When the writer and filmmaker Kathleen Collins died in 1988 at age forty-six, her level of fame was disproportionate to the heights of her talent. With a singing, singular voice, she wrote stories of black women in and out of love. The release in 2016 of Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? introduced her pioneering work to twenty-first-century readers. Now, Ecco has released Notes from a Black Woman’s Diary, a delightful grab bag of Collins’s letters, plays, film scripts, journal entries, stories, and chapters of an unfinished novel. Below, Collins revisits her diary and reflects on the nature of writing, loving, and living.
It rained hard today. After lunch I sat in the kitchen sipping a can of beer. The beer made me very sleepy, so I came in to take a nap. It was one of those deep naps, where the wind and the rain conspire to take you into a deep, secure slumber. Every muscle goes limp. You awaken, as you awaken sometimes after really good lovemaking: spent, but incredibly rested and content.
Riding in the car, the day was suddenly dreary, bleak. And life seemed monotonous and sad. I wanted to cry. It seems that I have watched enough winters come in, turned the clocks back enough times, watched the rain turn the world black too many days. Only my children really hold me to life. They give me the patience to wait it out for a new day.
On my desk sits a photograph taken in the ’30s of several young women gathered for some festive occasion. They are all in their twenties, all the daughters of prominent black families. They are smiling, some holding hands. One of them is to become my mother. Another is to become the mother of my first lover …
The extremism, the tenacity in me. I will hold on. I will to hold on. Until all the cards have been played
On the phone with B–— over an hour, about men and women. In the end I am close to tears, recognizing that all the things we take so personally, all the things we suffer over so dreadfully, have so little to do with us. I try to describe to him the terror I feel in the face of a man’s freedom, the boundless arbitrariness of it. How ruthless it can be in pursuit of itself. Men become themselves out of a refusal of certain kinds of limitations, women out of an acceptance of them. Women are bound. They must come to terms with a whole centrifugal force of taboos that they cannot violate without doing severe violence to themselves. We are in bondage to life. A woman’s life is a terrible thing. Make no mistake about it. And I believe in liberation, but I don’t believe it is at all the thing we think it is.
We can’t fight time. We can’t get over anything faster than we’re supposed to. Whatever we have to live through we have to live through until its time is up. I’m saying all this to say that I think my present sense of clarity is not my victory, but time’s.
And so it goes. As if the words could weight down the fleetingness and force it to exist in some more physical, more irrevocable way.
But I don’t think that explains it all. If it is only vanity that makes me write, it is a more full-fledged, more encompassing vanity than those entries would betray. Because the diary is also an effort to justify the choices I’ve made, the ??? of life I’ve chosen. As if I am explaining myself against some later moment when I am to be judged …
I could have occupied myself with race all these years. The climate was certainly ripe for me to have done so. I could have explored myself within the context of a young black life groping its way into maturity across the rising tide of racial affirmation. I could have done that. After all, I’m a colored lady. My father died a somewhat broken colored death. My mother ended it all at my birth. And my second mother practiced a far too studied gentility. But I didn’t do that. No, 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. Instead of dealing with race I went in search of love … and what I found was a very hungry colored lady.
There is no such thing as a helpless black woman (even M——, who plays the helpless creature, plays it to D’s whiteness, plays it to his white ideas about women … ). There is no cultural conditioning, no unspoken expectation anywhere, that would allow me to believe I could afford to be helpless. The attitude of helplessness, of dependence, is foreign to me, based on assumptions that are alien to my upbringing. There was only one dominant theme in my childhood: holding on, no matter what … shifting and turning and choreographing and juggling and manipulating life to stay inside it! To live! And perhaps even grow! If a man came along … all right, so much the nicer … But the game goes on, the necessity to be a self goes on. I don’t know how to be helpless. I don’t know how not to make things work.
It is all about an urge, a powerful and overwhelming urge, to fulfill myself, to fulfill this life that is inside me, to fulfill it in every way, leaving nothing untapped. That is what it is all about: the excesses, the anxiety, the restlessness, the pain, carrying around in me this irrepressible need to fulfill myself in every way possible.
Sometimes I know I go places in the diary that take my breath away. As if there were someone else living inside me with her own determined will to see and speak clearly. Because I don’t write to protect myself or to say things I don’t dare say to others. I don’t cater to any pampered image of myself as a too sensitive soul for whom the world is too much and the diary her only friend. I am neither too fragile nor too sensitive. I have many true friends, and the betrayals I have known I have asked for. I don’t write to hide from the world.
If I write because of some illusion, it is not that illusion. But I think there is another one. Once on the phone with a friend, she made a comment about me that caused me to pick up my notebook as soon as I hung up …
On the phone with S—— her perception about how a thing is true in my head long before it has any concrete reality. True! I live way ahead of myself in some ways, seeing things long before it is their time to come into being. It even makes me lie, caught in a wave that takes me beyond myself, inside another moment not yet fully conceived. That is the basis of all my lies, all my really fantastic lies. But there is more to it than that. There is also a reluctance to bore, to be found dull and sad; so I spin my little webs to hold others at arm’s length. I know the moment when another’s pain becomes tedious. I know the tolerance level of compassion, how thin it is, how rapidly it dissolves. We must dignify our sadness. We must wrap ourselves in some thread, some magical spell that allows others to see us as we’d like to be! I know it isn’t true! But it has a pale, incomplete, and somewhat fragile virtue: it distracts! And look how much better everyone breathes with a little distraction, a little appearance for fantasy’s sake. But oh, dear God, don’t punish me for my lies, don’t punish me for putting the cart before the horse. Because if it turns out that no one will ever love me for what I am, at least people will have loved me for what they thought I was … And it may be, finally, that I was the most terrible kind of realist.
I begin to think I write to keep control of the present. And when I’m not interested in the present, when I’m waiting for something to happen, then I don’t write so regularly, the notes become sporadic avoidances. The most voluminous volumes are when I am living very much inside the present, waiting for a child to be born, living out of the city to write, and so on. Then I make endless observations about the most trivial, fleeting impressions, moments, thoughts, feelings. Entries like …
Something is happening to me. A kind of clarity. A cementing of my life to the here and now. Every day is wonderful through here. It has a kind of affirmation to it. A force. Even in its most tedious moments.
Bright and sunny. And a real ordinary Sunday. Went with B—— for a walk. Drank wine and sat in the sun. Nina and Miwo came in about six—dirty and wet from playing outdoors all day. Dinner, then a bath for both of them.
2:00 A.M. Nothing is ever as it seems. It is an absolute requirement that we come to terms with the abstract notion we have painted of things and distinguish it from the real … All this prompted by a dog named Juno whom I agreed to keep for a few days. But he arrived tonight and left tonight after a ferocious whining and banging scene in my kitchen. My agreeing to keep him, of course, came out of some abstract notion I had about all dogs being friendly, easygoing, and wise, so that I refused to zero in on Juno’s peculiarities, which make him difficult, obnoxious, and stupid. The same mistake pins down my difficulties with ML——. I had in my head some abstract notion about a friendly, cheerful, devoted housekeeper, good with the children, making cookies and doing things with them and altogether lifting somewhat the burdens of Motherhood. But again I tripped over an abstract notion only to stumble on ML—— mute, wizened, self-righteous, incapable of communicating with the kids, and altogether increasing the burdens of Motherhood. If it were not two o’clock in the morning I could probably get a lot more mileage out of this discovery. I am sure it covers a wide expanse of territory, affecting many of the decisions I have made and many of the roads I have traveled. Perhaps it is all we are ever doing in life: constantly sorting out what is real from some abstract notion we’ve taken a fancy to. What a relief to have Juno out of the house.
From my 5:30 A.M. vantage point I have watched the day come alive. Watched the river go from a cloudy mist to a soft, bright sunny fogginess. Listened to some mournful, repetitive bird humming a sad refrain and the boat bells hitting the wind. And now my room is full of sunlight and it is 7:30 and I am alive.
When I look back over those days I see how centered I was in the present, connecting myself to the life in hand. Even now it is a period that makes me nostalgic. All those periods in my life when I have been very alone—waiting for a child, in the midst of a play or a film script or a story— those are the periods when growth seems to come in bursts. I am still. I listen. I learn. I’m not very concerned about tomorrow.
But at other times, life takes over and the diary recedes. Then I feel in me a kind of determination to soak up life. Then I run away from these notes and make only cursory remarks.
I would like to catch up on some days left discarded …
I seem to avoid these notes like the plague. As if I don’t dare take off, don’t dare say anything, so tentative is everything.
I really cannot write much these days. What is clear to me I am unwilling to pin down too quickly. I want it loose, like I feel it.
I don’t write often these days—not here, not in these pages. I am abstracted, in limbo, hanging on by threads. But it is difficult to speak about this limbo, to describe it. The journey is too personal to write about …
The most that can be said is that I trust these shallow periods, when I have left the solid ground of the present. When I leave that ground, it is because I am healed and the danger is past and a more risky life is manageable. One day toward the end of one of those times I wrote these notes …
Sunday, August 24
Rain. Alone in the house. I’ve just finished a book about the psychic experiences of a woman named Jan Bartell. While I have never known any paranormal events, I know I lead my life psychically, not only the larger moments of it, but the very smallest. I am always listening, knowing that if I listen I will be guided correctly, even if it means pain or discomfort. I cannot ever recall being without this “listening.” It is almost a feeling of being watched over and protected. I remember at a very difficult time last spring my car kept breaking down and draining away the little bit of money I was budgeting so carefully. I was standing in the kitchen thinking, This is just one thing too many, I can’t cope with these car problems … when the phone rang and the bank had cleared my very shaky credit for a new car. When I hung up, I found myself saying thank you to the space around me … thank you … you knew that was too much for me, didn’t you, that I’m just hanging on by so little … I don’t know who I am talking to at times like that, but the “listening” dictates everything I do—when I go shopping, when I stay home, when I put myself to making money, when I decide to live broke and write, when I have children … always I am listening for the right moment, always I am trying to make a complete circle and come back where I belong. I don’t know why this is so, why I try to stay in touch with what can take me further, make me stronger, give me greater self-containment … I don’t know why this is so. But I know it is at the source, that all my electricity, all my running power, comes from this field around me with which I must remain in tune. And when I come to a dead end, when things get muddy and my mind races overboard into a fog, I have to go somewhere and sit. Then help will come, a direction will be made clear.
Kathleen Collins was a pioneer African American playwright, filmmaker, civil rights activist, film editor, and educator, and the author of Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? Her film Losing Ground is one of the first features made by a black woman in America and is an extremely rare narrative portrayal of a black female intellectual. Collins died in 1988 at the age of forty-six. Read her story “Scapegoat Child,” which appeared in the Spring 2018 issue.
Excerpt from Notes from a Black Woman’s Diary, by Kathleen Collins. Copyright 2019 by the Estate of Kathleen Conwell Prettyman. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.