During her short life, Kathleen Collins, who died at 46 of breast cancer in 1988, was primarily known as a filmmaker and a civil rights activist from the 1960s to the ’80s. The posthumous publication of “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” offers a sample of her written art in 16 short stories, 15 previously unpublished. Originally written in the 1970s, many of Collins’ stories recall themes and subjects addressed by her predecessors – black female writers like Zora Neale Hurston of the Harlem Renaissance Era of the 1920s and 1930s and Ann Petry of the Protest Era of the 1940s and early 1960s.
Collins, whose stories are set in the ’60s through the ’70s, fits into the Protest Era. Her stories expand on her foremothers’ subjects of racial inequality and rage. Some of the book’s expressions are dated, especially “chick” and “cat,” “Negro” and “colored,” but the topics remain as pertinent today as they were in her time. Like Hurston and Petry, Collins writes about how it feels to be colored in a white world and how it feels to be a black woman in a man’s world. She writes of pent-up male rage and male-female relationships like Hurston and Petry did. But by Collins’ time, some relationships have become interracial, just as the book’s title suggests. And unlike the stories of her predecessors, many of Collins’ stories read like a filmmaker wrote them as she transfers cinematic art and technique to paper.
The title story follows two roommates, one a white Sarah Lawrence graduate, the other a black woman, from the jail cells of Albany, Georgia, who share an apartment in New York’s Upper West Side. That’s a locale Collins sardonically calls an “interracial mecca.” It’s 1963, four years before the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision that legalized interracial marriage throughout the U.S. The two have interracial boyfriends. It’s “a year of racial, religious, and ethnic mildew.”
If there was ever a story about rage like Petry’s “Like a Winding Sheet” (1946), it’s “Documentary Style.” A young, egotistical black cameraman is so obsessed with himself and his art that he takes his frustrations out on the pregnant woman with whom he’s working. But sometimes it’s not rage, but poverty and helplessness that afflict Collins’ characters. The one-time Olympic athlete in “The Uncle” has “lost the will to struggle with life.” He suffers from asthma attacks so severe that he can’t run any more. Married to an exquisite but lazy and vain light-skinned woman, he endures bouts of depression and cries himself to sleep and one night to death.
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Other stories like “Treatment for a Story” suggest a filmmaker’s touch, and “When Loves Withers All of Life Cries” is presented in a script-like format – dialogue and some narrative, rather than stage instructions. “Exteriors” is a vignette about a poor, young couple in the midst of a breakup. The story’s told by a theater director who gives a three-page monologue as he directs the intensity of the lighting: “a nice soft gel,” he says, “backlight the two of them asleep.” As the plot evolves, the lights fade into shadows “while she looks for the feelings that lit up the room.”
In “Interiors,” a married couple talk about their breakup in two soliloquies. He’s moody and restless; she’s reflective and accepting. Though each addresses the other about their past together, their speeches seem interior monologues spoken as if on-stage to an audience.
Each story is piercingly accurate, sometimes sardonic, and poignant. Collins’ written portrait of the era of “racial and ethnic mildew” demonstrates her genius, in print as well as on film, about why race relations matter.
Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his blog at http://josephpeschel.com/HaveWords/
“Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?”
By Kathleen Collins
Ecco, 192 pages