Camille Billops knew from a young age that she did not want to be a mother. And when she had a baby, she gave her up for adoption, when the girl was 4.
Billops would go on to become an internationally recognized sculptor, painter and filmmaker. She held salons and created extensive archives of black cultural life in New York over several decades.
But Billops, who died June 1 at 85, gained the most attention for a movie she made about giving up her daughter. She was resolutely unapologetic about the decision, even as society judged her harshly and wanted her to repent.
The movie, “Finding Christa” (1992), which she directed with her husband, James V. Hatch, documented Billops’ rejection of her daughter and their reunion 20 years later. Christa Victoria, a vibrant and artistic young woman who was raised by a loving adoptive family in Oakland, California, was welcomed back into the Billops fold.
The 55-minute film won the 1992 Grand Jury Prize in the documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival and left the viewer thinking all was well that ended well.
But that was not the end. Off camera, the mother and daughter, who shared a diva streak, had a fraught relationship, entangled in guilt and fueled by competitiveness: Billops told Topic magazine that Christa was trying to take credit for the movie, and at the same, Christa still ached to understand why her mother had given her away. Billops barred her from attending the Sundance awards ceremony.
After the reunion documented in the film, Billops rejected Christa a second time. She closed off communication despite her daughter’s entreaties, leaving the real-life story to end sadly for both.
“They were so much alike, two very headstrong people, both artists,” Dion Hatch, Billops’ stepson, said in an interview. “Christa was always looking for a reason for why she was given up, and Camille was always trying not to have to deal with that.”
Billops would not let anyone else mention Christa’s name, Hatch said, “but then she would spend hours talking about Christa herself.”
Billops often said that the only thing she regretted about giving her daughter up for adoption was that she did not do it sooner, when Christa was younger and might have been able to forget her. But Christa retained a fierce psychological grip on her mother. As Billops grew older and struggled with dementia, she could not escape the grief she felt for her daughter.
“Christa was very much on her mind,” Sasha Bonét, who wrote the article for Topic, said in an interview. “No matter what we were talking about, it always came back to Christa.”
Billops died of heart failure at her home in Manhattan, her stepson said. Her husband, a scholar and writer with whom she held salons and created an archives of black cultural life, also survives her.
Camille Josephine Billops was born on Aug. 12, 1933, in Los Angeles. Her father, Luscious Billops, was a cook, and her mother, Alma (Gilmore) Billops, was a domestic and seamstress.
Her parents constantly took home movies of their daughters, Billie and Camille, acclimating Camille to a life both in front of the camera and behind it; her signature films would be as intimate as home movies.
Alma Billops conveyed to her daughters that being a mother was an essential part of womanhood. But this stirred resentment in Camille, who decided by age 10 that she did not want children, she told feminist author bell hooks, who interviewed her for her book “Reel to Real: Race, Sex and Class at the Movies” (1996).
Billops saw the lives of black women as endurance contests, struggles to survive abusive or alcoholic men, and children as part of the yoke that kept women from being free.
“I didn’t admire motherhood,” Billops said.
Billops was more interested in becoming an artist. She went to the University of Southern California to study art and occupational therapy. But she soon found herself pregnant. The father was a handsome Air Force lieutenant who said he would marry her — 500 wedding invitations were sent out — but who skipped town instead.
Billops gave birth to Christa in 1958. She continued her studies, leaving the infant in the care of female relatives. She transferred to California State University, Los Angeles, from which she graduated in 1960 with a degree in childhood education. She also worked at a bank during the day and focused on becoming a sculptor.
Billops decided to put Christa up for adoption in 1962. She dropped her off at the Los Angeles Children’s Home Society of California and told her to go to the bathroom. When Christa returned, she saw her mother driving away in her black Volkswagen Beetle.
The decision upset some family members, but others forgave Billops. “It’s easy for the world to make this brilliant woman a demon,” Carol Penn, a cousin, said in an interview. “But she was complex and conflicted, and she did it out of love; she just didn’t feel herself capable of being a mother.”
Billops pursued her artistic career and gained some stature as an artist, with her work exhibited across the country and abroad.
In the 1960s and ′70s, she and Hatch, a white scholar of black theater who taught at the City University of New York and New York University, steeped themselves in the evolving black cultural scene and civil rights movement. Their 4,000-square-foot artist’s loft in SoHo became a hub for artistic collaborations.
They collected thousands of books, documents, photographs and ephemera related to black culture. They held salons with black artists, performers and musicians. With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, they recorded more than 1,200 oral histories and published them in an annual journal called Artist and Influence.