“Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?”: Kathleen Collins’s Revelatory Short Stories
There’s a special category of superb filmmakers who started as writers, such as the novelists Éric Rohmer, Ousmane Sembène, and Marguerite Duras, as well as the playwrights Sacha Guitry and Kenneth Lonergan. These filmmakers are distinguished not only by their attention to the language that’s spoken in their films but by the very sense of discourse that gives rise to a particular and personal sense of cinematic form. Now there’s another name to add to the list—the late Kathleen Collins, who died in 1988, at the age of forty-six, and who has unfortunately been inscribed only belatedly in the modern pantheon of directors.
Collins’s first and only feature, “Losing Ground,” from 1982, had just a handful of screenings in her lifetime. The film was the great rediscovery of 2015, when it received its first official release at Film Society of Lincoln Center. It’s the story of a professor of philosophy (Seret Scott) who’s seeking to move her studies toward a realm of aesthetic experience that engages with African-American culture, as her theoretical work branches out, through the course of circumstances, into movies. Her husband (Bill Gunn), an artist, seeks new inspirations, and finds his creative freedom to be inseparable from sexual adventure, threatening their marriage.
Prior to the production of “Losing Ground,” Collins had worked as a film editor and was both a teacher of French and a professor of film. But now a previously unpublished collection of stories that she wrote between 1970 and 1980, “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?,” is being issued by Ecco, and it’s a multidimensional revelation whose invisibility until now is as grievous a loss to literature as the near-disappearance of “Losing Ground” has been to the world of movies.
Collins endows her stories with a sense of form that is itself cinematic; they suggest the aesthetic roots of “Losing Ground,” and convey a painfully vivid idea of the movies that Collins might have made, had the film achieved the recognition that it deserved and had she lived to do so. Several of the volume’s stories are set in the world of independent filmmaking, offering a glimpse into the personal and professional struggles that she endured as one of the very few black women making movies at that time. Collins, a civil-rights activist in the early nineteen-sixties, delves deep into modern history and personal experience to yield, in calm yet prismatic phrases, urgent and deeply affecting insights into her times, which echo disturbingly today, in light of their long-delayed publication.
The book’s first two stories, with their expressly cinematic titles, “Exteriors” and “Interiors,” suggest sketches of movies, ones that elegantly foreshadow the world of “Losing Ground.” “Exteriors” is entirely in quotation marks; it reads like a director giving instructions to a crew for decorating and lighting an on-location set. The effect intensifies as Collins’s directions grow ever more explicit regarding the troubled romance of the couple whose lives she’s filming: “Now dim the light . . . On second thought, kill it, he won’t come in before morning.” “Interiors” is a duet for two characters, “Husband” and “Wife, whose internal monologues, addressing each other, are centered on his affair with another woman, an apocalyptic party that recordings of Cuban music turn into “a disembodied orgy,” and the efforts by the wife, a violinist, to put her life back together outside the city after the couple’s breakup. In the story “Documentary Style,” Collins works a powerful dramatic reversal on her years as a film editor, telling a first-person story from the perspective of an experienced and life-hardened black cameraman who’s trying to fight his way into the business in New York. Proud of his talent and his craft, energized with artistic ambition, he’s casually demeaned at work by a successful black director and by a veteran white cameraman—and Collins generates a vast well of sympathy for him, even as she sees him indulging in self-justification, and subtly shows his virtues morphing into arrogance, self-righteousness, and rage, which he takes out on a black woman film editor in a shocking display of macho brutality.
In other stories, Collins reaches back into her intimate past for dramas of a young black woman’s sexual experience. Here as throughout the book, personal experience is inseparable from that of racial consciousness and its varied gradations. “How Does One Say,” the tale of the unnamed woman’s sexual awakening with an elderly but vigorous French professor, begins with a family drama over her new haircut, which “made her look, in her father’s words, ‘just like any other colored girl.’ ” The quietly defiant story “Stepping Back” begins with the assertion “I’m not trying to flatter myself, but I was the first colored woman he ever seriously considered loving.” With bitter irony, Collins unfolds the narrator’s “uncolored” essence, which makes her an even more enticing choice for the “Negro with aristocratic tendencies” who flatters her with his affection—until she rebels. (The story also features the phrase “Ain’t this a blip!,” which Collins used in a similar way in “Losing Ground,” to assert the force of black-American experience against the ostensible neutrality of white-toned academic culture.)
In “Conference: Parts I and II,” Collins uses an ingenious format to bring back romance from the time of civil-rights struggles, starting with an incantatory series of dialogue fragments with an activist named Charlie Jones:
“You’re a freedom rider?”
“Yes, ma’am . . .”
“They beat you up in Selma?”
“Yes, ma’am. . .”
“They beat you up? With your light skin and your green eyes? How could they do that? Weren’t you afraid?”
The title story is a fictionalized reminiscence, set in 1963, in “an apartment on the Upper West Side shared by two interracial roommates. It’s the year of ‘the human being.’ The year of race-creed-color blindness.” The protagonist, Cheryl, a recent college graduate who was “the only one”—the only black student at the school—and her friends are all given the labels “ ‘white ’ ” or “ ‘negro’ ” by Collins, in explicitly ironic quotation marks. The romances of the title are set expressly in the context of the experience of history, sociology, and politics by way of the civil-rights movement. Cheryl’s “white” boyfriend, Alan, “has just had his jaw dislocated in a Mississippi jail.” Collins brings out surprising fractures in the black community—notably, the shock that the civil-rights movement brought to the “black bourgeoisie” (a term that she parenthesizes with sarcastic academic references), who “will see their children abandon a lifetime of de-ghettoizing. Their sons will go to jail for freedom (which in their parents’ minds is no different from going to jail for armed robbery, heroin addiction, pimping, and other assorted ethnic hustles).”
In this story, Collins’s very use of parentheses is an art. She brings action and reflection, foreground and context, personal relations and analytical judgment together in a story that emphasizes the private impact of political thought and activism. She shows how the principles of the fight for desegregation influenced relationships in one direction, and how, just a year or two later, the very phrase “Black Power” influenced them in another. She fills the story with references to reading matter (including “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” “Toward a Psychology of Being,” “Rabbit, Run,” and “The Centaur”), talks about voter registration and the the Democratic Party Convention of 1964, and describes the opposition of Cheryl’s own father, a black man with “gray bourgeois eyes,” who saw her relationship with Alan as “indecent commingling.” Collins also reëmphasizes that the campaign for civil rights was nonviolent only from one side, the side of the protesters; the opponents of civil rights were relentlessly violent, and the violence that the protesters endured separated them definitively from those who stayed home: “How can he bring his father to an understanding of what it feels like to be beaten to a pulp? Teeth mashed in, jaw dislocated, nose rearranged, stomach pulpy. And all for freedom. All for the ‘negroes’ of this land we call America.”
Style is the image of a physical approach to the world; form is the image of thinking about what you’re doing. Collins’s style is fine, graceful, and reserved, but pierced with the harsh simplicity of lurking menace. It’s not a style that grabs at life but that moves into it, that passes through it with a quietly adamant determination to keep going but without any illusions about taking action, which she knows is as much a matter of being acted upon. It’s a mode of action that’s inseparable from thought, from analysis, which the imaginative formal conceits of her stories give physical shape to. It’s also inseparable from the power of memory, as in the last and longest story in the book, “Dead Memories . . . Dead Dreams,” a quasi-Proustian gathering of family stories, told by a young woman named Lillian, the darkest child of a family of light-complexioned black people. She centers her recollections on the house of her grandmother Rosie, whose notable activity was her cooking, and the story is filled with descriptions of the dishes and the aromas with which they filled the house. It’s also a story of long-tangled relations between her father and the family of her late mother, who died in childbirth, and it moves through questions of money and vanity, of social status and prescribed possibilities, of breaking out and of settling in. Its twenty-seven pages embrace a vast array of African-American experiences and moods, of voices and of imaginings. The self-aware literary techniques with which Collins recovers her own experience—and the life of her times—conjure her sense of an increasing fraction of distance from them; she conveys the same ironic melancholy in the very title of her first feature, “Losing Ground.”