Why has it taken us so long to appreciate Kathleen Collins?
Losing Ground, the movie Collins directed in 1982 and one of the first feature-length films with a black woman director, had its theatrical debut at Lincoln Center in 2015. It was rapturously received; A.O. Scott called it “a puzzle and a marvel” in the New York Times. “Where did it come from?” he asked.
According to Collins’s daughter, Nina Lorez Collins, Losing Ground had been moldering in a film lab with all the rest of Collins’s film work since her death in 1988. “These were talky, arty films, featuring all-black casts,” Nina told Vogue this past September. “No one in the early eighties had wanted to hear those stories.” Collins had spent most of her life writing and making films, but her work seemed destined to become a historical footnote — until Nina restored Losing Ground and acquired a distributor, and Lincoln Center came knocking to include the film in a festival.
In 2015, we got to see Collins’s movie for the first time. And now we get to read her short stories for the first time. The new book Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? features 16 of Collins’s stories, most of which are making their debut years after they were first written, because they were stuffed in the bottom of a trunk and forgotten. Just as she did with Losing Ground, Nina has finally released them into the world. And they are, to quote A.O. Scott, a marvel.
Collins’s voice is astonishing. It is achingly specific and grounded in character, sharp and political and funny and delicate and understated. Even in the most insubstantial stories — and some of these pieces are quite insubstantial, more like sketches than fully developed works — the specificity of her voice elevates everything.
The best and most finished story is the title piece, “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” It’s about a sweetly idealistic group of young radicals living in an Upper West Side apartment in 1963. The main character, a black woman who just graduated from Sarah Lawrence, is in love with a white freedom writer, and her father is heartbroken.
“He does not seem to understand,” Collins writes, in her precise, ironic voice, “that this young colored women he has spawned does not, herself, believe in color: that to her the young freedom rider of her dreams is colorless (as indeed he is), that their feelings begin where color ends (as indeed they must), that if only he could understand that race as an issue, race as a social factor, race as a political or economic stumbling block — race is part of the past. Can’t he see that love is color-free?”
But even as the main character develops her impassioned thesis on how America is becoming a colorblind society, the narrator is quietly tagging each character with their race, in parentheses and scare quotes, as (“negro”) and (“white”). It’s a subtle trick that suggests both the absurd arbitrariness and inescapability of racial categories, so that when the narrator at last asks us, “Whatever happened to interracial love?” we can already see what happened.
It’s taken us until nearly 30 years after Collins’s death to get these sharp, provocative stories into print. Don’t let another 30 years go by before you read them.