How Generations of Black Women Artists Are Lost to Institutional Racism
Kathleen Collins never subscribed to the over-wrought myth of the starving artist . . . For her, suffering did not beget great art.
Are we still who we think we are when we are alone? Or is connection longed for, even at its most tenuous, simply because it anchors our hearts in intimacy that is fleeting, colored only by the terror of living in uncertain times?
Illness is our body’s response to negative stimuli and for Collins—an SNCC community organizer, playwright, diarist, New School Professor, and filmmaker—to be ill is as much of a physical occurrence as it is a mental load. And for the majority of her life, it was the latter that often wreaked havoc on her body. “I had a period of time when I was ill. I still have to struggle with it . . . I had just finished a first movie, and knew that I had it, knew that I had the talent,” Collins said in a 1986 interview. “I knew that my own creative power was finally surfacing, that all the years of working quietly, and quite alone, were beginning to pay off. It was basically a four-year cycle, which I’m just coming out of.”
It’s unclear what kind of illness Collins is discussing here. We can infer that its impact was not only limited to her physical state, but seeped into the totality of her creative output. This interview—between Collins and writer David Nicholson at a hotel coffee shop in Atlanta—took place a few days after the Atlanta Film Festival. She was there to showcase her film Losing Ground, which had come out four years prior, making it the first feature-length film to be directed by a Black woman and a predecessor to the likes of Julie Dash, Cheryl Dunye, and Kasi Lemmons.
In 1979, almost a decade before her sit-down with Nicholson, Collins had completed work on her directorial debut,The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy, which was shot on a shoestring budget of $5,000, which Collins stretched to deliver a million-dollar production. Boasting the same dense vibrancy that would be seen in Losing Ground, the film was about familial responsibility amongst three Puerto Rican brothers, the heightened bashfulness of youth in the summertime, and a literal labor of love highlighted in the restoration of a grand brownstone owned by an Irish woman. It would go on to win First Prize at the Sinking Creek Film Festival, along with a one-time screening on PBS before falling out of circulation.
For Collins, the production process was exhausting as so little support was available to finance the film. “It was a terribly hard film. It was awful doing a movie for $5,000. It was like going down a terribly long tunnel,” she said to Nicholson, referencing her collaboration with friend and cinematographer, Ronald K. Gray. “But we did it.”The film was a success because Collins so deeply believed in her creative vision, even as the absence of financial backers and large-scale cinematic interest raised some internal doubts regarding her artistic merits and the legitimacy of her storytelling voice.
Collins never subscribed to the overwrought myth of the starving artist whose greatest work comes from deprivation and social neglect throughout their career. For her, suffering did not beget great art. It was not something she longed for as a personality trait. She knew the body was fragile, and she knew illness was, if not inherited, something that could quietly make its presence felt in her life and cause disruption. Her art revealed someone who craved wide-spanning introspection, intentional stillness, and an artistry uninterrupted by physical and emotional illness.
The precariousness of wellness as a Black female creative has hardly changed since Collins released her debut. Conversations between me and my friends, along with snatches heard during transit and notes of frustration posted online, highlight that so many of us work while balancing on the precipice of illness. During stretches where stability is not guaranteed—whether because publications have either tightened their freelance budgets or because my mind just can’t foster enough inspiration worthy to document—I feel my body change. It moves slower, is less inclined to respond to things that normally bring joy. It feels not like my own. I feel out of sorts, harboring an illness that’s both episodic and deep-seated.
The destabilizing shifts within my own personal life—when I grieve in private, but my work lives in the public sphere—means existing in two places as two beings: one who is living while writing, and another trying to write while struggling to live. Writing has always been the litmus test for my well-being. When it is balanced and free-flowing, so am I. “I’ll be alright once I get a few more commissions” and “things will pick up in the summer” are things I have found myself repeating when I feel most unlike myself.
There is an often-used quote tossed around by self-help “gurus” who peddle self-care with the same sincerity as megachurch pastors hawking redemption: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Superficiality aside, to be made to feel inferior isn’t merely about consent; it’s about power. And for those who have so little of it, the daily battles with inferiority can literally make you ill.
During quarantine, it’s become increasingly difficult to tune out the calls for increased action and unmatched hustling. This perverse need to constantly be aiming for productivity, especially as artists, is one I’m actively fighting against. Pauses feel like wasted time, and who wants to do that when everything seemingly moves at break-neck speed, even during a pandemic.
In the last two years, as my career has shifted, I’ve found myself settling into the lives of Black women writers who passed into obscurity, both when living and after death. My reasons for this run far deeper than our shared identities. I am scared of being forgotten, I told a friend. I am scared illness will eat away at the time I have to complete the work I need to, and of having what I have completed pile up in a room somewhere and collect dust for decades.
Like Collins, to be an artist making their own way is a lesson in self-interrogation and stamina. The mental depletion that comes from always needing to churn out work while struggling to garner interest in what you’ve already completed, and the fear that we might die from working so hard, is a limitless load. The cycle is a slow kind of devastation and a breeding ground for illness. Health becomes a privilege and illness an unwanted, but seemingly inevitable, occurrence.
After Collins passed in 1988, her work slipped farther and farther out of public consciousness to such a degree that her recent fame has felt more like an explosion than a reintroduction. The last three years have seen the publication of two of her most impressive works; her painfully insightful short story collectionWhatever Happened to Interracial Love, and Notes from a Black Women’s Diary. In both books, Collins revisited and rotated around the fragility and limitations of her own strength, physical and emotional. She was drawn to exploring how a stifled existence could lead to a life filled with illness.
“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,” she wrote in one of her published diary entries. “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.”
As a fellow artist, I deeply understand the debilitating fear that arises when you feel that all you have to offer will find no space in the world or time you live in, and that will be something outside of your control. The stress of that reality forges optimal conditions for your body to break down. It weakens your immune systemand wreaks havoc on your psychology.
Collins saw this most clearly in the life of Lorraine Hansberry, a creator whom she admired and whose illness Collins believed came from living and trying so hard. “The thing that interests me about [Hansberry], probably more than anyone else, is her illness,” Collins told the Black Film Review. “She died very young, and she died basically eaten up. My theory is that she was not only way ahead of her time, but that success came at a time when she was not able to absorb it without its destructive elements eating her body up.”
Collins’s life was directly in line with a history of Black women artists being worked, literally, until their death. Hansberry contracted pancreatic cancer, and Audre Lorde died from cancer of the liver; both women also contracted breast cancer at various points in their lives. It was this to which Collins would later succumb.
During stretches where stability is not guaranteed, I feel my body change. It moves slower, is less inclined to respond to things that normally bring joy. It feels not like my own.
One could say Hansberry was lucky to have drawn mainstream applause while her body could still hold her. Yet even she was aware of just how illness could insidiously and rapidly shorten an otherwise healthy life. Their bodies were ravaged by external illnesses whose conditions were likely exacerbated by the anxious and uneven lives they were forced to accommodate, all while still needing to create.
In Lorde’s Cancer Journals—a collection of essays and diary entries published in 1980 chronicling her journey through her cancer diagnosis and treatment—she wrote, “This is it, Audre, you’re on your own.” She’d been denied medical leave by Hunter College after she was diagnosed. In 2012, the same institution held a memorial event to mark twenty years since her passing. Gracious, necessary comforts were denied to her when living and ill, yet her name and the force of her words are used to not only market literary excellence, but claim it in a specific place. The same place which refused to lend a hand.
According to Nina Collins, Kathleen Collins’s daughter, her mother kept her breast cancer diagnosis hidden from family until two weeks before her death. I remember reading that and feeling a mixture of shock and sadness; the latter, because it was hard to fathom the lengths Collins went to conceal her deteriorating condition so well that even those closest to her remained completely unaware.
Noted for being painstakingly interior, Collins having a secret feels less of a surprise when you look at her through the lens of the work she left us. There is a particular line in one of her diary entries which would act as both a summation and a promise to herself after passing: “The extremism, the tenacity in me. I will hold on. I will, to hold on. Until all the cards have been played.” Her secret felt less like a betrayal and more of a conscious choice to die as she lived—at odds with societal expectations and on her own terms.
Thirty-two years after her death, I can be grateful for Collins’s legacy because I have the privilege to reap what she sowed. I have come back to her so often because I keep trying to cobble up some type of road map to creative fulfillment from the life of a woman who lived in search of it.
I want to know if the art she left behind—the way she was able to create—was enough when she realized her mortality. I want to know if the hours she spent worrying about money were canceled out by the relief and accomplishment that came from finishing a project. And I want to know if the adoration of others would have been enough for her, because delayed love seems to be the one thing Black women are granted. Will that be enough for me?
Tari is a journalist and photographer from Zimbabwe, based in Brasil. Her work has appeared in Vice, The Globe and Mail, Rookie Mag, Noisey, SYFY, Broadly, The Fader, New York Magazine, Flare Magazine and Hazlitt. You can find more of her on Twitter @FungaiSJ.