Quickly, and With the Lights On: ‘Heads of the Colored People.’

There are the books that you savor, make yourself go slow, take them in, bite by bite. There are books that you scarf, like a glutton at a feast, gulping mouthfuls and barely stopping to taste. And then there are books that you read in a rush, but with eyes wide open, because they contain too much of beauty and terror and humor and horror to imagine having the fortitude to stop and pick back up again.

Such a book, at least for me, was Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ debut short-story collection, Heads of the Colored People. These stories dissect being “Black in America,” laying out pieces and deconstructing them for resonances unexpected, innovative, and surprising. The narrator of the first story references Flannery O’Connor’s Everything that Rises Must Converge and Thompson-Spires’ collection shares much of O’Connor’s literary DNA, that fascination with the petty, the terrifying, the bizarre, the transcendent.

Heads of the Colored People primarily focuses on middle and upper-middle class Black American lives, with stories spanning from the 1990s to present. Some characters recur. Others appear and never rise again. “Belles Lettres” details the biting correspondence between two wealthy, successful women, sniping at each other over the behavior of their daughters, the only two Black girls in their class at an elite private school. In the story “Suicide, Watch” a socially-media obsessed young woman dangles the possibility of suicide like bait to her thousands of followers. In “Whisper to a Scream,” a teenager tries to grow the audience for her ASMR videos while handling non-stop criticism from her mother, an absent father, threats of violence from a boy at school, and a white online boyfriend who never wants to see her face.

My favorite entry, “Not Today, Marjorie,” echoes O’Connor like it’s the story’s damn job. Marjorie comes on the scene as an emotional vampire, one of those people so swirled up in their anger and sense of aggrievedness that they sap the energy from all they encounter. But through Marjorie’s memories—dished out as she waits to renew her driver’s license at the DMV, that most soul-sucking of encounters with American bureaucracy—we learn the complexity of what compels her bad behavior. Marjorie, like most of these characters, is neither good nor bad but, rather, complicated and discursive in a strange and fucked up world.

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi from Pexels

Many of these stories are funny, but vicious in their puncturing of pomposity and pretense. Many of these stories are violent—physically, emotionally—shining a light on the damage that people can do to each other and to themselves. And two stories about police violence bookend the collection, underlining the shadow that looms over the lives of Black Americans, whether they be cosplayers or the mothers of toddler sons. It’s a remarkable collection, best read quickly, and with the lights on.

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