In Elizabeth Alexander’s foreword to Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, Kathleen Collins’s posthumously released short story collection, she notes the impact Collins’s film Losing Ground had on her life. “A film made by a Black woman, whose subject was—what?—a Black woman philosophy professor? With a painter husband? Whose Black intellectual artistic life I was trying to live myself?” she says, recalling the joy and disbelief she felt knowing such a film could exist. But access to the film was limited, and Alexander didn’t watch it until years after it was released.
Collins’s stories were written decades ago, and reading her singular and poetic voice now feels like a gift from the past. Collins, a playwright and filmmaker who is considered the first Black woman to direct a feature-length film in the United States, died of breast cancer in 1988 at the age of 46, leaving behind a significant amount of unpublished work to her daughter, Nina.
While I read this book, I was reminded of my first time reading James Baldwin and how eye-opening it was to read something written 50 years ago that grappled frankly with sex, race, gender. How foolish I felt to realize I wasn’t living in a golden age like I thought—these topics were being explored in rich and complex ways long before I was born. Like much of Baldwin’s work, many of Collins’s stories focus on the experiences of young artists and bohemians living in New York City, the loves and friendships and relationships between Black people and brown people and white people.
In the title story, “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?,” two young women, recent college graduates, one Black and one white, live in an Upper West Side apartment together in 1963 (“the year of race-creed-color blindness”). Each woman is in a relationship with a man of a different race than she is, and both are trying to work and make art and change the world. Collins’s background in writing for the screen and the stage is obvious here, as it is in all her stories. Notes about moods and voices and descriptions of characters’ appearances and their races are often delivered pointedly or in parenthetical asides.
Numerous themes and features are revisited throughout the story collection, like a stern bourgeois father with gray eyes who’s disappointed when his daughter cuts her hair short “just like any other colored girl.” Many stories touch on skin color—light and dark, different shades of Black—and its perceived value. There are families who pride themselves on their paleness and characters whose dark skin causes others to project their feelings about race onto them. In “The Happy Family,” Collins raises questions of voice and power and whether or not all stories should be told by all people—questions that remain at the forefront in literature today, as evidenced by Lionel Shriver’s sombrero-topped tirade at the Brisbane Writers Festival. In this story an unidentified narrator tells the story of a Black family he loved and admired whose lives later fell apart; at the end, he reveals himself to be a white man who might have “told it all wrong.”
Collins never avoids complexity or difficult emotions; she’s unafraid of ambiguity, and her stories don’t provide easy conclusions or simple interpretations. She asks, “What of love, instead of politics? What of that nubile, fleeting sensation, when one is color-blind, religion-blind, name-, age-, aid-, vital statistics-blind?…What of all those interracial couples peppering the Lower East Side in the summer of ‘63 and the summer of ‘64, only to go into furtive decline in the summer of ‘65—no longer to be seen holding hands in public (‘Black Power! Black Power! Black Power!’)?”
Class, education, and culture are interwoven with race and gender. In “Stepping Back,” a woman says, “I was the first colored woman he ever seriously considered loving…The first one with class, style, poetry, taste, elegance, repartee, and haute cuisine.” Later, she finds herself retreating from their sexual relationship, asking, “How could I…make love? Tastefully enough? No colored woman could. No colored woman could. No colored woman could.”
Collins’s stories are deep and nuanced, even though her writing style is spare and elegant, and the volume itself is thin. Her characters’ inner lives are rich and emotional, but described with restraint, the sort of writing that will reward rereading. We are lucky to have inherited these stories and lucky that her legacy has been renewed with this book.