The Worlds of Kathleen Collins

Remaking the Everyday

The interior worlds of Kathleen Collins’s fiction and film.


Does the discovery of a lost writer change our understanding of the past, or does it shape our experience of the present? If the playwright, author, and filmmaker Kathleen Collins had received more recognition during her lifetime, would her work have changed the way we think about and create American—especially African-American—film and fiction today?

These are the questions raised by the posthumous publication of two collections of Collins’s writing: Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? a collection of 16 short stories, and Notes From a Black Woman’s Diary, which includes short stories, plays, and screenplays, excerpts from an unpublished novel, and a selection of letters, as well as the titular notes. Both volumes have been edited by Collins’s daughter, Nina Lorez Collins, who in the weeks following her mother’s death from breast cancer in 1988 at the age of 46 filled a steamer trunk full of her unpublished writings. Some 20 years later, the younger Collins went through the trunk’s contents, and we’re now the beneficiaries of some of the works she discovered there.

During her lifetime, Kathleen Collins saw one of her screenplays become a movie—Losing Ground (1982), which she also directed—and one story and one play published. But she never achieved critical acclaim, and with the exception of a small group of aficionados on the film-festival circuit, few people saw her movie. Had these newly published works been available in her lifetime, she would have joined an emerging group of black women writers in the 1970s and ’80s that included Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, and Toni Morrison. As a filmmaker, Collins shared more with independent directors like Charles Burnett, whose films present a quiet but steady focus on quotidian black life, than Spike Lee, but Losing Ground helped pave the way for the latter’s work too, as well as for films like Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991), which was the first feature film directed by an African-American woman to be distributed in the United States.

The titles of the two volumes are compelling, if somewhat misleading. They call attention to an issue that Collins’s work rarely centers on: race. Collins doesn’t deny its existence or significance; her writing and films are not set in some post-racial utopia. In fact, in the brilliant title story of Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? she reminisces about a moment when idealistic young activists tried to live beyond race, only to remind us how entrenched we are in a world in which inequalities are often shaped by it. Even though race is a subject in her writing, her work is not driven by its drama. The stories of Interracial Love are more likely to engage race than are those of Notes, but they do so in indirect and subtle ways. “I could have occupied myself with race all these years,” Collins explains in one diary entry. “The climate was certainly ripe for me to have done so. I could have explored myself within the context of a young black life groping its way into maturity across the rising tide of racial affirmation. I could have done that. After all, I’m a colored lady…. But I didn’t do that. No, I turned far inside, where there was only me and love to deal with…. Instead of dealing with race I went in search of love.”

For the most part, Collins’s characters are artists and bohemians, almost always black or, if white, then involved in interracial relationships—romantic, erotic, platonic. Race informs their existence but does not define it. In the screenplay for the unproduced film A Summer Diary, Lilliane, the widow of a sculptor and former merchant mariner named Giles, who recently killed himself, says of her husband’s depression, “I used to think it just had to do with race, that he hated the humiliation, but now I think it went further than that, there was something in him that found life ridiculous, a joke of some kind.” The humiliation of race is a given, but it cannot explain by itself our more existential struggle with the absurdity of life.

Here is the brilliance of Collins’s work in all of its quietude: its turn within, its placement of the interior and subjective in the context of the social and political. Collins recognizes the power of those structures that remake everyday life, for better and worse, but she chooses instead to shine a light on the inner workings of complex souls. First person is her preferred mode of narration; there is little dialogue between her characters and little to no evidence of racial strife or economic struggle. Her stories are just as likely to be set in rented summer homes in small towns along the Hudson River as they are in Harlem or Greenwich Village. The difficulties of relationships, the longing for love and recognition, the experience of forthright sexual encounters and betrayals, and the compulsive drive toward creativity—these are the engines that drive both her fiction and nonfiction forward. Like her diary entries and essays, her stories are peopled by figures who write, paint, design, read. Sometimes they are in conversation with each other, but most often we find them alone with their own thoughts.

Writer Danielle Evans, who provides the foreword to Notes, is right to call Collins “a magician in her use of interiority.” Across multiple genres, Collins makes it her project to explore the inner lives of her characters. As she writes in the diary entry cited earlier, instead of race, she turned “far inside.” And in so doing, she accomplished something quite revolutionary: She gave us black characters—particularly black women—with rich, complicated interior lives. In this way, and even in her settings, she is more akin to Virginia Woolf than to many of her contemporaries, such as Walker and Morrison. Walker wrote fiction that is more explicitly feminist, with a clearer sense of politics, while Morrison’s rich and complex novels are most often historical in nature.

The desire to explore and represent interiority may account for Collins’s long-standing interest in film. Through the placement of the camera, the point of view, and the voice-over, film provides multidimensional access to a character’s inner thoughts. Take Sara, the protagonist of Losing Ground, the screenplay for which is published in Notes. She is a black woman, a philosophy professor. The film opens with her in a university classroom, lecturing to a group of young male students on the existentialists, war, chaos, and philosophy. Played by the luminous Seret Scott, Sara is married to Victor, a successful abstract painter whom she envies for his ability to reach states of personal satisfaction through the practice of his art.

Sara is in the midst of researching and writing a philosophical treatise on “ecstatic experience,” and through it she hopes to discover her own private forms of pleasure and happiness. Seated in a library, Sara “is reading with such intensity that the words seem to spill forth,” Collins tells us. A man who has been observing her approaches her and says, “I have rarely seen anyone read with such intense concentration.” When he asks what she’s researching, Sara replies that she’s writing an essay and explains her thesis: “That the religious boundaries around ecstasy are too narrow, that if, as the Christians define it, ecstasy is an immediate apprehension of the divine, then the divine is energy…amorphous energy. Artists, for example, have frequent ecstatic experiences.”

Sara is one of the rare representations of a black woman intellectual, a thinker, in film and literature. At the center of the story is not her struggle with a racist coworker or sexist lover; instead, she struggles with her ideas and creative aspirations within the context of her marriage. Indeed, she is such an intellectual that though she longs to experience the ecstatic, she chooses instead to theorize about it. Much of the film concerns her journey away from her hypercritical mind and into a more creative expression of herself through acting. As such, Sara is a singular figure in American cinema, one that we have not seen before, or since, Losing Ground.

Reading Collins’s diaries, we find that she often mined her own interiority for her fictional work. The section in Notes From a Black Woman’s Diary taken directly from her journal includes a kind of meta commentary. “When I re-read parts of it, a feeling of solidity takes hold of me. If it is also well written and manages to go to the heart of the moment as I lived it, leaving me free, now, to recall it with all its contours intact, then I feel great satisfaction.”

The excerpts give insight into her process, her longing, and the bits and pieces that reappear in the narrative context of her fiction. In the stories, plays, and screenplays, characters repeat lines from the diary verbatim; as Collins explains, “Writing had given the experience an autonomous existence…existing in a place that has a larger meaning.” The privacy of the diary also allows her to write about the difference between her black and white lovers: White men are less emotionally available, she says. With black men, “while the behavior may be complex, contradictory, often inexplicable, the emotional core is extremely accessible.” And then she confesses, “All the men I have cared deeply about seem to share one thing in common, regardless of race: A remarkable masculine self-possession before which I do nothing but yield.”

Such honesty may not have been well received during the time she wrote these words, when we wanted unyielding feminist heroines. But in her diaries, Collins offers us a portrait of a self wrestling with its different impulses. She willingly surrenders before a form of confident masculinity, but at the same time she laments that “men become themselves out of a refusal of certain kinds of limitations, women out of an acceptance of them. Women are bound…. We are in bondage to life. A woman’s life is a terrible thing…. I believe in liberation, but I don’t believe it is at all the thing we think it is.” Her diaries are a place for questioning, for contradiction, for exploration. And herein lie the makings of her art.

Yet for all of Collins’s attention to the interior, to the quiet moments of reflection, she is not apolitical. As a college student at Skidmore, against the wishes of her conservative, middle-class parents, she traveled south to join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and take part in a voter registration drive in Albany, Georgia. She documents this time in a set of letters collected in Notes, which provided the source material for a number of the stories in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love, including the one that gives the collection its name.

In one of these letters, dated August 3, 1962, and written to her sister Francine, Collins asserts, “For one must move upon the things that one is committed to…. I wanted with all my soul to go south and I wanted to go to jail—because I wanted to pray that right would triumph. I wanted to pray on the steps of city hall in Albany. To confront all of those policemen and city officials with the moral issue—the fact that they have made us dogs—but I wanted to force them to see me and others as human beings who feel pain and frustration, who, too, can cry and be hurt.”

When Collins returns to this period of her life to fictionalize it, she does so with the distance of time and the wisdom of hindsight. In the story “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love,” the protagonist recalls a brief time when she, a black woman engaged to a white freedom fighter, and her elite white roommate, involved with a black “Umbra poet,” share an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. They welcome a bevy of artists and activists and are committed to the vision of the world for which they’re fighting: one beyond race, beyond color. But the story is narrated from a later date, when that dream has clearly faded, brought to its demise by the failure of the Democratic National Convention to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964, by the calls for Black Power (an unnamed Stokely Carmichael and Bob Moses make cameos), and by the inadequate commitment of those who professed devotion to a post-racial future but did little to realize it. And the story is told through the lens of an interracial relationship that could not survive these harsh realities.

The stories of Whatever Happened to Interracial Love reveal a gifted writer who excels at the form. Her subjects are smart, daring young women, the daughters of “prominent black families,” who escape the tight confines of the respectable futures planned for them in ways that only economically and educationally privileged daughters can. At times, Collins turns her eye to the society that produced these women, but more often than not she focuses on their struggles to maintain a sense of dignity and self-worth in a still-segregated society.

Set in the decades between the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and the early 1980s, the works fall into no established literary categories. They are akin neither to Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin nor to the Black Arts Movement writers. In many ways, these works take the mantle of one of Collins’s literary idols, Lorraine Hansberry—not the Hansberry of A Raisin in the Sun but the Hansberry of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, in which we encounter an interracial group of Greenwich Village bohemian intellectuals as they navigate relationships fraught with racial and sexual tension. How ironic that, like Hansberry, who died at the age of 34, Collins also died far too young, leaving us to wonder what kind of work a longer life might have yielded.

It is not clear that the critics and readers of her time would have been ready for a black woman author who wrote so explicitly about sex and sexuality or so unapologetically about the relationships (sexual and otherwise) between black women and white men. However, had the work been available, it would certainly have expanded our sense of the possible for black women as artists, thinkers, and subjects. In many ways, the times in which we live seem ripe for the stories that Collins tells and ready for a black woman polymath. A moment that has produced a variety of black literary voices, filmmakers, and playwrights seems ready, finally, for the gifts that Collins has to offer.

It is a testament to her writing that we leave these volumes wanting more: more writing by her and more information about the works we do have. The stories do not need explanation and analysis; they do, however, call for more contextualization, which will be the work of a new generation of scholars, critics, and artists who discover Collins as a result of these collections. This is truer of the selections in Notes From a Black Woman’s Diary, and thus why Phyllis Rauch Klotman’s introduction to Losing Ground and the occasional editorial commentary are welcome. But the commentaries are only a beginning. We still want and need more from and about this remarkable writer.

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