Book Review: Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires
Story Collection: Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires
Heads of the Colored People is a powerful collection of short stories exploring concepts of identity, class, race, body-image, and love among African Americans. Sometimes funny, sometimes gut-wrenching, always provocative, Nafissa Thompson-Spires uses powerful and piercing language to look frankly at issues that most authors would hesitate to address.
Thompson-Spires introduces us to characters who are very different than the typical characters we meet in books and stories. All of them are black, but their “blackness” is uniquely their own. Two characters who appear in multiple stories are the only African American girls in their high school. We first meet their mothers, engaged in a very pointed exchange of letters that is equally amusing and cringe-worthy. The girls themselves wrestle with their own identities: should they be friends because they are both black in a white world? Are they rivals? Are they enemies? One of the girls is large, the other is thin, and their body image also factors into their relationship.
Other characters wrestle with interracial relationships, with being disabled (or with stalking the disabled), with anger and lust and religion, with participating in atypical pursuits like cosplay. Most of the stories are set in southern California, which seems to add its own unique dimension to the characters’ identities. One of the characters specifically contrasts California racial identity to that experienced by people in the south, calling out his friend for his attitude toward those from the south.
All of these stories are fascinating and reflect a world very different from my own. What stands out to me is how different the worlds of the characters are from each other as well. Although there are certainly commonalities that transcend various differences, to say there is one “black experience” is unfair and dismissive. Some of the characters in this book have a lot superficially in common–and they don’t relate to each other at all. Two black girls in the same majority white private school can still have very different experiences based on their own physical size, their own experiences dating, their relationships with the larger African-American community, their own personalities and their attitudes toward each other and toward others. A young man who enjoys cosplaying as Japanese anime characters can feel alienated from others of his own race and not feel fully embraced by those of other races even when they share that common passion. A young woman can objectify someone based on disability just as much as another might objectify that same person based on race.
All of the characters have an uneasy and tortured relationship with the world around them. They struggle with their families. They struggle with their communities. They inflict wounds on themselves and on others. Not all of them survive their own stories. Thompson-Spires gives us troubled characters who are unique and individual, struggling to find out who they are. Are they identified by their skin color? Are they identified by their physical body type? Are they identified by their social or economic class? Are they identified by their choices? Are they identified by their families? The answers are always yes and no and somewhat and I don’t know…which is probably the dilemma most of us feel trying to find our way through life.
I do not want to pretend that I can fully relate to any of these characters. In America, my skin color comes with privileges that Thompson-Spires’ characters do not share. But although her stories are about black people, they are profoundly and deeply about people, people with loves and hurts and desires and needs and struggles, lusts and longings and confusion and mental disorder. And in many of their hopes and dreams and fears, I could see myself as well. Heads of Colored People is a powerful collection of stories, one that challenges and delights and provokes.