Pain and Privilege: Kathleen Collins’s Commentary on Colorism

The late Kathleen Collins’s collection of short stories titled “Whatever Happened To Interracial Love?” was published in 2016 by Granta books, and is a treasure trove of memoiristic stories, written with whit, humor, sorrow, and personal experiences from Collins’s own life. The narratives focus on the intersection of race, family, friendships, and love. In the words of Slate journalist, Diamond Sharp, in her review of Collins’s collection, “Kathleen Collins was a black woman who lived at a time, quite simply, when black women’s stories were not valued.”  (Sharp,  2017) Rendering the collection an important archival culmination of the sentiments of mainly Black women from a bygone era. Sharp comments on the canonization of her work, but highlights the importance of the publication of her stories as a preservation of African American life during the span of the civil rights movement. Born in 1942, Collins reached adulthood in the late fifties, placing her adult years in a period defined by activism, ra

cism, in addition to social and political turbulence. Collins’s narratives are necessary now more than ever, as they reflect the sentiments of Blacks from past generations, and highlight the impacts of the racial complexities amplified throughout the fifties and sixties, that still impact the Black community and American society at large, today. 

Racial complexities like colorism, have plagued American society since their conception. Colorism is depicted as the cause of a family’s disintegration in Collins’s narrative titled, “The Uncle.” It is among the sixteen stories featured in the collection, and it captures colorism and its effects in past generations. In an article titled, “Dark Skin Pain, Light Skin Privilege: Nine Solutions to Dismantling Colorism in the Black Community,” written by Suzanne Forbes-Vierling in the online periodical, Medium, Forbes-Vierling responds to research on the origins and the effects of colorism throughout history and today. She outlines the found

ations of colorism and its conception in white supremacy and the slave trade. (Forbes-Vierling, 2017) Forbes-Vierling also details the continuation of colorism’s divisive infiltration into American society and evolution throughout history, as well as its implications today. (Forbes-Vierling, 2017) The article informs Collins’s “The Uncle” as it highlights the foundational concepts of colorism, and how these concepts impact individuals within the Black community. Forbes-Vierling and Collins highlight the implications of the effects of colorism, such as light-skinned privilege, and discrimination. These implications had a significant impact within the Black community in Collins’s time, as the turbulence brought by the civil rights era created prominent social changes within the Black community. Colorism continues to run through the veins of society, as it has become a fundamental, thoughtless, foundational practice among Americans. However, it’s impact within the Black community, in addition to the

 perpetuation of its ideologies is perhaps most fascinating and complex.

Collins’s “The Uncle,” just begins to unravel colorism and its complexities as it follows a Black family’s unravelling due to its omnipresent pressures and effects. The story charts the life of the narrator’s uncle, “a former athlete of olympic stature” and a light skinned black man, a “double for Marlon Brando.” (Collins, 15) But after a lifetime of trail and error, long bouts with depression and anxiety, and a fractured marriage to a woman who is also light skinned, and demonstrates an apathetic and shallow attitude, he merely gives in to his sorrow. “cried into his pillow until death took him away.” (Collins, 19) Through her careful crafting of the narrative, Collins incorporates lexical diction, employs tone and contradictions, as well as motifs. This is what forms the narrative into a window into the lives of Blacks from decades past, and renders “The Uncle” an important commentary on the intricacies of racial complexities like colorism that continue to impact the Black community.

Colorism acts a catalyst for the destruction of familial relationships within “The Uncle.” Collins demonstrates the decisive nature of colorism and it’s effects through the narrator’s initial presentation her aunt and uncle. In the exposition of the narrative, she describes her childhood memories of the summers she spent with her little sister at her aunt and uncles home. In her description of them in their younger years she comments on their fairness and beauty. Collins uses glorifying diction such as, “exquisite,” “idolized,” “stunni

ng,” and “magic” to characterize her experiences and perceptions of them as whimsical and almost perfect. (Collins, 15) However, Collins counters this positive portrayal of the aunt and uncle as she blatantly includes their flaws. There is mention of their severe financial insecurities, but the narrator revels in the fact that they are “broke yet so handsome and beautiful, so lazy and generous.” (Collins, 16) by including this contradiction, Collins highlights how the narrator valued her aunt and uncle’s beauty to such an extent that it took away from the severity of their problems. In selecting diction that glorifies the aunt and uncle’s appearances – specifically “stunning” and “idolized” – Collins demonstrates the connection between their fair skin and the narrators initial perceptions.(Collins, 15) The idolization of their features demonstrates the value placed on their complexions. In highlighting the si

gnificance of their complexions to the centrality of their characters, Collins demonstrates the prevalence placed on their exteriors by the narrator, and reveals the connection between their fair skin and their perceived beauty.

This illustrates the implications and effects of colorism in a broader context, as it speaks to the way in which whiteness equates to beauty – this perception is not new. Forbes-Vierling highlights how light skinned slaves were preferred, due to their appeasing features, and traces the roots of this system of discrimination back to white supremacy. Forbes-Vierling illuminates how this “color based acceptance/ rejection continuum is still internalized by African Americans over 300 years later.” (Forbes-Vierling, 2017) Collins highlights these foundational concepts of colorism in the opening paragraphs of the narrative. Rendering the emphasis placed on the complexions and exteriors of the aunt and uncle as a significantly valuable quality, in a society that subscribes to the constructs of colorism. This highlights the importance of Collins’s story in the broader context of colorism in society, as the narrative demonstrates the impacts of the issue in a past era, but also demonstrates the la

ck of change, as colorism still impacts the black community in the United States.

The issue that Forbes-Vierling highlights with colorism is that there is rarely discussion about those “inside our [the Black] community that perpetuate it.” (Forbes-Vierling, 2017) The aunt is presented as a prime beneficiary of colorism throughout the narrative, as she expresses a sense of privilege, due to her understanding of the value and privilege her complexion affords her. Collins demonstrates the way in which the aunt perpetuates colorism through the narrators shift in tone and age. Preceding her description of her happy and light hearted childhood memories, she describes the removal of the “hallowed filter” that shrouds her memory. (Collins, 17) She realizes, in her adult years, that her aunt and uncle were far from perfect. Rather than characterizing them as beautiful despite their flaws, she realizes what their beauty truly means and how it becomes a detrimental factor in their lives. She realized her aunt was a “lazy, spoiled woman who thought her fair, almost-white skin would save her.” (Collins, 17) Collins carefully selects racial diction to frame this pivotal moment of revelation for the narrator and the reader. In selecting “almost-white” Collins illuminates the awkward social placement of the aunt. (Collins, 17) Her complexion renders her a part of the Black community, but simultaneously places her in an elevated medium. She is in a position of privilege due to her fairness, which she is aware of and takes advantages of, this is demonstrated through her shallow and apathetic attitude. But she is not a white women, she cannot transcend any racial barriers, she can only accept the privilege that oth

ers assign to her complexion and use that as leverage over other members of the community. This exemplifies the perpetuation of colorism within the Black community that Forbes-Vierling highlights.

The aunt’s perpetuation of colorism demonstrates the normality of the issue of colorism in Collins’s time and today. The lack of intervention and conversation around those who perpetuate colorism is highlighted in Collins’s narrative and by Forbes-Vierling’s article. In highlighting this issue, both Collins and Forbes-Vierling demonstrate how colorism continues to infect the Black community, resulting in detrimental social impacts. This discourse between Collins’s narrative and Forbes-Vierling’s article, demonstrates how the issues form a bygone era are still relevant today.  An article by Claire Fallon, from the online publication, The Huffington Post, responds to the importance and relevance of the themes in Collins’s collection, in an article called Whatever Happened To Interracial Love?Asks Q

uestions We’re Still Trying To Answer.” She highlights how the collection demonstrates the “tantalizing unfulfilled promise of a “melting pot,” an interracial or even a post racial society, remains a preoccupation many years later, and, again, it has resulted in a painful disappointment.” (Fallon, 2016) Collins’s work demonstrates the lack of social change from her time to the present. Her work highlights the prevalence of racial complexities like colorism, and the continuation of these issues in today’s society. Highlighting that the “questions we’re still trying to answer” lie within the lack of conversation and agency in solving the issues that divide Americans.

The perpetuation of colorism is as relevant now, as it was in Collins’s time. Collins demonstrates how it has a drastic impact on the family’s dynamic, as it cau

ses the aunt and uncle’s relationship to deteriorate and influences the uncle’s life long struggle with depression. This familial deterioration is demonstrated through Collins’s use of setting and motif. The narrator initially depicts the aunt and uncles’ bedroom as an enchanted place, where the four of them “would lie there for hours, laughing and hearing stories.” (Collins, 16) However upon returning to their house after her uncle’s death the bedroom is depicted in a much different light. The bed where the narrator, her younger sister, and her aunt and uncle spend hours in throughout their summers, became a “monument” to the uncle’s “perverse pursuit of humiliation and sorrow.” (Collins, 20) Collins uses the bed a subtle motif, only mentioning it twice, however it is used as a means to express how the aunt and uncles relationship has deteriorated, and has changed the dynamic of the family. In characterizing the bed as a “monument” it demonstrates how the bed once stood as a place of gathering and togetherness – even though the aunt and uncles’ relationship had n

ever been explicitly portrayed as perfect – it was still a place where the narrators childhood took place and where significant memories were made. (Collins, 20) After years of depression and the lack of cohesion between the aunt and the uncle, the bed becomes a memorial to the uncle’s sadness that consumed him. This subtle motif highlights how colorism and their complexions destroy their lives and their marriage. The aunt perpetuates it as she benefits from it, whilst the uncle’s relationship with colorism is far more complex. The narrator comments on the “blunt humiliation of his skin, with its bound-and-sealed possibilities” in the last moments of the narrative. (Collins, 20) she highlights the limitations his complexion imposed on him. The limitations that he was unwilling to struggle with. He was “so refused to overcome his sorrow as some affliction to be transcended.” He didn’t want to fight it. He had no desire to stand up against the limitations and his own inhibitions that he let sorrow consume him instead. These last moments in the narrative highlight how the aunt was able to use her complexion to gain privilege, but the uncle could not bear to struggle with the trials and tribulations of the complex discrimination that plagued him within his own family, and throughout his life.

“The Uncle” is a harrowing narrative, but it is important. It acts as a historical preservation of an era long past and immortalizes the sentiments of Blacks towards the intricacies of the racial complexities amplified by the civil rights movement. “The Uncle” just scrapes the surface of colorism, whilst it certainly explores the intricacies of the issue, there is more exploration to be done. Additionally, the narrative preserves a social commentary from a bygone era, but could easily be a social commentary on colorism today. In reading Collins’s narratives from the past, we seem to be peering more into the present. Whilst the narrative presents the issue of colorism, I also think it presents the solution. It shows us our mistakes, and misconceptions, it shows us where we went wrong and ignored it, continued to ignore it, until we finish the story and arrive back to reality, where we ask our selves as readers, what has changed?

Op Ed

Works Cited:

Collins, Kathleen. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? Granta Books, 2018.

Forbes-Vierling, Suzanne. “Dark Skin Pain, Light Skin Privilege: Nine Solutions to Dismantling Colorism in the Black Community.” Medium.com, Medium, 14 Oct. 2017, medium.com/@suzanneforbesvierling/moving-forward-with-radical-action-nine-solutions-that-the-black-community-can-adopt-to-dismantle-8edfb15917cb.

Sharp, Diamond. “Our Minds are Intricate” Slate Magazine, Slate, 7 Feb. 2017, www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2017/02/kathleen_collins_whatever_happened_to_interracial_love_reviewed.html.

Fallon, Claire. “New Book Asks Questions About Race & Gender We’re Still Trying To

Answer.” The Huffington Post, 2 Dec. 2016, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/whatever-happened-to-interracial-love_us_5840aee7e4b09e21702ddb0f