There is a certain type of writer who makes you want to write - their words are bold yet understated and flow with an ease belying the massive amount of work put into them. The facility with which they are read implies they are easy to write, and makes one think, "yes, I could totally do this." Kathleen Collins is, was, one of those writers. The copy I have is a galley, and is missing the promised forward by Elizabeth Alexander, which is a shame as I'd love to know more about this woman's life and work. Her short bio on the back of the book reads, "Kathleen Collins was a pioneer African American playwright, filmmaker, civil rights activist, film editor, and educator. Her groundbreaking film, Losing Ground, is one of the first feature films made by a black woman in America..." She sounds like a hell of a woman, and left this earth too soon at 46.
This slim collection of short stories features an array of mostly women, mostly African Americans, mostly intellectuals. How rare was it then, and how rare it is now, to be put inside the head of an educated black woman; this is proof of America's "post-racial" falsehood. Despite my wide-ranging reading, despite my good intentions, and even despite a consistent effort to seek out marginalized and rarely heard voices, the educated black woman is not a voice I can recall having heard before. Ever. In any medium. What a tragedy for us, as readers and as a society, to miss out on such work as this.
The tension of the civil rights movement finds a new light in these stories, as the inner struggle of "bourgeois black" women to understand and help fight against the plight of the poor, southern blacks, to understand their own histories as part of that struggle despite their parents' best efforts to shield them from it. And so we meet the young "Negro" college graduate whose father has a stroke upon seeing her with browned skin, short hair, heading down south to help with voter registration. We meet the two black intellectuals, so perfect for each other and yet...and yet, she cannot feel at home among his mid-Victorian pillows or upon his four-poster bed. While each story is much about the constant compromise of relationships, it's the thread of race that binds them all together. And her writing, such beautiful, powerful, quiet writing. Collins laments the awkward condition of the intellectual black woman, feet in two or three worlds, and I wonder if we can say that this condition has changed much since her death in 1988. What a perfect time to bring her work into the light and into readers' hands.