Heads of the Colored People

by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 865

Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s Heads of Colored People is a collection of short stories that each deal, in some way, with what it means to be white privilege-adjacent as an upper-middle-class black American. The characters often find themselves in situations that satirize whiteness, like the emphatically vegan household, the WASPy private school, and the suburban yoga studio. They are not dropped into their settings as symbols of otherness, as though they don’t belong; on the contrary, they capably wield the same microaggressions and competitive mindfulness as their predominately white peers. They are not symbols, they are participants; and yet, because of their achievements, it is their burden to represent black people in white spaces. Their identities are both natural and performative.

It’s easy to see places where a lesser writer could have gone too far into caricature. Thompson-Spires perceives this and preempts the argument in “A Conversation About Bread,” a dialogue-driven story between two anthropology graduate students at UC Riverside. Eldwin uses a story about the novelty of potato bread to black kids in a Southern school as the basis of an ethnography assignment. Brian thinks this is inappropriate, that overemphasizing black “discovery” of aspects of white culture doesn’t serve any purpose but to reinforce stereotypes.

“You’re writing this like you’re a white anthropologist.” He mouthed the word “white” so that it made barely any sound, just an outline, like an expletive edited from a song.

“The Necessary Changes Have Been Made” focuses on Dr. Randolph Green, a professor who has recently transferred to a historically black college because he “wanted a reprieve from performing his status as an anti-stereotype . . . and needed a break from the beneficence of liberal guilt, all eyes on him, the expectations of smiling, gesturing women.” Dr. Green suffers from migraines and is especially sensitive to fluorescent light. He explains this to a new office mate, a congenial Spanish professor named Isabela, who is assigned to share “his” office in the fall.

One rainy day in mid-October, Isabela sighed, a bit dramatically, Randolph thought. She must have had an altercation with a student, but when he asked, she said, “Randy, it is very dark in here today. May I turn on the lights?”

Randolph considered how to answer. He didn’t want this to become a pattern. “Oh,” he said. “Well, remember, I keep them off because I can’t deal with the fluorescent bulbs. I get migraines.” He pointed to his chestnut-colored forehead and frowned.

She nodded. “Yes, but it is very dark.”

“It’s fine today, I guess. I’m leaving soon, but in general, I prefer not to have them on.” Randolph fiddled with his necktie.

The passive aggression between the professors escalates as Randolph encourages Isabela to use natural light or a desk lamp. He buys her a lamp. She does not use it, preferring the overhead fluorescents. He tries to come up with ways to drive her away, settling on a series of petty retaliations, like crushing her granola. He considers other means.

What else could Randolph do? He’d tried reasoning and compromise. He fantasized about driving Isabela out of the office, delighting in her expression at the sight of a fake rat spinning in her chair or a Spanish-English dictionary on her desk. He’d seen people on reality television rub their testicles on their housemates’ mattresses or pillowcases and brush the inner rim of a toilet with their toothbrushes. The victims never found out until they met for the reunion episodes and watched the footage together. Randolph wasn’t ready to pull his balls out over this, nor did he like the way they could implicate him in a potential misreading of the situation, but he thought about it.

In “Belles Lettres,” two high-achieving mothers of the only black students at a wealthy private school exchange increasingly petty notes about the girls' squabbles, and eventually their own. Here, Fatima’s mother responds to Christinia’s mother’s allegation that Fatima is spreading rumors about Christinia.

Many of Fatima’s stories about Christinia this year and last—which I won’t recount here—have been disturbing to say the least, but none as disturbing as Christinia’s enjoyment of torturing rodents. Fatima has a strong imagination and writes beautiful lyric poetry—which she started reading at age four—but she does not have a history of lying or telling gruesome stories. And unlike Christinia, she has no history of running off with other girls’ shoes while their feet dangle from the monkey bars. I’m absolutely sure that Fatima wouldn’t tell stories about Christinia, the hamsters, or the microwave incident if they weren’t based on something Christinia had said first.

In response, Christinia’s mother writes:

. . . If you’ll recall, moreover, I was there at the recital where Fatima read her “award-winning poem,” and while my doctorates—yes, plural—may not be in literature, I’m pretty sure hardly anyone would call “Butterfly Pie” a work of poetic genius. You can’t rhyme “pie” with “pie” multiple times and call that poetry; you just can’t, even if you have the excuse of only being in fourth grade.

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