Feministing Reads: Kathleen Collins’s Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?

When Kathleen Collins’s 1982 film Losing Ground was screened at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2015, it immediately became inconceivable to me that film history might have been written without it. The film, in which a painter (Bill Gunn) and philosophy professor (Seret Scott) retreat upstate to alternately tend and neglect their marriage and their work, is brainy, charming, and daringly conceived. Richard Brody of the New Yorker called the screening “a revelation” and the film “a nearly lost masterwork”; Collins, who died in 1988 at age 46, only made one other film, and Losing Ground never received a proper theatrical release during her lifetime.

We owed Collins’s daughter, Nina Lorez Collins, a tremendous debt for helping the film find its way back to audiences in 2015, and we owe her again now for her work arranging the publication of Collins’s previously unseen short stories in the new collection Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? These writings are no less revelatory than Losing Ground, proving Collins to have been an ambitious polymath with the capacity to become among the greatest artists of her generation. In her foreword to the volume, Elizabeth Alexander writes of Collins’s unforgettably sly and perceptive voice, “If I could have only one commentator reading me the human news, I would get everything I needed from this one.”

Though some of the collection’s pieces read more like sketches or preliminary notes toward more fully realized stories, each affords new angles of approach to a recurring handful of subjects and questions. Collins is preoccupied throughout with the legacy of the early-1960s civil rights activism in which she was a direct participant. The cultural crucible to which she consistently circles back is not the explosion of emancipatory projects at that decade’s end—free love, rock music, and so on—but rather the pitfalls and potentials of movement work in the years just preceding them.

unnamedCollins’s stories are less concerned with what this activism accomplished than with the new, imperfect social worlds that emerged around and among its actors. The title piece explores the earnest (and often naïve) optimism with which young activists attempted to build relationships across race, revealing how far short attraction and friendship can fall of substantive solidarity. In 1963—“the year of the human being”—a black activist, Cheryl, and her white community-organizer roommate each route their political aspirations through interracial romances. Self-consciously schematic and unsparingly ironic, Collins dissects the disappointments of this moment when “Idealism came back in style. People got along for a while. Inside the melting pot.” Both white and black characters expect the very fact of their desire for “togetherness” to be enough to dissolve race; both white and black characters are chastened by the tenacity of America’s racial imagination, “where you may rub your nose against the grainy sands of illusion and come up bleeding.”

An inexhaustibly impressive aspect of Collins’s intelligence is her rare eye for the relationship between cause and effect, part and whole: many of her stories thread past, present, and future through a single scene. In one such moment in the title story, a character is seen a few years later shouting “Black Power!” from a podium, disillusioned with the romance of integration. “What about the love of two ‘human beings,’” the author asks soon after, “who mate in spite of or because of or instead of or after the fact of?” Their relation may vary, but there’s no disarticulating love from the axes of difference that mark, qualify, or make it possible.

It follows from this particular quality of perceptiveness that Collins can be dazzlingly efficient in her descriptions. (Cheryl’s white roommate, for example, is “the kind of girl who was bred, not raised.”) It also follows that Collins is fascinated by the experience of becoming known by another, as well as the very human tendency to chafe against that knowledge. Again and again, Collins’s characters struggle to alternately preempt, supersede, and acquiesce to their lovers’ apprehension with their own self-knowledge. “I’m moody, damn it, and restless,” a husband admits in “Interiors,” insulating himself from critique by implying that his wife should have known this well enough to avoid falling into his mess: “I can’t apologize for loving you so little.”

If Collins’s characters flirt with archetype—restless husband, well-bred white girl—it’s because they share the author’s preoccupation with the difficulty of matching one’s own self-perception to the perceptions of others. Stereotypes, clichés, romances, and formulas can be both clarifying in their explanatory power and obstructive of more complete understanding, and Collins repeatedly stages the drama of divergent models refusing to sync up. The friction between her characters’ respective frames can drive them apart, sure, but it can also generate something new: in “How Does One Say,” a young woman’s efforts to fit the bland phrases of her flirtations with a French teacher into the still-foreign language is not constrictive but funny, even exciting.

Collins’s stories about the early ’60s are insistently retrospective. They are written in its wake, from the vantage of already knowing how things will have to end. But her approach isn’t cynical; she instead manages to blend clear-eyed analysis with the wistful recovery of an optimism whose time has come and gone. The volume’s more narrowly domestic stories throw into relief the fact that even its ostensibly political dramas are, at their core, intimate ones. For Collins’s characters, activism provides an occasion, a governing vocabulary, and sometimes just an excuse for flawed attempts at relation across various kinds of difference. Her book charts a singularly nuanced map of American racial politics in the period that formed Collins, tracing its borders and confirming its variety.

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? is a resource that I can’t believe we’ve gone so long without. It’s a cause for celebration that we no longer have to.

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New Haven, CT

Sam Huber is a writer and editor living in New Haven, CT. He is a books columnist for Feministing and a graduate student in English at Yale University.

Writer, editor, queer.

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