up bleeding,’ she writes. ‘Idealism came back in style. People got along for a while’: this is the refrain she weaves throughout the story. ‘Inside the melting pot. Inside the melting pot.’
Cheryl has recently graduated and is trying to figure out who she is. She reads contemporary novels and encounters their racism. Collins quotes Updike’s The Centaur, in which a white man tells his black mistress: ‘Listen to me lady. I love you, I want to be a Negro for you.’ Cheryl goes to a psychiatrist who diagnoses her as manic-depressive. ‘All negroes were prone to manic depression, he told her. They were subject to frenzied highs, followed by sudden, depressive lows, he told her. It must have to do with all that singing and dancing, he told her.’ Her father doesn’t understand her idealism. ‘Is it for this that I fought and struggled all these years, for this, this, indecent commingling? … He realised now that he had made a terrible mistake sending her to that exclusive school to be the first and only one.’
The white roommate and her boyfriend, Henry, fill the apartment with sex. Their love seems based on a naive dream of what life together might look like. Collins describes it as a balloon about to pop. The views of other members of their group are hardening. One young man, Derek, is developing the theory that ‘perhaps integration is just another form of stultification, that perhaps integration is just another form of impersonation, that perhaps …’ (The Black Arts poet Amiri Baraka divorced his white wife in 1965 because, as he later wrote, he saw her as the enemy.) ‘What of love, instead of politics? What of that nubile, fleeting sensation, when one is colour-blind, religion-blind, name-, age-, aid-, vital statistics blind?’ Collins asks. She doesn’t allow this possibility to play out in the story. Charlotte and Henry’s relationship, we learn, will end: Henry will read about Charlotte’s wedding in the New York Times Sunday section. ‘But we are light-years away from this eventual outcome.’
Meanwhile, Cheryl’s white boyfriend goes home to visit his parents. When he returns he tells Cheryl that ‘it was all over. He understood now that he could never be “a negro”. Never. Ever. And then he was gone.’ It turns out that the freedom rider shares more with Updike than he thought. Like many of the other white characters in these stories, he’s been seeing the world through stereotypes: so much for his enlightened ideas about race.
Cheryl tries to read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. She opens up The Centaur. She wonders whether she will understand her circumstances better if she moves to another apartment. ‘Then I will be able to think and see clearly, about how integration came into style.’ The story ends with Collins’s refrain: ‘It’s 1963. Whatever happened to interracial love?’ – a question she has now punted onto her readers.
Losing Ground, the one Collins screenplay that was made into a film, is rooted firmly in the time it was made: 1982. Sara is a philosophy professor trying to write the definitive monograph on ecstatic experience. Her husband, Victor, is an artist whose sense of passion alternately entices and disgusts her:
Sara: You stay in a trance, you ever notice that, a kind of ecstatic private trance, it’s like living with some musician who sits around all day blowing his horn.
Victor: What’s the matter, Hegel and the boys let you down?
If she were also an artist, she wonders, would her husband stop cheating on her? She reads books about St Theresa. She asks a psychic what the psychic feels when seeing into the future. ‘I see that you’re very intelligent, and secretive,’ the psychic says.
Victor insists that they take a house upstate. He needs to be out of the city to paint, and has decided to move from abstraction to realism. It doesn’t seem to bother him that his wife will have nothing to do in the country, and no access to the books she needs. Still, Sara goes along with it, cheerfully, full of hope:
Sara: I’d like to be able to order some books through the library loan system …
Sara: No, research books.
Librarian: On what subjects?
Sara: Ecstatic experience.
Librarian: I see …
A former student’s request brings Sara back to the city. He’d like her to act in a movie about a woman who finds her husband cheating on her and shoots him. Upstate, her husband is seducing a Puerto Rican girl called Celia. The excuse: he’s also painting her. When Sara talks to her mother, she has trouble putting what’s going on into words:
Sara: It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when … There have always been women …
Leila: And the very idea, what does that do to you?
Sara: What do you mean, the very idea?
Leila: That he lifts himself up, then puts himself down inside someone else …
Throughout the movie, Collins points to missed opportunities and unexplored selves, the possibilities the characters see for their lives but will never experience. ‘When I was growing up, there was no such creature as a Negro movie director,’ Sara’s co-star tells her. Her mother, an actress played by the magnetic Billie Allen, complains about the roles available to her. ‘It’s a thoroughly coloured play … we dance, we sing, there is even a character who runs track … I’m not a snob, you know … . I’m not longing to do Macbeth … but I’d love to play a real sixty-year-old Negro lady who thinks more about men than God.’ She suggests that her daughter write a play about her. ‘It would be too eccentric, Momma,’ Sara says. ‘No one would believe it was about a real person.’
Collins allows this tension to simmer. The most radical statement she makes in the movie is not to cast a single white actor. But it’s only the gender politics that erupt. When Sara comes back upstate, Victor hosts a party with Celia and one of Sara’s fellow actors. The foursome bop to music, awkwardly. ‘I always forget you can’t dance,’ Victor tells his wife. The next morning she watches him get into Celia’s sleeping bag. ‘Don’t take that giant dick of yours out like … it was some artsy-craftsy paintbrush,’ she yells at him. The final shot shows her acting in the movie within the movie, pointing a gun to her character’s husband’s head.
Losing Ground was filmed on a budget of $125,000, cobbled together from grants; Collins and her producer spent their savings to make it happen. Most of the crew members were students of Collins’s. The script had to be adapted to fit the budget. But the film couldn’t get distribution. Arthouses, Phyllis Rauch Klotman writes in a short essay in Notes from a Black Woman’s Diary, didn’t want to show the movie because they couldn’t imagine who would want to watch it. Audiences complained that there were no ghettos, ‘no “poor suffering black folk”’.
When Collins’s fiction was released in the United States a few years ago, it was striking to see a similar reaction – what were these stories of black love and conversation? The New York Times called Losing Ground ‘a bulletin from a vital and as yet unexplored dimension of reality’. No doubt this had to do with the fact that the work had been hidden for so long. But I can’t help thinking that what was being reacted to was also the fact that the work doesn’t read first and foremost as political: it doesn’t slot easily into any of the categories that still determine the way writers deemed outside the mainstream are packaged and sold. Every era has its own rigid expectations; concealed behind them are writers and artists, talented but unseen.