‘Integration is a pulsating new beat, which will liberate them from the old segregated ways of doing things. For is it not, after all, we who must walk hand-in-hand […]. Togetherness came back in style. People got along for a while. Inside the melting pot’.
‘Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?’
I first became aware of Kathleen Collins’ work when I encountered her title piece, ‘Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?’ in Granta’s 136th issue, Legacies of Love, last year. I remembered it as a beautifully sad exploration of a very promising and hopeful period in black American history. The 1960s was a time of increasing change in legislation benefitting the black community – such as the Civil Rights Act of ’64, which guaranteed equal employment for all and integrated public facilities, the Voting Rights Act of ’65, which banned voter literacy tests, and the Fair Housing Act of ’68, which prevented housing discrimination based on race, sex and religion. People of colour were finally seeing some gains after a long, hard battle for freedom that was still far from over. The sixties, however, also had its setbacks – in ’65 and ’68, two of its major leaders, Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated, highlighting the strong, divisive feelings that surrounded (and still do surround) the issue of race in America.
Told from the first person perspective of a young, educated black woman living in ‘the melting pot’ which is New York city, Collins short story – ‘Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?’ – explores the relationships between those of different races. The protagonist is dating a white man who is also educated. They are both freedom fighters and her boyfriend is currently spending time in jail after encouraging black southern Americans to register to vote. Living in a shared apartment with her white friend, the protagonist explores the relationships she has with these people, the relationships they have with their respective black partners, and most of all, the strained relationship she has with her father. Despite the sense of optimism that pervades the time and place in which this story is set, there is an unforgettable sense of foreboding that I couldn’t quite shake off. Encapsulated in the extract I quoted above, the juxtaposition of the present tense and the past insinuates that this period of ‘integration … a pulsating new beat’ won’t last forever. Integration ‘came back in style’ as if it was the new fashion accessory of the time. People only ‘got along for a while’.
I won’t give away how ‘Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?’ ends but Collins has a way of creating maximum emotional impact with only a few words and I found this to be a recurring theme throughout her beautiful collection. The opening story – ‘Exteriors’ – is written as if it’s stage directions for a film. Describing the scene of a woman whose husband is about to leave her, we look in on their shared New York apartment as if we are peeking in through the windows. Amongst all the stage and lighting directions, the woman’s personal despair and immense sadness powerfully seeps out, making it an uncomfortable experience to witness. Although only a few pages long, I was instantly blown away by Collins’ experimental style. I felt as if I had been punched in the gut, the emotion she evoked felt so close and so raw.
From reading the Foreward to Collins’ collection of short stories by Elizabeth Alexander, I learnt that Collins was also one of the leading black women to break into film directing at a time when it was difficult for women to get into, let alone black women. This may explain how well she can set a scene and evoke images in her writing. A lot of the time it felt like I was watching snippets of films.
‘They will be so drunk when they get home that they will collide together on the floor and everything will blur. Then thin secrets will trickle out, about how once he was surprised by life, deeply surprised, when his golden skin turned black and called forth contempt, when the laughter in his eyes died.
[…] Only once do you know that kind of man, they say. Only once. But she would know them all her life. One after the other they would turn out to be that kind of man’.
In her short story collection, Collins not only scours relationships between black and white bohemians living in New York with a critical, unflinching eye, but she also makes observations about the relationship between black women and black men. After reading Audre Lorde’s powerful collection of speeches and essays, Sister Outsider, I can’t help but reflect on Collins’ writing through what I have learnt from Lorde about the double impact of racism and sexism on black women. Not only do they face racism on a day-to-day basis but they also experience sexism from outside and within their own communities. So many of the women in Collins’ stories had/have to simultaneously bear the emotional brunt of the impact of racism on the men in their lives as well as racism directed at themselves and they also had/have to deal with latent and overt sexism from men in general. As a result, the majority of the protagonists in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? are tired. Tired and broken in spirit. From the protagonist in ‘Only Once’ who recounts meeting and falling in love with a man whose experiences of racism in a white America have crushed him, to the aunt in ‘Uncle’ whose eyes were ‘the washed-out eyes of a woman who has put up with too much’, Collins is acutely aware of the extra layers of prejudice and struggle that black women faced – and still do face – in America.
‘His letters made me tired. I wanted no news, no information, no pictures. I wanted the connection to slip. Sever itself. Cease to pull and tug at me in a vague, empty way’.
I could go on and on about Collins’ writing but I will stop now just to say that it is a shame she was taken away from the world so young. As Elizabeth Alexander states in the Foreword to this collection, ‘Her voice is so bracing and her eye so clear that I long anew, now that we have found her as a literary voice, for more of how she would have looked at the world: unsparingly but not cynically, analytically, humourously – a black brilliant woman intellectual in a New York state of mind’.