Jun 20, 2017
Whatever Happened to Kathleen Collins?
On February 6, 2015, Losing Ground opened at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Centering on a summer during the unraveling marriage of a professor and an artist, this was its first theatrical run. Intended to play at the theater for one week, it was extended to last for twenty days due to its popularity. At the Film Society, it was part of a series called “Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968-1986,” co-presented by Creatively Speaking, a film series by Michelle Mattere that, since 1995, has showcased independent films that portray people of color in a realistic light.
Richard Brody, film critic at The New Yorker, raved about the film, calling it “a nearly lost masterwork.” For NPR, Tomas Hachard wrote that the film is “truly grounded in the struggle” of realizing female liberation.
Despite the fact that the film had been completed thirty-three years prior, for many, Kathleen Collins’ name was a new one. Two years later, she is known not only for her film, but for her stories, sixteen of which are now in a collection that was published in December 2016. It is called Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?
I first learned about the stories, and through them, the films. I was curious about how other black women artists perceived this work and the woman behind it. I wanted to talk to different black women about creating art, what it means to be a black artist, integrating different media, and mortality. I also wanted more insight about Collins herself—what drove her artistry? Did she feel unrecognized in her own lifetime? Was it recognition that she sought at all, or something else? I didn’t think I would ever be able to get these answers from Collins, as she died in 1988.
When I speak with Nina Lorez Collins, her daughter, she says she wasn’t trying to bring fame to her mother or her work. “I was just trying to preserve her legacy. I knew she was an important voice and a really smart and unusual woman,” she says. “Her voice is speaking for itself.”
Upon first learning of Collins and her work, I just wanted to hear what her voice sounded like. I wished for a collective archive of sorts, where everyone could tap into a specific kind of access—in this case, intimate knowledge about who she was, what drove her, and who she was hoping to be. Then, in February, Shadow and Act published an article with an accompanying video of a lecture that Collins gave at Howard University in 1984, four years before her death. The existence of this video did two things for me: similar to Elizabeth Alexander’s assertion in the foreword of the story collection, it reinforced the importance of creating and sifting through archives. It also made me realize that though Collins may not have received the recognition she should have during her lifetime, she was not unrecognized. And so, this realization raises a question: who is recognition sought from and how does it translate through time?
While introducing Collins, the professor leading the class is laudatory, calling Kathleen Collins an independent filmmaker “in the true sense of the word.” He continues, “She is a writer, she is a producer, a film editor, and director. Kathy Collins has produced a number of plays, a musical and drama. She has published a novel—Woman Waiting at a Window—short stories, articles, and essays for magazines such as Essence. She’s a poetess as well… She is, I believe, one of the outstanding independent filmmakers in the country, and I think internationally as well.” There is a familiarity to their interaction. It is immediately clear that Collins was as dynamic as the work she created.
There’s a way that when people die, it becomes easy for them to be mythologized. When I first began talking to black female artists about Collins’ work and to her daughter, Nina, about who Collins was, I thought that was all that we had been left with—the perception of those who interacted with her work and the experiences of those who interacted with her while she lived. But this recorded lecture offered some of the intimate access about her work that I was searching for, yet, without that article from Shadow and Act, I likely never would have seen it.
Collins believed that in a necessary dichotomy of good-versus-evil that exists embedded within the fabric of the United States, “[black people] have been defined as the sinners.” She believed that “some particle of the society has to take the blame for the sins of that society, the evil impulses of that society.” To her, this is crucial because “if you are the sinner, you are by definition extraordinary. Meaning you are either super good or you are super evil. You are super sexual or you are super ascetic. You cannot arrive at normality because that is the one thing that has been denied you.”
She believed that “the history of black literature, with few exceptions, is the history of creating mythical black people.” Her aim was to disrupt this within her work. “I refuse to create mythological characters,” she said. “That is my obsession. That is my artistic stance… I am not interested in mythology. I am interested in ideas. I am interested in how human beings evolve—a consciousness which is true to who they are in the center of their being. And I am interested in telling stories that give pleasure to the psyche.”
Kathleen Collins was born in March of 1942 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, while Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in the midst of his third term as President of the United States. The U.S. had entered World War II just three months prior, the path had been cleared toward funneling Japanese Americans into internment camps via an executive order during the previous month, and Jim Crow was still the law of the land. In other words, despite professed American idealism, it would seem that injustice prevailed. The younger of two daughters, Collins’ mother died while she was still a baby. Later, her father remarried and the family moved to Jersey City. Collins’ father was a funeral home director before becoming a school administrator—there’s even a middle school in Jersey City named after him. He would go on to become New Jersey’s first black State Assemblyman.
In 1959, Collins matriculated to Skidmore College, which was a women’s college at the time. Once there, she majored in Religion and Philosophy. In her own words, she chose those majors “in the unawakened stages of [her] life.” After college, she went to Europe “to learn about [herself].” By that point, she had begun dissertation work for a PhD in the Old Testament and Theology, but “stumbled into a film class in Europe entirely by accident.” Her family wondered why she was “fooling around” with film when she could have been working toward her Ph.D., but she saw the latter as something that would look good to other people, but wouldn’t contribute to her knowledge of herself.
“I am not a myth,” she says in the video with a laugh. And we shouldn’t treat her like one.
Nina Lorez Collins tells me that her mother’s stories are “completely autobiographical—I recognized most of the characters in the book and certainly recognized her, and so they were really some of my favorite pieces of her writing because they brought me to her or her to me so well.”
I had wondered about autobiography in the stories, but continued to hedge around it, offering it as a possibility even when Nina named it as certainty. Why? Fiction writers can’t seem to get away from autobiography. It is common for a fiction writer to be asked how much of their work comes from what they have known personally and the answer being used to undermine the perceived rigor of it, if it happens that their work does in fact stem from their life. In light of Collins’ death, I worry about her work being seen in ways that she can have no say over.
But Morgan Parker, author of the poetry collection, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, perceived the collection in a way that I found more illuminating. “I love the snark and self-awareness,” she said. “It felt heartbreakingly honest to me, as a writer. I got the sense that in many of the characters, Collins was indicting herself. I was struck by the ways in which she uses confession, as a fiction writer, and humor, and her unrelenting and endlessly creative filmmaker’s eye.” Though I hedged away from autobiography, this idea of a personal indictment—of writing or creating in a way that doesn’t allow for looking away from oneself—seems applicable to Collins’ body of work.
In the 1984 interview, Collins touches on autobiography, albeit with regard to Losing Ground. She says that while she’s not in any of the characters, she’s in the idea of change and infidelity. “I was really reflecting on my own marriage, but many years later,” she said, “And trying to understand experiences that meant so much to me that I was obsessed with them… To probe that inability to go beyond something, it’s that that is the gripping thing.”
Collins had many things to be obsessed with, events that became the stories of her life—her mother’s death, her marriage, her husband’s stint in jail for insider trading, her divorce, her second marriage. She grew up in a particular environment where some paths, like obtaining a Ph.D. and continuing to ascend further into the black bourgeoisie, were deemed worthy of pursuit, while others, like the one she chose, were not. In another sense, the demythologization can be seen as an appeal against respectability politics and toward facing the honest truths of any life, regardless of class status or personal attainments.
Naomi Jackson, author of the novel The Star Side of Bird Hill, tells me she was “struck by the films’ and stories’ concerns with love between men and women, and, to be frank, was a bit depressed by the rather bleak outlook Collins presents for black women’s prospects of finding and nurturing love that feels supportive and reciprocal.” While I didn’t necessarily note the stories as translating to bleak romantic possibilities for all black women, I did feel that for the most part, the collection is one that rose out of pain. When I ask Nina about this, she agrees. “I do think your reading is right,” she tells me. “I think the big pains of her life—like me—are her mother’s death and her struggle with men.” Nina pauses for a long time. When she begins to speak again, she sounds uncertain. “Is that the same for everyone?”
In Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, there are stories about loving, about not being loved enough, about being loved at the wrong time, about the love you receive not matching the love you give. Stories that touch on mental illness being used to rope a person into some sort of racial characterization, on men who try to outrun pain, on not being ‘too black’ or ‘black enough.’ There is a story about an uncle, who once was at the height of his profession, but now has given into his sorrow and his thorough sense of disappointment.
For Dyani Douze, a Brooklyn-based filmmaker, sound artist, and DJ, the vulnerability in Collins’ work is what is resonant. “I think one of the most affirming aspects of creating art is how your own work can teach you about yourself in ways that other forms of communication simply cannot,” Douze says. “I think it’s not really a question of whether or not we must always include an aspect of ourselves, but are we willing to be vulnerable throughout the creative process? For me, that’s the only way to grow.”
To Ja’Tovia Gary, a Brooklyn-based artist and filmmaker, Collins’ vulnerability does a specific kind of work. “Her characters are processing openly, balancing the complications of their lives and taking action to capture their desires.” For her, this reads as “a radical reclamation of aspects of our humanity that have been historically stripped from Black women.” Gary recognizes Collins as contributing to the work of fleshing out the experiences and realities of black women. But there is a difference between fleshing out the whole versus fleshing out the individual, and fleshing out Collins herself is another thing entirely.
The stories had been tucked away in a trunk, untouched in Nina’s home. Her mother had died when she was nineteen and her brother was fifteen; instead of fighting over what she wanted, she gathered up everything that mattered to her. She took thousands of typewritten and handwritten pages, put them in a trunk and said to her stepfather, “I’m taking all of these things and I’m leaving this house.” And she did. She didn’t look at the pages for over ten years.
When Nina reopened the trunk, she was navigating another low point. “I was going through this horrible divorce… and I started to realize I needed to understand my rage and my childhood.” She saw her anger as stemming from the fact that she was living in Vienna while her mother was sick and no one told her until two weeks before she died.
Nina describes her mother in both larger than life and supremely intimate ways. “I’d been raised by this woman who didn’t take any shit from anyone.” She views her mother as someone who was a real artist—a person compelled to create. She says she “very fully knew who she was in the world… I think that’s what’s so unusual about the stories is you read them and they’re really fierce. They’re really distinct.” Nina believes that her mother felt very confident in her own voice and in her sense of self. “She was super vibrant and funny and strong and really capable… She was just a huge personality. And she also really raised me to feel, I think, like I could do anything.” But as we all do, Collins contained multitudes. “She was in a lot of pain. Her mom had died, she had a terrible time with men, for the most part my father was a disaster. She was a single mother raising two kids, really trying to be an artist. She had no money… But she was just the furthest thing from a victim you’d ever meet.”
Nina says that her mother never spoke about race in their home. For a woman who grapples with race so honestly in her work and was active with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the Civil Rights Movement, it is a surprising admission. Nina, though, sees it as a good thing. “I love being half-black and half-white,” she says, “and a lot of my contemporaries, people like Danzy Senna and Rebecca Walker, and most people of mixed race feel complicated about it and kind of torn about it, and I never have.”
Nina has been vocal about her relationship with her mother. Penning essays for Vogue and ELLE, she has probed the nuances of their relationship before. In the essays, she painted a picture of a loving, but inattentive mother at best and of abandonment at worst. I ask Nina if she thinks her mother’s artistry was incompatible with motherhood and she doesn’t hesitate. “Totally,” she says, then laughs. “She would be in her room writing with the door closed everyday until 1 or 2. We were not allowed to disturb her. And even when her door was open, she was often not really present. She often had no idea what was really going on with me or my brother—she was distracted.” This, however, did not take away from the care that Nina knew her mother felt for them. “I know we were super important to her, but I think it’s hard to really be an artist full-time and focus on the minutiae of all the banalities of parenting.”
When Nina made the decision to remaster Losing Ground, she had no expectations. In her mind, she was doing it for her mother. She wanted Collins’ voice to be out in the world and to have a book of the stories that her family could look at. A former literary agent, Nina “knew [she] would never be able to sell these stories… No one would have cared.” That changed after Losing Ground became a “surprising success.” What once felt like a farfetched dream seemed within reach. “Suddenly I thought, ‘Oh, maybe now people will care,’” she says. “The New Yorker has called her a genius. Maybe people will want to see these stories.”
It’s 2017 and almost 30 years after Kathleen Collins’ death—but because of Nina, her work is having a second life.
Since Losing Ground first screened at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2015, it has screened at more theaters, such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Jacob Burns Film Center, and it can even be purchased on DVD and Blu-Ray.
When watching the film for the first time, Douze was struck. She says, “I immediately thought ‘Wow.’ This is a black experience that we rarely see in film or TV. There are bourgeois black Americans who are explicitly struggling with their fleeting blackness and dangerous proximity to whiteness.”
Jackson sees “a wry sense of humor that Collins brings to her work even when she’s talking about the darkest aspects of human life—our unsuccessful attempts at love and belonging.”
“The nicest compliment anybody ever pays me about Losing Ground is that they felt they were real people. That makes me very happy,” Collins said in the 1984 interview. “When you begin to think about narrative, the problem for [black people] is the process of demythologizing ourselves, otherwise there can be no truth apprehended.”
Before her death, Collins completed two films. She made The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy for $7,000. Losing Ground was finished with $30,000. Consider that E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, also finished in 1982, was made for $10.5 million. Annie was made for $50 million. Remastering Losing Ground cost nearly as much as the amount it took to create it.
While Collins was able to sell Losing Ground to six countries in Europe, it was never sold in the United States. When the film was first screened for U.S.-based distributors, Collins was met with disbelief. White distributors said, “We don’t know any black people like that. We don’t know any black women like that.” For some, this proclamation may have become a source of strife or internal conflict. Collins, however, doubled down in her vision. “The premise of the movie is that no one ultimately is going to mythologize my life. No one is going to refuse me the right to explore my experiences of life as normal experiences.”
Black people are still fighting to simply be seen as human. Perhaps this is why Collins’ work resonates so deeply in this cultural moment.
“I think the psychological effects of white supremacy aren’t talked about nearly enough, especially when definitions of white supremacy don’t acknowledge the internalized racism it breeds,” Parker says. “For lack of eloquence, it’s all in our minds. That doesn’t make it less real, but it does make our impulses and reactions more difficult to trust.” Parker notes the accumulating “burdens on a black woman’s mind” due to various oppressive factors. Because of this, she thinks issues like “mania, depression, anxiety, addiction, abusive relationships” seem unavoidable. But Collins doesn’t shy away from them. “I love the way Collins captures these compounding layers. I love the way the hazards are slyly invoked.”
Nina acknowledges that her mother was often depressed, but as Parker says, when a person is willing to reckon fully with oppression, it is hard not to be. Collins was not afraid to probe the aspects of her life that didn’t quite glimmer, but were mired with dirt and rust. In doing so, she offers a chance for us to do the work to demythologize ourselves as well. “There is a hunger just to see black people going through life experiences,” she said in 1984. “It is a terrible thing to be made to feel that everything that happens in your life isn’t quite human.”
Hearing Collins speak, even through a computer screen, is an experience. What is clear is that she was truly a dynamic orator and an incredibly thoughtful storyteller. From those two hours, it seems that she was open and frank about her experiences, her brilliance constantly shining through. It’s easy to be held rapt.
When asked by a student if she ever felt pressure to compromise her values in order to succeed, Collins said, “It will take a long time for the world to even catch up with where your ideas are because you’re not being perceived as a thinking being. So, you’re a lot freer than you think, if that makes sense.” It is almost prophetic for a woman whose work is once again coming to the foreground years after she lived. Collins was both ahead of her time and of it. For black creators, that often seems to be the case.
“I remember having a conversation with another young black woman writer, Tiphanie Yanique, just after she’d published her short story collection,” Jackson says. “I asked what she wanted her work to do in the world, and she said that she wanted it to continue to exist. Her words stayed with me, and in reading Collins’ stories and watching her films, I’m reminded that for black women artists, our work’s continued circulation is not a foregone conclusion.”
It is easy to wonder what great work the general public is missing out on because of gatekeepers at all levels who are unwilling to showcase that work. It is easy to wonder what stories sit buried in a trunk, what films are disintegrating, what vital artistry many of us have not yet seen.
Collins wondered how “[black people] divest ourselves of the need to make ourselves extraordinary.” Her argument is that once seen as evil, the tendency is to want to go full speed in the other direction, fashioning ourselves into saints. “Neither one has anything to do with reality,” she said. “Those are traps to dehumanize you.” And while that is necessary to consider how to allow for a full range of humanity, both in artistry and within the context of individual lives, it is also vital to wonder how we ensure that the work that fleshes us out, to borrow words from Gary, is afforded an audience after its creation. There have been answers throughout time, from the New Negro Movement of the 1920s to the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s to Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in the 1980s to Jack Jones Literary Arts now. There have always been black artists making way for black art. Nearly as vital of a consideration is who the work is for, and perhaps reimagining what ‘audience’ or ‘success’ look like.
“It is important to understand not only one’s position in the society, but the emotional role that you play in the society,” Collins proclaimed. “Whatever [white people] cannot handle in their psyche has been projected onto [black people]. Therefore, in some ways, we consider ourselves in a public format like a collective garbage pail. It’s an ugly way to do it but I insist on the ugliness because I do not know of one black person in my experience who has not had, psychically first, to deal with their own feeling of ugliness. And the feeling of ugliness comes from what has been projected onto us as the sinner. As the person in whom evil resides.”
Collins reckoned with her impulses and obsessions in a way that disallowed the evil/saint dichotomy and created work rooted in her realities, thereby allowing us to see another example of what is possible. She did not shy away from emotions, whether good, bad, or painful. “You cannot allow yourself to reject anything you feel,” she said. “You better be able to feel it out loud… You cannot program yourself to ride the party line.” We are worse off for not having more from Kathleen Collins while she was alive, but we are so privileged to have what we have in the wake of her death. And she’s not the only one for whom this is true.
As Gary says, “My expectations for mainstream society’s recognition and validation is very low, but I think we owe it to ourselves to excavate the work of the many unsung geniuses who we may not be familiar with. There are nuggets of insight waiting for us in the work.”
None of us are myths. And we shouldn’t treat ourselves as if we are.
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