A Heart-Centered Engagement: Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

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In her author’s note, Nafissa Thompson-Spires explains that the initial spark for her debut collection came out of a desire “to write back” to the literary sketches of James McCune Smith, a Black abolitionist writer and surgeon. Adopting the pseudonym “Communipaw,” Smith’s sketches appeared in Frederick Douglass’s Paper under the title “Heads of the Colored People Done with a Whitewashed Brush,” and featured washerwomen, news vendors, and gravediggers. Thompson-Spires was drawn to the exercise of updating Smith’s 19th century glimpses of black citizenship to our contemporary times, but found the actual process of “hold[ing] on to his framework” limiting. Instead, the eleven stories found in Heads of the Colored People gesture toward and depart from the inspiring source material. Rather than focusing on what has changed (“…nothing had really changed”), the stories share an examination, rearrangement, and satirization of the complex valences connected to the word head: literal, psychological, jurisdictional, scholarly, macabre.

Most of the stories take place in Southern California and involve characters from middle-class to upper-middle class backgrounds. Concerns around the pressures of respectability, authenticity, and self-definition bubble to the surface—sometimes popping with revelation, other times floating back into the depths to settle among unknowns. We meet anime fanatics, an ASMRtist, fruitarians attempting to capitalize on fame via reality television, academics navigating white spaces as the “only ones,” and sensitive, prickly teens grappling with body image, sexuality, and friendship. The stories can be heavy in mood but the prose cackles with puckering humor and a heart-centered engagement in the idiosyncratic pulses of consciousness and feeling. Thompson-Spires has mentioned an affinity for ’80s Canadian TV, which lends the collection a televisual layer. The stories behave like scenes from a longer show or movie. (“This Todd,” an unhinged satire involving a disability fetishist has echoes of Get Out.) The experience of reading this collection overlaps with the act of TV channel surfing: we arrive in the middle of, must get acclimated and settled in before an abrupt change to something new. The dialogue is bubbly and sardonic, full of sly twists and dramatic reveals.

The forms tend to mutate to the needs of the story at hand: epistolary, referential, meta. “Suicide, Watch,” “The Subject of Consumption,” and “Whisper to a Scream” blend the digital through their focus on characters invested in charged relationships with various social media platforms. In the third, Raina is a high-schooler who makes ASMR videos. Her frustrations are both mundane and particular: a protective but critical mother, a preoccupied father, alienating classmates, an unrequited crush on a friend she met through YouTube comments. Carmen, Raina’s chic mother, fears people will “see [her] as one of those nasty girls” and wishes she would at least get into plus-size modeling or hair and makeup tutorials. Raina doesn’t show her face in the videos, a precaution arising from previous and continuing sexual and racist harassment from the boys in her class. In the frame, she is headless, all torso and hands and sotto voce. Her routine includes stroking a feather and a children’s book while whispering fairy tales. She provides healing (though energy is spent filtering her trolls and perverts), and gains a dull buzz from the attention, but cannot shake a complicity in her own careless consumption, content only viewed as collection of keywords and parts.

Like most of the characters in the collection, Raina is a knot of circling thoughts, her emotional stimulus incisive and searching but starkly circumspect. Overexposure and hypervisibility return as themes with a spectrum of reactions and vacillations. For some, the constant dissonance between who you are and what society sees worms its way into an hyperactive anxiety, at times veering into surreal paranoia. Other characters do not give weight to the opinions of others unless it directly impacts their well-being or loved ones. Usually they possess an intimate and unrestricted view of themselves, a mutable quality standing in contrast to the rigid and boxed in perceptions held by characters like Fatima or Randolph, who contort themselves into misguided armors against real and imagined aggressions. Randolph narrates “The Necessary Changes Have Been Made,” while Fatima appears in three stories, including “The Body’s Defenses Against Itself,” and “Fatima, the Biloquist: A Transformation Story.” To them, their overthinking reveals a mind attentive to their precarious social presence, how easy it is to slip into a threat or erasure or punchline.

After leaving a prestigious liberal college and its “tyranny of whiteness,” Randolph, an assistant professor at an HBCU, is dismayed to find the school “run almost entirely by women,” calling them “an unholy sisterhood of pseudo-feminists,” and complaining to his friend that he feels as tokenized here as at the last school. Before long, he is caught up in escalating microaggressive power plays, knotted along the woozy intersections of gender, race, language, and borders with his colleague and officemate Isabel, newly arrived from Venezuela. Randolph’s misogyny and his willful lack of awareness forms a barricade against women, especially women who make “something shrink” despite his tall frame. When listing the sources of his irritations before Isabel, all, unsurprisingly, are women (Fatima is mentioned, making it hard not to place these characters within the same universe). He suffers from migraines, which he blames equally on the constant performance of unassumingness and his sensitivity to fluorescent overhead lights. This aversion to being under harsh lights makes sense, but it also expands to perfectly capture Randolph’s compulsion to dwell within emotional shadows, his presence to be felt but his motives to remain unseen. His headaches express what he refuses to, though he remains too entangled in the warped logic of his self-consciousness to realize the cage he has sprung.

In a similar fashion, Fatima’s ideas around blackness and girlhood sag under the weight of compartmentalization and self-policing. Thompson-Spires presents us with flashes of Fatima’s life from elementary-age (one of the only two black girls at an exclusive private school) to adulthood (as she reflects on bullying, self-image as tied to self-worth, eating disorders, repression, endometriosis). Like Randolph, Fatima has a tendency for entrapment, falling into the physical and mental pitfalls organized by the systems of heteronormative whiteness. As a teenager navigating friendships and dating during the ’90s where “you could be whatever you wanted,” Fatima decides to embrace her blackness, “if only someone would teach her.” A comedy of errors built around assimilation and code-switching gone wrong, “Fatima, the Biloquist…” tickles with its ironic edges before slicing you to the bone. In her strict adherence to the fabricated laws dictating appropriate racial behavior, Fatima shrinks herself to a haze, an imitation replacing boundless potential, the promise of the ’90s proving to be another unimaginative rebooting of old harassments. By the time she reaches her thirties, her taste for purging and punishment results in a concussion that offers clarity while also ringing in muted confusion. Fatima and Randolph try to locate themselves in phantasmal figures rather than their own bodies, memories, futures. Raina creates an outlet where she at least can block out the negative comments, if only temporarily. Despite pressure to, she isn’t concerned with altering herself to appease a certain gaze—her desires stem from a need to be seen in her vicissitudes, not as a body in need of change or bullying. Her story balances an aching vulnerability with a learned suppression: “Editing was the easiest part, anyway; she worked best in short frames, quiet slivers, fragments. Everyone said so.”

Thompson-Spires’s collection brings to mind the work of Kathleen Collins, Danzy Senna, and Renee Simms. Their writing shares a tactile reverence for the emotional, spiritual, and psychic experiences of precocious black woman. They also contain uproarious one-liners, a fearless dive into the core of the moment (attended by an ironic sense of what has come before), and a tender patience given to the unruly desires of flawed, eccentric characters. The social frustrations of the particular time (’60s, ’90s, now) are rendered both acutely and ambivalently, with a deftness that allows for relief and unsettledness. The nuances of oppression and marginalization are addressed but not in the usual, well-trodden ways. Collins—film director and author of the posthumously released collection Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?—had no time for caricatures or ciphers. She found the habitual mythologization of black people a noxious and vampirish distraction. It’s a trap of confinement and phrenological display, removing individuals from the context, presence, and rhythms of their being.

Heads of the Colored People casts suspicion on our contemporary myths of colorblindness and being “post-racial” as mirages used to sanitize our prickly historical residues and existential dilemmas, leading towards a tendency to mistake the fog for reality. Both Collins and Thompson-Spires illustrate the psychic traps set when myths take precedence over lived experience, when “the monstrous head deforms the face.” This line comes from a Charles Brockden Brown story Fatima recites before her class and it speaks to the irrationality lurking beneath our lopsided interactions and impressions. This deforming monstrosity brings me to the social structures that obstruct our senses, infusing life with currents of distrust and captivity. By tunneling into the messy subjectivities of people pushing against and being pushed upon, the stories and vignettes address the everyday contradictions braided into questions around belonging and citizenship in the US.

Thompson-Spires quotes a line by poet Donika Kelly in the titular story: “the way a body makes a road.” The writing takes its cue from felt and quashed journeys. That is, the body is more than a collection of nightmares and mirages, content and labor. The teasing duets between a myriad of impulses (physical, emotional, ancestral, intellectual) point back to Thompson-Spires’s bitingly playful reworking of “heads.” In popular imagination the head occupies logic, leadership, and appearance. Here, heads are negligible, overdetermined, peculiar, collaborative—always in the process of reimagining paths towards being.

Allison Noelle Conner's writing has appeared in Bitch, Full Stop, Jacket2, and elsewhere. Her essay on the short film The Kitchen by Alile Sharon Larkin and the fiction of Gayl Jones will appear in the forthcoming anthology Rockhaven: A History of Interiors. She lives in Los Angeles. More from this author →