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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 456

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Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires is a collection of short stories about Black middle-class identity. Each story tackles the different impacts race has on identity, the self, and relationships. Through the stories of individuals, Thompson-Spires explores how race and class function systemically in America. Below are brief summaries of each story:

“Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology” tells the story of a police shooting. The story brilliantly starts with the development of a disagreement between two opposing young black men. The story climaxes when the men argue at a comic book convention. Police see the black men fighting and shoot them both.

“The Necessary Changes Have Been Made” is the narrative of Randolph, an English professor who is rather full of himself. He is written as generally unhappy with himself and looks down upon the women around him.

“Belle Lettres” is the story of two highly educated women who use their daughters as an excuse to wage battle against one another. Despite their education, the two become catty with one another.

“The Body’s Defense Against Itself” is about self-care and the importance of mental health.

“Fatima, The Biloquist: A Transformation Story” is the story of Fatima, a young biracial teenager who feels out of place in her all-white prep school. She is struggling to find her sense of self through dating and friendships.

“The Subject of Consumption”: Unlike the other stories, this story is not directly about race. It is instead a critique of body shaming and the media consumption in America. A mother of a young girl forces the family to participate in a diet she chose based on a reality television show.

“Suicide Watch” is a critique of social media and the ways it comes to control our lives.

“Whisper to Scream”: Following “Suicide Watch,” this story explores the impact of social media on children’s sense of self.

“Not Today, Marjorie” is the narrative of Marjorie. She is receiving mental health care and feels incredibly guilty for her past behavior. This guilt goes unaddressed, and while therapy seems to help a little, it does not cure all. Eventually, Marjorie’s mental health needs cause her to lash out.

“This Todd”: Continuing with the theme of mental health, this story follows a woman who fetishizes men who use wheelchairs.

“A Conversation About Bread” is the story of an argument between two college students who are attempting to write an essay for an anthropology class.

“Wash Clean the Bones” is the devastating story of a mother doing everything she can to provide for her children. As a side job, she sings at funerals. Through these funerals, she learns about racial realities and fears raising her young black son.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1796

Author: Nafissa Thompson-Spires (b. ca. 1984)

Publisher: Atria (New York). 224 pp.

Type of work: Short fiction

Time: Present

Locales: California; Saint Louis, Missouri; Chicago, Illinois

Short story writer Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s debut collection offers a series of sharply drawn sketches that illustrate the range of complex issues facing young, middle-class African Americans making their way in the world.

Principal characters

Riley, a student and cosplay enthusiast who is killed by police

Brother Man, a young man with whom Riley has an altercation

Dr. Randolph Green, an assistant professor at the fictional Wilma Rudolph University

Fatima, a girl growing up in the Inland Empire region of California, a recurring figure

Brian, a graduate student in anthropology at the University of California, Riverside

Alma, a nurse who is in demand as a singer at funerals

Between 1852 and 1854, the prominent African American doctor, abolitionist, and writer James McCune Smith published a series of ten articles in Frederick Douglass’ Paper, the abolitionist publication headed by Frederick Douglass. These sketches, written under the pseudonym Communipaw and titled “Heads of the Colored People, Done with a Whitewash Brush,” depict the lives of a series of free black workers—bootblacks, grave diggers, washerwomen—mostly living in New York City. The articles, appearing after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law and during a tough period for African American workers in the North who were rapidly losing their jobs to European immigrants, aimed to celebrate the dignity of free workers at a precarious time in their existence.

Taking inspiration from Smith’s sketches, Nafissa Thompson-Spires has given the name Heads of the Colored People to both her first collection of stories and to the lead story in the collection, inviting the reader to see her work as an updated version of Smith’s work. But, as Thompson-Spires explains in an author’s note, her collection “departs in most ways from the original content of the nineteenth-century black writers’ sketches.” The most notable departure is that Thompson-Spires’s pieces are not simply sketches, but fully developed short stories. Then, too, the characters would seem to be vastly different. Thompson-Spires writes about solidly middle-class African Americans who are, at least on the surface, much more accepted by society than their working-class counterparts in Smith’s sketches. But, as Thompson-Spires suggests throughout her collection, her characters are still subject to many of the same restrictions and dangers as Smith’s, even if these restrictions are more de facto than de jure.Courtesy of Atria / 37 INK

“Like the original sketches,” Thompson-Spires writes, “these stories maintain an interest in black US citizenship, the black middle class, and the future of black American life during pivotal sociopolitical moments.” In this similarity lies the usefulness of the gesture, looking back on a little-known historical work as a way to comment on the current state of African American existence in the United States, the ways in which things both have changed and have refused to alter. Throughout the twelve expertly crafted stories in her collection, Thompson-Spires addresses these issues and many more, dealing with serious themes with an often light, ironic touch. In keeping with her interest in continuities, several characters appear throughout the collection, popping up in different stories and allowing the reader to see their lives from different angles.

In the next-to-last story in the collection, “A Conversation about Bread,” two black anthropology students debate the proper way to construct an ethnographic sketch for a class assignment. When one student, Brian, criticizes the whole rationale behind another student’s efforts, the student, Eldwin, responds that his work is “a good story about cultural differences, interracial differences, class differences. It’s more about how many different kinds of black people there are.” This explanation would seem to be a tidy summary of what Thompson-Spires is up to in her own collection, expressing the complexities and diversity of African American life. But Brian remains unimpressed by Eldwin’s explanation, and the reader too is forced to question its validity. Even in outlining her own project, then, Thompson-Spires is drawn to the consideration of multiple viewpoints. If she is committed to seeing issues from a variety of perspectives, then she invites the reader to view her work in the same way. © Adrianne Mathiowetz Photography

This complexity is introduced in the first sentence of the first story. “Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and an Apology” alludes directly to Smith’s work, living up to its title by providing the stated number of sketches of a series of black characters living in Los Angeles and St. Louis. The story begins by introducing us to one of these characters: “Riley wore blue contact lenses and bleached his hair . . . and he was black,” the narrator says, before informing the reader that “this wasn’t any kind of self-hatred thing.” Instantly, the story plays with expectations about African American self-presentation, introducing a character who would seem to be trying to make himself less black, a character who inhabits the largely white world of cosplaying but who is nonetheless secure in his black identity.

The next character Thompson-Spires introduces, a man known as Brother Man, certainly sees Riley as compromised in his identity, even if Brother Man himself is also interested in such “white” pursuits as comic books. As Riley heads toward a comics convention, he passes Brother Man, trying to sell his own comics on the street and attempts to ignore him, a gesture that infuriates Brother Man and leads to a tragic fate for both young men. The rivalry between the two men is born from both their similarities and their differences. Because both Riley and Brother Man are young, educated black men who are both interested in traditionally white pursuits, they are each self-conscious about their identity. Riley, for example, is “irked . . . that he might be mistaken for a self-hating Uncle Tom because he enjoyed cosplay and anime and comic book conventions.” For the more bitter Brother Man, who is more of an outsider to this culture than Riley, Riley represents both what he wants to be and what he fears, and so when Riley refuses to acknowledge his presence, he becomes antagonistic.

This exploration of the ways that black people inhabit predominantly white spaces is one that continues throughout the book and is often explored through the same doubling technique that Thompson-Spires used in the opening story. For example, the story “Belles Lettres” takes a comic approach by presenting the antagonistic relationship between the mothers of the two black students in a grade-school class. Consisting entirely of the series of letters that Dr. Lucinda Johnston and Dr. Monica Willis exchange about their daughters, the ironically titled story reveals a latent hostility beneath a polite, well-mannered surface. The letters begin in a highly formal manner, full of passive-aggressive anger. “It sounds—and I say this respectfully, so I hope you won’t be offended—like Fatima has had a very hard time getting acclimated here,” writes one of the mothers. At issue here is the role that the two girls, Fatima and Christinia, occupy in the school. Whereas Christinia is accustomed to being the only black girl in the class, the arrival of Fatima threatens her role, as well as that of her mother, who also loses the status of the only black class mother. In this way, Thompson-Spires makes clear, with a light comic touch, the complexity of the situation. Both mothers want to fit in in the white world, but they still want the specialness that comes from having a unique African American identity.

Another thread that runs through Heads of the Colored People is a barely suppressed anger that is felt by many of the characters and that threatens to break out at any moment. For Professor Randolph Green in “The Necessary Changes Have Been Made,” who went from teaching at a largely white school to a historically black college where he is still in the minority as an African American professor, this suppressed anger at having to perform a specific role expresses itself in a petty spat with his officemate Isabela. While Randolph wants the lights turned off because of his migraine headaches, Isabela insists on turning them on. Thompson-Spires makes clear the cause of Randolph’s anger when she has Reggie, his former mentor at the white college and who is also black, tell Randolph that his migraines “will go away once you stop feeling like you have to be some kind of standard, once you just let it all out. The problem is once you do that, you won’t have a job.” This encapsulates the difficult situation that Randolph finds himself in. Reggie confesses that he himself suffers nosebleeds because of being in a similar situation. “The pressure has to come out some kind of way,” he explains.

This anger extends to other characters in the book, most memorably to Marjorie, a woman who works at the bursar’s office at a university, and who Thompson-Spires follows through an anger-inducing trip to the DMV in one of the best stories in the collection, “Not Today, Marjorie.” In documenting this simmering black anger, Thompson-Spires shows that it is an inevitable response to the threat of violence that African Americans face at disproportionate rates. To this end, she begins and ends the collection with stories that deal directly with this sort of violence. In the opening, eponymous story, Riley and Brother Man get in an altercation that the police respond to with outsized force. In the final story, “Wash Clean the Bones,” Thompson-Spires delves into the sad situation of African Americans in Chicago subject to violence both within their communities and at the hands of police. The main character, Alma, gets plenty of work singing at funerals as a result, but cannot get over the death of her brother, Terry, who was killed by the cops and who haunts her dreams. In this sobering final story, Thompson-Spires abandons some of the comic levity that she had brought to her previous pieces and lays bare, at last, the sorrow that exists in various ways for all the characters in her book.

Review Sources

  • Bellot, Gabrielle. “Twenty-First-Century Word Paintings: Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s ‘Heads of the Colored People.’” Los Angeles Review of Books, 30 Apr. 2018, lareviewofbooks.org/article/twenty-first-century-word-paintings-nafissa-thompson-spiress-heads-of-the-colored-people. Accessed 5 Feb. 2019.
  • Grant, Colin. “Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires Review—Coolly Ironic Stories.” The Guardian, 27 Sept. 2018, www.theguardian.com/books/2018/sep/27/heads-colored-people-nafissa-thompson-spires-review. Accessed 5 Feb. 2019.
  • Lohier, Patrick. Review of Heads of the Colored People, by Nafissa Thompson-Spires. Harvard Review Online, 19 June 2018, www.harvardreview.org/?q=features/book-review/heads-colored-people. Accessed 5 Feb. 2019.
  • Williams, John. “Tell Us 5 Things about Your Book: Disarming Humor in ‘Heads of the Colored People.’” The New York Times, 15 Apr. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/04/15/books/heads-of-the-colored-people-nafissa-thompson-spires-interview.html. Accessed 5 Feb. 2019.
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