February 18, 2020: “Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology” by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Hello, Story366! Good to be writing at you tonight.

So, today is a Tuesday in lateish February. For a few days now, I’ve thought today would be the day before Ash Wednesday, the day before Lent starts, what some of you know as Fat Tuesday, what Poles like me refer to as Pączki Day. I dropped the older boy off at the bus stop and headed down to the Walmart on the south end of town, the only place in Springfield that routinely carries pączki. Halfway there, something struck me as odd, something that didn’t feel right. I checked my phone to be sure: I was a week early. False alarm. Pączki Day isn’t until next week. I turned around and drove home. Stay tuned in a week for notes on the actual Pączki Day.

However, this experience tells me a couple of different things. One, I have another week of eating what I want before I start a hugely symbolic Lenten diet. (More on that when we get there.) Two, I seem to have some sort of pączki radar, knowing when it’s time to get the pączki before it’s time to atone (or whatever). I’m not sure if this is a word in the dictionary, but I’ll call it “pączdar.” And mine seems to be especially honed.

Anyway, today I’m continuing with my week of African-American authors for what I suppose should be called “Black History Month Week.” I wish I could have found twenty-nine new collections by black writers to feature every day this month, but I don’t think I could have quite pulled it off. It’s sad that there aren’t enough—there should be twenty-nine newish collections by black authors, right? Or maybe I just wasn’t able to pull my resources together. Regardless, I hope that trend is changing, that all the authors who deserve to have books pubished see their books published. In the meantime, I’m going to read every book I can get my hands on.

For tonight, I read from Nafissa Thompson-Spires‘ collection Heads of the Colored People, out in 2018 from Atria Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster). I got this book a while ago, but then went on Story366 hiatus and never read it. Today I got to right that wrong, spending a good hour or so getting to know Thompson-Spires’ work.

I’m going to focus on the lead and title story of the collectiion, “Heads of the Colored People,” which actually has a much longer title: “Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology.” That title sums a lot of the story up, in a way, as there are indeed four sketches here (as well as the chalk outlines and lack of apology). Thompson-Spires introduces us to four black characters whose lives intersect on a particular day. We meet Riley, a young man with blue contact lenses and dyed blond hair, who is a little self-conscious about altering his appearance. He’s particularly conflicted because it’s for cosplay, him dressing up as his favorite superhero/manga. We meet Brother Man, a guy passing out pamphlets on the street, a guy who takes Riley’s indifference toward him with a particular grievance. Kevan starts off his part of the story with his daughter at a vegan bakery, on his way to a meeting where he’ll pitch a business idea. Lastly, we meet Paris, Riley’s girlfriend, and also the woman Kevan is meeting for the pitch. We’re introduced to each in a short scene, three to four pages long each, all leading up to the intersection (which, Thompson-Spires stresses, happens off the page).

Along with these sketches, the hallmark of “Heads of the Colored People” is the metafictional approach Thompson-Spires uses, pushing it to its metafictional limits: This narration becomes so meta, it comments on how meta it’s being, putting any particularly meta episode of Community to meta shame. There’s more to it than just being meta for meta’s sake, however, as it all allows Thompson-Spires to be a character in her story, to comment on the proceedings as she creates them; it’s not really in the Lost in the Funhouse-type mode, but it feels fresher, something that’s able to tie this approach with the theme of the story: Thompson-Spires has something to say about what happens here and she’s not letting any fourth wall get in her way.

As you might guess from the long title, the intersection of these four characters turns tragic. It’s not because of anything any of the fours characters did or have done, but again, as you might guess, because of who they are: Basically, black people in America are never given the benefit of the doubt, and therefore stupid, horrible bullshit happens to them. Thompson-Spires uses this story to make that point, as it can never, ever be made enough.

Going further into the collection, I also read “The Necessary Changes Have Been Made,” a story about office and gender politics at a traditionally black university, a young professor underestimating the people with whom he has to deal on an everyday basis. I skipped ahead then and read “A Conversation about Bread,” which sounded intriguing, and was, about a pair of anthropology students completing an assignment where they have to write about something the other had said to them (spoiler: it involves bread).

I liked all three stories I read in Heads of the Colored People. Quite a bit, actually. Nafissa Thompson-Spires writes about being black in America, and these stories represented both powerful takes and new angles on these issues, at least for me (which, admittedly, isn’t saying a whole lot). Whether it’s something as obvious as black youths being gunned down for no reason by police officers, or black politics within academia, I feel like I understand these situations, just that much better, for having read these stories. It helps that Thompson-Spires writes beautiful sentences, isn’t afraid to stray from convention, and in general, has a innate sense of character and drama and conflict. High recommendation, for sure.

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