BY Morgan Jerkins in Opinion | 21 FEB 19
Featured in
Issue 201

The Unbounded Life of Kathleen Collins

A new collection of works by the late US novelist and filmmaker shows an artist seeking to become free in ways that most women never achieve

BY Morgan Jerkins in Opinion | 21 FEB 19

In 1984, the writer and filmmaker Kathleen Collins held a master class at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she first explained that the basis of her work was to overturn the Christian metaphysic as applied to black people. We can only be saints or sinners, she argued, and we are the scapegoats of society from which evil propagates. Because of this strict dichotomy, we are the extraordinary: outsiders located at opposite ends of the moral spectrum. The result is that we never get to be ordinary. ‘It is no accident that white people do not like seeing black people lead ordinary lives,’ Collins told the students. The mundanity of black people’s lives was a theme explored by other black women writers, such as Lorraine Hansberry or Zora Neale Hurston, whose careers, like Collins’s, were either cut short due to illness or forgotten until they were rediscovered decades later. Collins, who died in 1988 at the age of 46 from breast cancer, is one such woman experiencing a recent revival; her work not only addresses the everyday struggles of black men and women in the US, it also testifies to a vibrant inner life.

I wrote about Collins for The New York Times Book Review in 2016, when the Ecco Press posthumously published her short story collection, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?. In February, Ecco released Notes from a Black Woman’s Diary, a 400-page compendium of letters, notes, short stories, novel excerpts, plays and screenplays with the blessing of her daughter and executor, Nina Lorez Collins. I noted, in my review for The New York Times, how the issues of race and gender did not dominate any of the stories. What dominates, instead, is the characters’ interiority and the ways their thoughts guide their judgement of one another. But it is through Collins’s notes here in this newest collection that her strongwilled nature and acute focus on her own internal processes, especially as a black woman, come to the fore: ‘I turned far inside, where there was only me and love to deal with. I turned far inside till I could measure every beat of love – love living on sex, love emptied of sex, love scratching and screaming in jealousy, love neglected until it turned itself into a life so solitary there was almost no way out.’ In these letters and notes, she is envious of men because they refuse to observe limitations whereas women accept them. As resistance, she refuses to think of her life in proximity to a man and instead seeks self-fulfilment above all.

Collins was born on 18 March 1942 in Jersey City. She studied Philosophy and Religion at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, where, according to her letters, she first felt the need to untie herself from anyone else’s obligations. It was during her college years that Collins became an activist while working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a prominent Civil Rights Movement group. She wrote to them: ‘The turmoil and discovery of Christmas are past and perhaps, too, the brutality of a rebellious daughter – who cannot apologize for rebelling – but who wishes she had had the wisdom to do it with less pain.’ From there, she taught French in Massachusetts while attending graduate school at Harvard University in the evenings. She also completed her master’s degree in French literature and cinema at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Kathleen Collins, Notes from a Black Woman’s Diary, 2019
Kathleen Collins, Notes from a Black Woman’s Diary, 2019. Courtesy: Harper Collins Publishers, New York

In life, her best-known achievement was the 1982 film, Losing Ground, one of the first feature-length movies by an African-American female filmmaker. The story follows the complex marriage of Sara (Seret Scott), a seemingly frigid professor, and Victor (filmmaker Bill Gunn), an irreverent painter. Victor finds ecstasy through his art and Sara finds hers through abstractions, such as scholarship and conceptual thinking. During a summer vacation, their marital tension comes to a head when Victor falls for one of his muses and Sara for an out-of-work actor with whom she co-stars in an independent, student-led film. The story is ordinary yet luxuriant, as if time were of no consequence. There are ample shots of black and latinx people dancing, black people dining, black people conversing, black people being. The Losing Ground screenplay, which is collected in Notes, includes extra scenes that show the many fissures in Sara and Victor’s marriage. Conversations about blackness and societal obligations are raised but do not cloak Collins’s essential, if simple, story. Sara’s mother, Leila, who’s an actor herself, says over dinner: ‘I’d love to play a real 60-year-old Negro lady who thinks more about men than God.’ Losing Ground received only a limited release and was soon forgotten until 2015, when the film was remastered. In an introduction to the screenplay, film theorist Phyllis Rauch Klotman writes that art houses in the early 1980s rejected it because there weren’t any suffering black people or scenes in ghettos.

Collins was erudite, had access to elite institutions in the US and Europe and held a teaching position at the City College of New York. This background often appears in her work in ways both universal and self-reflective. The first scene of Losing Ground opens with Sara lecturing her students about the wartime origins of French existentialism. In another scene, her voice is overhead reading about ecstasy, consciousness and the divine. One doesn’t need to be proficient in Hegel and Kant to follow the story, but the added layers of middle-class intelligentsia life – such as summer homes in upstate New York and flowery, philosophical language – all reveal the affordances of a particular, privileged life. Other works, like the unfinished novel, Lollie: A Suburban Tale, and her short story ‘Raschida’ tread similar territory. While her characters generally speak in an affluent manner, indicating their economic and social advantages, they are not immune to the fickleness of love or life. Neither was Collins.

In her notes and letters, Collins asserts the need for an unbounded life, whether it’s in her pursuit of freedom from her parents or a near-suicidal fight with her first husband. In a letter to her daughter, Nina, Collins apologizes for acting as if she possessed her, ending her correspondence: ‘Ultimately everything connected with love must be stripped away until it is entirely free.’ In a later letter, written after Collins fell in love with a man whom she eventually married, she confesses: ‘It was my strength that was holding me together, I blindly ignored what a crippling, empty thing strength is without vulnerability, softness and giving in to love [...] But there was a value in those years. The emptiness made me free of fear. It helped me to become free in many ways that most women, particularly, never achieve.’ Despite Collins’s posthumous recognition, as has been the case for many black female savants, perhaps this feeling of being free can be gleaned, at last, by her newfound readers.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 201 with the headline ‘Unbounded Life’

Main image: Kathleen Collins, Losing Ground, 1982. Courtesy: Milestone Films and Nina Lorez Collins

Morgan Jerkins is the author of This Will Be My Undoing, which was published last year by HarperCollins. She is based in New York, USA.