Review by Tess Tabak
In Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires weaves a tapestry of loosely connected stories about African-American people. She explores the complex relationships African-Americans have towards their racial identity in 21st century America.
The characters in Heads often feel like outsiders in their own world. In the first story, a simple misunderstanding sparks into a fight when one black man, dressed in anime garb, his hair dyed blonde and wearing purple contacts, inadvertently ignores another black man on the street.
Sometimes funny, sometimes sad, always sharp, these stories bring us into a world of diverse voices. In a meta, meta move, a character in the first story is working on a piece called Heads of the Colored People, a collection of sketches that will reflect the lives of black people, a modern update on a project of the same name by Dr. James McCune Smith in 1854. She compares her own sketch to the police-drawn chalk outline of a man killed by police brutality. “I couldn’t draw the bodies while the heads talked over me, and the mosaic formed in blood, and what is a sketch but a chalk outline done in pencil or words?”
However, the collection as a whole is less grim than you’d think. For the most part, Thompson-Spires focuses on creating sketches of the living, not mourning the dead. There’s a dark irony to many of these stories. In one, two college professors, the only black professors in their department perform a series of micro-aggressions against each other turning the lights on and off, moving each another’s lunch or papers, asserting their dominance. In another, two mothers of the only black girls at an all-white private school trade barbed quips over letters, until they realize they have more in common than they realized.
Thompson Spires also explores characters whose lives are touched by a subtler form of racism, but who still feel a deep emptiness, a disconnect from their identities. “Nothing exciting or terrible had ever happened to her, and if there were any oppression for her to overcome, it only grazed but never lingered.” Many of the characters in this collection are middle-class, but they still present a diverse wealth of perspectives and experiences.
Though the writing itself is quite beautiful, what struck me the most was Thompson-Spires’ knack for characterization. Every character in this book pops off the page. Even when the characters struggle to understand their own psyches, Thompson-Spires gives a sense that you’re looking inside someone’s soul, seeing their truest self.
On sale April 10th
The Furious Gazelle received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.