Ramiro the foreword of the collection titled Whatever Happened

Ramiro Vargas

Dr. Johnson, Ph. D.

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ENGL 483

12 December 2017

Black Feminist
Themes Through the Film and Text of Kathleen Collins

“The very existence of
this book feels to me like an assurance that while we may think we have done
our archival work and unearthed all treasures of black thinking women, there is
always something more to find” (Alexander XIV). This quote from the foreword of
the collection titled Whatever Happened
to Interracial Love was my first introduction to the work of Kathleen
Collins, who during her career broke barriers by being among one of the first
black women to direct a feature film, Losing
Ground. It was these two works that we studied in class that opened up my
curiosity regarding the thoughts of black women and how black feminist themes
played a role in their writings or productions, specifically Kathleen Collins.
With this essay, I hope to gain a deeper understanding of the themes presented
in Collins’ work and discuss them in order to enhance my knowledge about black
thinking and black feminism. Like the quote stated above, there is always
something more to find.

One of the stories that I
read that really moved me was titled “Lifelines.” We are introduced to a female
character who is addressed as “C” in letters written by her husband who in the
beginning is imprisoned, writing letters from jail where he describes how he
“no longer knows who he is” and makes requests that his wife fulfills out of
love. “His letters put me in such a state I would fly upstairs to my typewrite
and pound out a letter that might hold him for just a moment longer” (Collins
122). She goes on to say “I did everything I could to make his days more
bearable. I spent all my spare moments in bookstores, at foreign newsstands, or
in the library looking for interesting books, magazines, or periodicals to
distract him.” I have seen many examples of this kind of woman in various forms
of media and in my own life. This character has so much love for her husband
that she goes above and beyond to make sure that his days while incarcerated
are as good as they can be. She lives to make him happy, even if it is just
through the mail, which is not a bad thing, however I feel as though this
character was not taking time to focus on herself whatsoever. “I felt like I
was in prison, too. I lived only for the mail” (Collins 125). Her husband is
released and the two attempted to reconnect for time lost, although it was not
really lost. They had said all they needed to say through the mail. It did not
take long before her husband decided he needed to go somewhere new, leaving his
wife alone again. While he was living life in Santo Domingo, Chile, or Brazil,
she was alone. “I felt old. Useless. Sick at heart as if my life was draining
away and I hadn’t the strength to call it back” (Collins 126). We see this
woman, who gave her all to a man who instead of trying to rebuild a
relationship that was affected by his bad choices, he takes off because he was
seeking a new adventure. I truly felt for this woman. “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”
(Collins 127). She decided to leave the city and go on an adventure of her own,
to a cabin in the Adirondacks. One day, she went to go get her hair cut in town
and is serviced by a woman who not only cut her hair very short, but gave her a
vision of her in front of a white house. “It’s your house, oh it’s very sunny
inside and you’ll be happy there” the woman said (Collins 128). She brushes off
this woman’s claims and after a week goes back into town for a paying job in an
off-Broadway musical out of desperation. After it is over, she decides to head
back to the cabin and is detoured. She remembers that she has friends in the
area and is offered to stay at a house until it is sold. Our protagonist begins
to feel comfortable in this house, a feeling she has not felt in a while. After
a series of events regarding the sale of the house, she comes to an
understanding with her friend and she purchases the house for herself. She was
beyond joyful. “It was a lovely evening, heightened for me by the unbelievable
fact that I now owned the house!” (Collins 133). She writes about the house to
her estranged husband who writes back with “that’s really great about the
house, though I have a hard time imagining you as a homeowner…how does it work
anyway, am I a partial absentee owner as your husband?” (Collins 133). She
reacted to his letter the same way I did: “The letter bothered me. He had no
right to think of himself as a partial owner of my house; it was like being
held by a thread that kept me in the shadows. It threw out a vague lifeline
that insisted I was still in his life but not really in his life, that my
existence somehow fed a need in him for a symbiotic wife who would always be
there if a lifeline was ever needed…it could never nourish me” (Collins
134).  Her response to me was a vital
moment for her, a moment of realization of who she was as a wife and who she
deserved to be as a woman on her own. She stopped living to please a man who
was not there for her and began living for herself and enjoying life in the
house that she purchased on her own. I felt that for her husband to
automatically assumed he was a partial owner was like he wanted to take some
credit for something that she did on her own and that brought her happiness.
Not only that but his “I have a hard time imagining you as a homeowner” comment
angered me as well. After buying her home, our main character contemplates on
selling the cabin her and her husband owned. 
Her husband responds with “I think you’re right, it should be sold. The
cash would be great if I decide to invest in a little property down here”
(Collins 135). To me, the character of the husband is too caught up in his own
little world where his wife is only there as someone to fall back on, but
serves no actual purpose which I find problematic. Instead of using the money
from the cabin on something they could mutually enjoy or benefit from, he’s thinking
about investing it for himself, which is incredibly selfish, especially after
everything his wife did for him while he was incarcerated. He eventually comes
back, but we do not know further detail on their relationship. To me, this
story spoke to me and told the story of a woman who was just a shell of a
woman, repressed by her husband’s wants and needs and how she broke through
that and became a pearl.

I sensed a similar
pattern in another short story I read titled “Treatment for a Story.” This story
is not as straight forward as the last because it uses more poetic language.
Due to its cryptic nature, my interpretation of the story may differ from other
readers. From what I understand, we are introduced to a woman who is arriving
to a cluttered apartment. “A ground-floor room in the back, cluttered with
trunks, boxes, books, magazines, newspapers, note- books, and paintings, and
smelling of Gauloises, burnt coffee, dirty sheets, couscous and peppers, and a
mélange of female scents” (Collins 83). She meets a man at the apartment who
smells like sweat and whose shoes smell like casual sex. It is not revealed whether
this woman and this man are in a relationship or married, however they have a
couple of sexual encounters. After the first of those encounters occurs, she
begins to feel uneasy about being in the apartment. “She curls up in bed. Pulls
the dirty sheets over her and starts to doze . . . Starts to doze until the
room pulls her awake, overpowers her with its clutter, its scrawled notebooks
and poems and letters to himself . . . Himself . . . The odor of his
conversations gets under her skin, keeps her awake. As if she did not belong
there” (Collins 84). There are two parts in the quote above that intrigued me:
the letters to himself and the feeling of not belonging. If the story is being
literal, then what I am assuming is that the man in this “relationship” only
really cares about one thing which is himself. If my assumption is correct,
then I have reason to believe that the reason the woman is feeling like she
does not belong is because she senses that she does not matter in that space.
She is not someone that this man is going to do all he can for. She does not
think that she should be in this man’s world. She describes the environment in
which she is in by saying: “the stale masculine smell dominates everything”
(Collins 84). This line really spoke to the feminist within me as it is common
knowledge that most things in society are dominated by men. Kathleen Collins
could be making that connection and wanting to make the point about “living in
a man’s world” through the lens of a woman. At the end of the story, our main
character realizes that she does not want to be in that environment with a man
who does not care for her as he should. “There is nothing to be gained there.
Not even a hot shower” (Collins 86).

The final short story from
the collection we read that I will discuss was titled “How Does One Say.” We
are introduced to another female character who was leaving home to Maine for
summer school “to speak nothing but French for six weeks” (Collins 21). The
character reveals that her father refused to look at her because she had cut
her hair so short that it made her look “just like any colored girl.” We read
on to find out that her father’s reaction upsets her, and she drives all the
way to school from New Jersey in tears. This conflict that occurs within the
first paragraphs of the story. Within the past few years, I had read more and
more stories regarding “black hair.” Schools and businesses cracking down on
black individuals, specifically black girls and women, for wearing their
natural hair. African-American individuals getting upset at those who are not
of African heritage wearing dreadlocks or box braids. “What’s the big deal?” I
thought. When I read this story, I felt the need to put all of these questions
to rest and do research for myself. In a piece titled “Black Women and
Identity: What’s Hair Got to Do with It?”, author Cheryl Thompson explains the
historic and cultural significance regarding hair and black women. “While black
hair might seem like fun to outsiders, given the plethora of styling options at
a woman’s disposal, beneath each style there is a deeply personal hair story
and a lot of scalp damage that for some is irreversible. When you consider the
history of black hair, its complexity becomes clear” (Thompson 1). With this
knowledge taken into consideration, I can infer why certain characters in this
story feel the way they do. First, the father. We read that the father is upset
that his daughter chose to cut her hair, going from long, straight hair to a
short frizz. “His severe grey eyes hating that his daughter should look so
colored, that she should have done away with the one thing that made her
different” (Collins 21). To me, this quote directly tackles the idea of
internalized racism. The father is upset that his daughter looks “colored.” For
me, I have personally dealt with my own internalized racism, specifically
colorism as a person of Mexican origin. As a child, I envied all of my white
friends because I saw most of them with perfect lives, perfect families, and
not a worry in the world. There was a period of time where I tried to go
extended periods of time without going outside to avoid getting darker. I
understand that my personal struggle may not be exact and on some levels
comparable, but it is my way of trying to understand the father’s point of
view. For the daughter, who I believe is meant to represent Kathleen, she finds
hate in her father’s words. She is belittled and made to feel less than simply
because her hair now is natural as opposed to her long, straightened hair meant
to resemble European beauty standards. And that right there is why black hair
is so important. It is much more than just how a person wears their hair. It is
an identity that deserves to be respected. 
Black hair deserves to be respected. Black women deserve to be
respected. Black feminism deserves to be respected. At the end of the story,
our female protagonist finds comfort in her French professor who tells her
about the beauty in her eyes, not even thinking about her hair. She seems to be
free from any care in the world. She is owning it.

            The
philosophy and thought behind black feminism is that racism and sexism are
bound together and that by being “intersectional”, more individuals are
included. According to Patricia Hill Collins, a professor of sociology and a
leader in the black feminist ideology, Black feminist thought “provides an
alternative, self-defined lens through which Black women can be seen and their
experiences understood in the world” (Patterson et all 1). Kathleen Collins
used this lens in her works so that the reader or viewer would be able to
immerse themselves and gain a deeper understanding. A prime example of this would
be her best-known work, the 1982 film Losing
Ground.

            Losing Ground was one of Collins’ last
works before her death in 1988 at age 46. The film was never had a proper
theatrical release at the time of its creation and was nearly forgotten about
until its resurface in 2015. When first viewing the film in class, it took some
time to really understand the message that the film was trying to convey to its
audience. We are introduced to the main character, Sara (played by Seret
Scott), who is a philosophy professor in New York. Within that first
introduction, Collins gives the viewer a different image of the black woman. “White
America may have wanted to position black women as strictly the jezebel, mammy,
or bitch archetype, but black America’s cinematic craving for superbad and sexy
blaxploitation…did not necessarily include the representation of Collins’s
cinematic protagonist, Sara, a philosophy professor at odds with herself and
her black artist husband—Victor. She is not a black woman in search of a good
man, but one who is at odds with her man” (Stallings 52). As a viewer, I found
the character of Sara to be a unique one. I had never seen a film where the
female protagonist, specifically a black female protagonist, where the
portrayal had no stereotypical characteristics, which is an amazing thing. It
was beyond refreshing to see the character of a black woman who was not only
educated, but an educator herself. To see her not tied down to the archetypes
of a woman or of an African-American. I found the film to be an a very
progressive film way ahead of its time and it could not have been a better time
for it to have resurfaced. “From the first frame of the film, Collins provides
a jolting alternative to the historic representation of black women on screen.
Sara stands before her class as a dominant master of knowledge…Collins
dismisses the idea that her film should engage conversations about acceptable
black women and representations of black women not simply because Sara is one
of the few representations of black female intellectuals onscreen in the 1980s,
as well as now, but because Sara’s lecture is about the rebuking of normalcy”
(Stallings 51). One of the scenes that I remember from the film that perplexed
not only myself, but I assume the class as a collective as well was when Sara
meets with two students on different occasions. In a seemingly flirtatious
manner, a male student approaches Sara and as they are closing their
conversation he states: “you’re terrific…always so alive and terrific…and your
husband appreciates you” (Collins, Losing Ground). My impression of the
interaction was that it was a rather awkward and unprofessional thing to say to
someone of a higher authority, but since it is a different time and place, I
would be willing to let it slide. My explanation, which seemed logical up until
a female student shared the same remarks, was that the male student could have
had a crush on his professor and was curious to know if she was single or in a
relationship. The more I explain it, I suppose it could have been the case, but
the fact that it happened again with a different student seems to go against
it. It just seems like too many coincidences, even if it is just two Sara was
just as perplexed as we were. She asks herself: “…a husband… what…What’s this
thing they’ve got about my having a husband” (Collins, Losing Ground). I
believe that the reason Sara, as well as the film audience, were at odds with
the way her students complimented her is due to the fact that we do not see
Sara as nothing more than an intellectual woman. Her students are able to sense
a sort of power that Sara may not see in herself: the power of the erotic.
According to Audre Lorde, who wrote about this power says that “there are many
kinds of power, used and unused, acknowledged or otherwise. The erotic is a
resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane,
firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling…For
women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power
and information within our lives” (Lorde 53). I have come to realize that Sara
is a powerful character in her story, not only because of her intellect, but
because of the suppressed eroticism that she contains but does not know she
has. I believe that this is the reason she decides on participating in the
student film, to seek a sense of ecstasy without the help of her artist
husband, who happens to have ambitions of his own with his model Celia, which
leads me to my final reference.

 “Don’t fuck around then…don’t take that dick
of yours out and fling it willynilly here and there like it was
artistic…pointing it at trees, and lakes, and women…like it was some artistic
paintbrush…I got nothing to take out goddammit, that’s what’s uneven, that I got
nothing to take out” (Collins, Losing Ground). This scene reflects the apex of
the conflict between Sara and her husband Victor, who has basically only been
thinking about himself throughout the entirety of the film, except for the
ending. Against Sara’s wishes, he decides to rent a house outside of town to
focus on his artistic endeavors. In the film, it is obvious that Sara is upset
by his decision as she wanted to use the summer to focus on her studies. Moving
to a different town would take away a larger selection of sources that a city
library would contain as opposed to a rural library. Sara goes anyway and works
with what she is given until she decides to take the role in the student film.
Victor on the other hand is blatantly flirting with the Puerto Rican women in
the area, specifically his model Celia. The quote above becomes known when Sara
is overcome with jealousy after seeing Victor act in an unprofessional way
towards Celia. It was a moment where Sara along with the audience realize how
much Sara is capable of. She is not just an intellectual. She is a woman with
wants, needs, and valid feelings. In my eyes, she finally realizes her power.

After analyzing all four
of these works by Kathleen Collins, I see that they all share a theme: black
women realizing their power and their worth. I believe all of these works to be
semiautobiographical in that some of the details in these stories may be
fiction or drawn from other sources, however this female character that is
often left without a name could very well be Kathleen Collins herself. I am
very grateful for the opportunity I had to gain the knowledge and learn from an
extraordinary woman way ahead of her time. It is such a shame that Kathleen
Collins never received the level of praise and recognition she deserved during
her lifetime, but like I have said previously, I believe that now was the best
time for these works to have resurfaced so that the voices of black women
everywhere can be heard louder than ever before. It is their time now to realize
their worth and reclaim their power.

The time I have spent in this
course learning about and analyzing African-American literature has been beyond
useful and among the most cherished in my time at the University of Idaho. As a
person of color myself, I appreciate being among individuals who are not of color
and having their eyes opened to the oppression faced by different minority groups.
My eyes were also opened during this course and I have gained a deeper love and
appreciation for my black brothers and sisters both past and present. Although the
struggles faced by my ethnic group are not exactly the same as those faced by African-Americans,
the fight is united by the common goal: to leave in a world where education is valued
and that those who live in ignorance will open their eyes to what has happened,
what is currently happening, and what will happen if change is not made.

 

 

Works
Cited

Alexander, Elizabeth. Whatever Happened to Interracial
Love? : stories. FOREWORD. New York, NY: Ecco, 2016. Print.

“Black feminism.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 6
Dec. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_feminism.

Brooks, Wanda and Jonda McNair. “‘Combing’ through
Representations of Black Girls’ Hair in African American Children’s
Literature.” Children’s Literature in Education, vol. 46, no. 3, Sept.
2015, pp. 296-307. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s10583-014-9235-x.

Collins, Kathleen. Whatever Happened
to Interracial Love? : stories. New York, NY: Ecco, 2016. Print.

Collins, Patricia Hill. “The Social Construction of
Black Feminist Thought.” Signs, Vol.
14, No. 4, Common Grounds and Crossroads: Race, Ethnicity, and Class in Women’s
Lives. (Summer, 1989), pp. 745-773.

Lorde, Audre. “Uses of
the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Crossing Press, 2007,
pp. 53–59.

“Losing Ground (1982
film).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Nov. 2017,
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Losing_Ground_(1982_film).

Losing Ground. Dir. Kathleen Collins. Perf. Seret Scott, Bill
Gunn. Milestone Film & Video. 2015, DVD

Patterson, Ashley N., et al. “Black feminism and critical media
literacy: moving from the margin to the center.” Meridians: feminism,
race, transnationalism, vol. 15, no. 1, 2016, p. 40+. Academic OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A486754199/AONE?u=mosc00780&sid=AONE&xid=4352de9b.

Stallings, L. H.
“”Redemptive Softness”: Interiority, Intellect, and Black Women’s Ecstasy in
Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground.” Black Camera, vol.
2, no. 2, 2011, pp. 47–62. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/blackcamera.2.2.47.

Thompson, Cheryl. “Black
Women and Identity: What’s Hair Got to Do With It?.” Politics and Performativity, vol. 22, no. 1, Fall 2008-2009.