Review of Nafissa Thomas-Spires’ Heads of the Colored People


Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ short story collection Heads of the Colored People (2018) is incredibly SMART!!

All of the stories are amazing—expertly crafted and honed works of literary genius.

Some of them are very clearly connected by the individuals who are their subjects while others seem to be related through a larger experience of black Americanness. Some of them are both.

There were several that I really loved. My first favorite was “The Necessary Changes Have Been Made” about an African American male professor who makes the move from a research university (inevitably white) to a teaching HBCU and gets into a war of wills with his female office mate. Another favorite is “Belles Lettres” which centers a protracted period of acrimonious communication between two highly educated mothers of the only two African-American girls at an elite elementary school.

“The Subject of Consumption”, “Suicide, Watch”, and “Whisper to a Scream” are brilliantly morbid, centering millennials’ unhealthy obsession with social media, becoming internet stars or just trying to find their voice in the world.

“Not Today, Marjorie” is a wonderful shout out to Bianca de Rio’s pronouncement during Season Six of RuPaul’s Drag Race and more recently, Kerry Washington’s spontaneous utterance on Jimmy Fallon’s Mad Lib Theatre, “Not today, Satan!” The story’s subject is a woman who is desperately trying to get her anger issues under control, but ultimately fails miserably and in a very public way.

“This Todd” and “A Conversation About Bread” are also clearly related in that “This Todd” is about a sculptor who has an unhealthy obsession with being in relationships with handicapped men, all of whom she calls Todd, so that for her, their identities are blurred. “A Conversation About Bread” centers one of her obsessions—a graduate student who ends up calling the police on the sculptor and then sues her.

My absolute favorite story is the last one entitled, “Wash Clean the Bones”, which wenches the soul. The story is about a single mother to an eighteen-month old baby boy, Ralph. The mother, Alma, is a nurse in the intensive care unit at the local hospital and a funeral singer who has witnessed more death than should be humanly possible in a so-called first world country.

Although she chooses to get pregnant and have her little boy, the stress of being the parent of a young black boy almost drives her to commit an unspeakable act.

This year I’ve been reading quite a bit on the subject of Black Lives Matter, but last year, as part of a writing class that I was teaching, I read a wonderful collection, in honor of the legendary critic and writer James Baldwin and edited by the wonderful Jesmyn Ward, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race (2016).

One of my favorite essays in the collection, which explores what it means to be black in the United States in the twenty-first century, is by Claudia Rankine: “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning.”

Rankine’s brilliant essay explores what it means to be a person of African descent in the United States. She begins with a story of a friend of hers who, upon giving birth to her son, thinks before anything else, “I have to get him out of this country”. While my initial reaction to Rankine’s declaration that “getting out was neither an option nor the real desire” I understood when she explained that they both know that there is really no place else for her friend to settle with her son. The United States is where her life is. This fact made me profoundly sad; that though African-American people are the ones who built this country in so many ways we have never been made to feel at home here. I was reminded of President Lincoln’s dilemma following the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation about “what to do with all these negroes.” His solution to the problem of what to do with the people who built this country that he led and who many white people believed belonged to them alone was to offer African-Americans passage to other “worlds”, mostly through evangelical efforts. Some black people, perhaps tired to being treated as third class citizens, took him up on his offer and sailed to Liberia, an American-controlled territory; others to Sierra Leone, and still others to the first free black nation in the western hemisphere, Haiti. Needless to say, things did not go well for the majority, who took the racist attitudes that had learned from their oppressors to their new homes. But there were those who were determined to stay, stating unequivocally, “We are Americans, we know no other country, we love the land of our birth.”

Shit! What a hard decision they made, not only for themselves, but for their children and their children’s children, and beyond.

If we consider the statistics on African American preventable diseases and the number of premature births and much higher mortality rates of black babies than white babies it becomes clear that these brave men and women who decided that America was their “home”, whether they were welcome or not, have had far-reaching implications. These implications extend well-beyond the horrific video that many have witnessed again and again of African-Americans, both young and old—all with so much potential—gunned down by so-called rogue police officers.

Thomas-Spires’ “Wash Clean the Bones” beautifully addresses so many of the  preoccupations of African American women. Very simply, as beautiful, precious, brilliant African American mothers they are scared to death for their equally beautiful, precious, brilliant African American sons. And when those mothers have been abandoned by their beautiful, precious, brilliant boys’ fathers, then those preoccupations become that much heavier on their shoulders; another preoccupation that Thomas-Spires addresses.

I make this point after reading bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody (2000) in which she breaks down the basic tenets of feminism. I must admit that her chapter, “Feminist Parenting, ” in which she discusses women’s/mothers’ clearly abusive treatment of their children with NO consideration given to the difficulty of single parenthood. It was difficult to stomach. Indeed, there are many parents who perpetuate the cycle of abuse that they may have suffered themselves. But there are also lots of parents of color who, desperate to save their children from later being disciplined by the system, sometimes with deadly consequences, inflict the worst kind of abuse on them: that by someone who is supposed to protect and love them, keep them safe and free from hurt and pain. But as is so often the case, what is left out of the equation is the issue is the racist system that makes such abhorrent behavior seem inevitable. hooks does not account for the system.

When Alma, the funeral singer from Thomas-Spires’ story, does what the reader may think of as unthinkable after the author has masterfully elucidated precisely how much “the condition of black life is one of mourning” we should consider that while the characters in the story are fictional, the laundry list of black victims of white racist terror of Rankine’s essay and those that we know of from our own encounters with the news and social media have left countless victims who continue to breathe, are not. Those who knew and loved them as well as those who look like them know deep in their bones that it could’ve just as easily been their bodies at the other end of those guns.

For those of us who read and know our history we can remember the story of Margaret Garner who, rather than witness her beloved children be subjected to the murderous inhuman world of slavery, chose to try to end their lives in this world. The news story in which reporters vilified Ms. Garner was the inspiration for the Frances Harper’s 1859 poem, “Slave Mother: A Tale of Ohio” and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987).

That Alma decides to persist with Mothering as a single woman who works as a nurse in a hospital critical care unit, who’s own brother was the victim of police violence, and who has been reading the same news and social media as you and I, speaks to the hope that those that the nineteenth century held about their acceptance into the United States’ fold and its failings.

Alma’s physical ailments, infertility, fibroids, night terrors, speak to the way that the effects of racism make themselves known in the human body. Indeed, and again, we need only consult statistics about the rates of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, miscarriages, and infant mortality, amongst African American women to get an idea about how deeply difficult it is to be a woman of African descent in this country and especially how difficult it is to be an African American mother.


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