Heads of the Colored People

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Read 13/08/2019-17/08/2019

Rating 4 stars

I read an interview with Nafissa Thompson-Spires in the Guardian that prompted me to place an immediate reservation for her short story collection Heads of the Colored People at the library. In the interview, Thompson-Spires talks about wanting to explore what it means to be a black person today, to respond to the original 19th century work that lends her collection its title, and to consider the nature of story telling: “who gets to tell certain stories, who gets access to stories, who gets stories told about them.”

That last point is a good one. Over the last few years I’ve been trying to make my reading more representative. I’ve read a number of novels by writers of colour, and the first thing that struck me about Heads of the Colored People is how Black it is. What do I mean by that? I was trying to describe it to a friend without falling over my whiteness. The best I can do is compare the way a good proportion of the fiction I’ve read by black writers has tried to or, out of necessity in order to get published, had to mould itself to the literary fiction template set by white people. I’ve largely felt in my comfort zone reading those books because I instinctively understand their form and function. You could say that they fit with my white gaze, meet the expectations of normative whiteness, display black duality. Heads of the Colored People has a different voice. It’s a voice that feels authentic, a book that speaks from contemporary experience of being black in a white world.

In the author’s note, Thompson-Spires notes that “these stories maintain an interest in black US citizenship, the black middle class, and the future of black American life during pivotal socio-political moments.” To my mind, this collection does through fiction what Ta Nehisi Coates does through non-fiction in Between the World and Me.

From the opening story and its examination of duality and the consequences of complying neither with black expectations nor with white of what it is to be a young black man, the collection challenged me, got under my skin, made me question what I was thinking and feeling as I read it. That black people don’t have ownership of their bodies is made explicit in Thompson-Spires’ tales of observation and critique. Young black women and young black men police each other, while the white world around them expects them to bond over a shared skin colour. Growing up is hard enough without having to negotiate two sets of societal expectations. Being an adult is hard, too, and more than a couple of the adults in this book resort to childish behaviour in an effort to assert their right to be seen as equal.

Characters appear as protagonists and then as supporting cast across a number of the tales, allowing Thompson-Spires to examine their stories from different angles. She expresses how responses to what life throws at us are universal while at the same time drawing out the particularities of black experience. A white child can be subjected to the same abuse as a black child, but the black adult has additional layers applied to how they process that abuse in later life. A black woman can be as mean-spirited as a white woman, but she is judged against a dual standard, first as a black woman then as a mean-spirited one. A black teen can be bullied and trolled for her attention seeking YouTube account in the same way as a white teen, but with added racial hatred and fetishisation.

I found many of the characters unpleasant. Thompson-Spires doesn’t seem to have gone out of her way to make them sympathetic, even with the back stories she provides to explain why they might be as awful as they are. Some of them, though, I felt a deep sympathy with for the humanity of their condition.

This isn’t a cheerful book. Where there is humour, it’s bleak. It didn’t at any point elevate my mood, but I suspect that’s not its purpose. My sense is that with this collection Thompson-Spires set out to inform the world about what it really means to be black, and particularly to inform people like me that my gaze, however well meaning, makes black people feel like an anthropological project. If that was her aim, she’s been successful.

Although it wasn’t a comfortable read, I am glad that I read this book.

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