We recognize and celebrate Kathleen Collins as the 2019 POW HONOREE for her contribution to women’s and African-American cinema. Her work is significant in that it conveys images of people of color, particularly women, in ways that even now are rarely seen in popular culture. In both her writing and filmmaking, Collins challenged stereotypes and explored the interlocking oppressions of gender, race, and class. As one of the first black American women to produce a feature-length film, she is considered to have “changed the face and content of the black womanist film.”
Kathleen Collins was an African-American poet, playwright, writer, filmmaker, director, civil rights activist, and educator from Jersey City, New Jersey. Her two feature narratives—The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (1980) and Losing Ground (1982)—furthered the range of Black women's films.
Born to Frank and Loretta Conwell, Collins grew up Jersey City, NJ. Her father worked first as a mortician and later became the principal of a Jersey City K-8 school (now named after him). He later went on to become the first New Jersey African- American state legislator. Her maternal family came from Gouldtown, NJ, a 300-year-old settlement — still in existence — that started with an interracial marriage and remained a haven for mixed-race marriages through the 20th century.
At fifteen, Collins won first prize at an annual poetry reading contest at Rutgers Newark College of Arts and Sciences for her rendition of Walt Whitman’s “A Child Goes Forth” and “I Learned My Lesson Complete.” An article in the March 3, 1958 Jersey Journal reported that in addition to working as assistant editor of the Lincoln High School’s publication the Leader, Collins was on the editorial staff of the school yearbook, the Quill; a member of the National Honors Society; and a past secretary of the Student Council.
After graduating in 1959, she went to the all-women Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY where a few weeks after arrival, Collins became the class president. Her major was French and she listed her loves as New York City and theater. In the summer of 1961, she spent seven weeks in the République du Congo with the Operation-Crossroads Africa Project—helping to build a youth center in the small village of Mouyundzi.
A watershed in her life occurred in the spring of 1962 when two leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) visited her campus. That summer the two friends traveled with other college students to work as field workers to register black voters in Georgia. Collins canvassed door-to-door in urging black residents to register to vote and taking them to the county courthouse to help them do so. She also spoke at the county churches to urge others to do the same.
Collins was arrested twice–once for refusing to stop praying with six others on the steps of City Hall. The day after she and others spoke at the Mount Olive Church in Terrell County in Georgia, white supremacists burned the church to the ground.
She returned to Jersey City in September of 1962 and spoke to an overflowing crowd of 700 at the Mt. Pisgah A.M.E. Church, urging the congregation (according to the September 25, 1962 Hudson Dispatch) “to spurn ‘hatred...and learn to love’ those who oppress them, both in the south as well as the north because ‘we believe in God...who will open the doors and break down the walls of segregation.’”
The Jersey Journal praised Collin’s eloquence and oratory, and reported that the congregation was brought to tears by “a slip of a girl whose vocation is not the pulpit, but maybe it should be.” Collins “tearfully appealed for justice for her race, appealed to the heart of humanity for the recognition of the Negro as a child of God, as a man with a bleeding heart in a world that hasn’t cared.”
In 2002, civil rights activist Ralph Allen recalled hearing Collins use the words “I have a dream” in the prayer service that day. Although there is no established origin for the phrase made famous by Reverend Martin Luther King — he first used it in a speech in November of that year — historians cite three possible sources. One of them is Kathleen Collins.
After graduating Skidmore, Kathleen taught high school French in Newton, MA and attended graduate school at Harvard at night. In 1965, she won a John Whitney Hay scholarship, enabling her to pursue her masters in French literature through the Middlebury program at the Sorbonne in Paris. She took a course there on the adaptation of literature into film, which ignited her interest in cinema.
In 1966, after getting her degree, she returned to the US and trained under John Carter, one of the first black editors to join the union. He thought Kathleen had real talent and he helped her get her union card in an astonishing three years. She worked as an editor for the BBC, Craven Films, Belafonte Enterprises, Bill Jersey Productions, William Greaves Productions, and the United States Information Agency.
On her own, Kathleen began writing stories. She wrote her first screenplay in 1971, but later remembered, “Nobody would give any money to a black woman to direct a film. It was probably the most discouraging time of my life.”
By 1974, she had married and divorced Douglas Collins; had two children, Nina and Emilio; and was working as a professor of film history and screenwriting at the City College of New York. in the following two years she also worked as assistant director for the Broadway musicals “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” (Gilbert Moses directing) and “The Wiz” (Geoffrey Holder) as well as on Lincoln Center’s “Black Picture Show,” which was written and directed by Bill Gunn. In the fall of 1976, Joseph Papp directed a workshop of Collins’s and composer Michael D. Minard’s musical “Portrait of Katherine” at the Public Theatre.
At City College one of her students, Ronald K. Gray, encouraged her to direct her own films. Collins was now living now in Piermont, NY and chose to adapt a short story collection, The Cruz Chronicles by her friend and nearby South Nyack resident, Henry H. Roth, for her first film. That film became The Cruz Brothers and Mrs. Malloy, which won First Prize at the Sinking Creek Film Festival.
Collins’ next film, Losing Ground, followed in 1982 and starring Seret Scott, Bill Gunn, and Duane Jones. A comedic drama, Losing Ground was one of the very first fictional features by an African-American woman filmmaker. It tells the story of Sara Rogers, a brilliant and beautiful black philosophy professor and Victor, her outgoing artist husband, at a marital crossroad. The film won First Prize at the Figueroa International Film Festival in Portugal, garnering much international acclaim.
In 1983, Collins reconnected with Alfred Prettyman, whom she had known twenty years earlier in her SNCC days. They married four years later at her home in Nyack, NY with family in attendance. Prettyman, a philosopher and publisher, was also the head of the Society for the Study of Africana Philosophy (SSAP), based in New York City. One week after their marriage, she learned that she had metastasized breast cancer. Collins kept this information to herself over the next year. She did not even tell her children of her illness until it was impossible to conceal it any longer.
At the time of her death in 1988, Collins left behind many unfinished projects including the screenplay, “Conversations with Julie;” a film musical she wrote with Michael D. Minard entitled “A Summer Diary;” her sixth stage play, “Waiting for Jane;” and a final draft of her novel, Lollie: A Suburban Tale.
The bulk of her work, most of it unpublished, was left to her daughter, Nina Collins, who in 2006 began to sift through her mother's enormous archive and began working to have it published, restored and reissued. Losing Ground (1982) and and The Cruz Brothers and Mrs. Malloy were restored and reissued in 2015 by Milestone. In December 2016, a collection of Collins' short stories was published under HarperCollins' Ecco imprint under the title Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?. Prior to its release, it was listed as one of the most anticipated books of the fall of 2016 by the Huffington Post, New York, The Boston Globe, Lit Hub, and The Millions. The collection received starred reviews in Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly and was named one of the best books of 2016 by outlets that included Elle, NPR, Nylon,Publishers Weekly, and VICE.
In February 2019 Notes From a Black Woman’s Diary a second book of Collins’ short stories, as well as her diary entries, scripts and screenplays.
In February 2019, Notes from A Black Woman's Diary, a second book of Collin's Short stories, as well as her diary entries, scripts, and screenplays was edited by her daughter Nina and published by Ecco, a imprint of Haper-Collins.