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Heads of the Colored People




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About The Book

Winner of the PEN Open Book Award * Winner of the Whiting Award * Longlisted for the National Book Award and Aspen Words Literary Prize * Nominated for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize * Finalist for the Kirkus Prize and Los Angeles Times Book Prize

Named a Best Book of the Year by Refinery29, NPR, The Root, HuffPost, Vanity Fair, Bustle, Chicago Tribune, PopSugar, and The Undefeated

In one of the season’s most acclaimed works of fiction, Nafissa Thompson-Spires offers “a firecracker of a book...a triumph of storytelling: intelligent, acerbic, and ingenious” (Financial Times).

Nafissa Thompson-Spires grapples with race, identity politics, and the contemporary middle class in this “vivid, fast, funny, way-smart, and verbally inventive” (George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo) collection.

Each captivating story plunges headfirst into the lives of utterly original characters. Some are darkly humorous—two mothers exchanging snide remarks through notes in their kids’ backpacks—while others are devastatingly poignant. In the title story, when a cosplayer, dressed as his favorite anime character, is mistaken for a violent threat the consequences are dire; in another story, a teen struggles between her upper middle class upbringing and her desire to fully connect with so-called black culture.

Thompson-Spires fearlessly shines a light on the simmering tensions and precariousness of black citizenship. Boldly resisting categorization and easy answers, Nafissa Thompson-Spires “has taken the best of what Toni Cade Bambara, Morgan Parker, and Junot Díaz do plus a whole lot of something we’ve never seen in American literature, blended it all us one of the finest short-story collections” (Kiese Laymon, author of Long Division).


Riley wore blue contact lenses and bleached his hair—which he worked with gel and a blow-dryer and a flatiron some mornings into Sonic the Hedgehog spikes so stiff you could prick your finger on them, and sometimes into a wispy side-swooped bob with long bangs—and he was black. But this wasn’t any kind of self-hatred thing. He’d read The Bluest Eye and Invisible Man in school and even picked up Disgruntled at a book fair, and yes, they were good and there was some resonance in those books for him, but this story isn’t about race or “the shame of being alive” or any of those things. He was not self-hating; he was even listening to Drake—though you could make it Fetty Wap if his appreciation for trap music changes something for you, because all that’s relevant here is that he wasn’t against the music of “his people” or anything like that—as he walked down Figueroa with his earbuds pushed in just far enough so as not to feel itchy.

Riley was wearing the wispy swooped version of his bangs and listening to Drake or Fetty, and he was black with blue contacts and bleached-blond hair. And, yes, there are black people who have both of those things naturally, without the use of artificial accouterments, so we can move past the whole phenotypically this or biologically that discussion to the meat of things. And if there is something meta in this narrator’s consciousness and self-consciousness or this overindulgent aside, it isn’t meta for the sake of being meta; this narrator’s consciousness is just letting you know about said consciousness up front, like a raised black fist, to get the close reading out the way and make space for Riley, who was the kind of black man for whom blue eyes and blond hair were not natural. He was the kind of black that warranted—or invited without solicitation—comparisons to drinks from Starbucks or lyrics from “Lady Marmalade” or chocolate bars, with nuts.

You would think with his blue contacts and unnaturally blond hair set against dark chocolate mocha-choca-latte-yaya skin—and yes, there is some judgment in the use of “you”—that Riley would date white or Asian women exclusively, or perhaps that he liked men. But you’d be wrong on all counts, as Riley was straight, and he dated widely among black women, and he was neither in denial, nor on the down-low, nor, like John Mayer, equal opportunity and United Colors of Benetton in life but as separate as the fingers of the hand in sex, nor like Frederick Douglass or many others working on black rights in public and going home to a white wife (and there is no judgment against Douglass here, just facts for the sake of descriptive clarity). Riley liked black women, both their blackness and womanness and the overlap between those constructs; nor was Riley queerphobic or the type of man to utter “no homo” in uncomfortable situations, because Riley was comfortable enough, if “enough” expresses a sort of educated awareness. There is so much awareness in these two paragraphs that I have hardly made space for Riley, who in addition to black women liked cosplay—dressing up as characters from his favorite books and movies—and Dr. Who and Rurouni Kenshin and the Comic-Love convention, and especially Death Note, his favorite manga and anime series. And though that day he was dressed as Tamaki Suoh (per his girlfriend’s request), in a skinny periwinkle suit with a skinny black tie, his appearance gave him the flexibility to on other occasions dress as Kise Ryouta or Naruto, or, if he was feeling especially bold, Super Saiyan.

So it was bothersome, then, to Riley/Tamaki as he walked toward the Los Angeles Convention Center, when Brother Man at the corner of Figueroa and Fifteenth—not to be confused with the Original Bruh Man, whose actual origins or current whereabouts are unknown, but Bruh Man’s gradated type, this particular yet stock Bruh Man, Brother Man—accosted Riley after he brushed away the pamphlet Brother Man was trying to hand him and put his hand on Riley’s shoulder and ventured to violate Riley’s personal space even further by using that large hand with cigarette-stained fingernails to turn Riley toward him. I am saying Brother Man stopped Riley on the street, singled him out in front of people dressed, respectively, as Princess Mononoke, Storm, Daleks, Cybermen, and Neil deGrasse Tyson (both in blackface and in their own black faces), put his hands on him, and forced him to look into Brother Man’s own face with the familiarity of a friend yet, contextually, with the violence of a stranger.

On any other day Riley might have acknowledged that he was wrong to walk past Brother Man’s initial “Howyoudoin,” which he pretended not to hear on account of the Fetty. On this day, however, Riley felt that since he was inhabiting the character of Tamaki, his decision to ignore Brother Man was just right, an exercise in method acting.

Riley was more than surprised—and did not need to borrow Tamaki’s affectations to feel slighted—that Brother Man had touched him, and by that point, even though he might have been just the kind of buyer for what Brother Man was selling, his pride wouldn’t let him concede.

• • •

It had long irked Riley that his blackness or the degree of his loyalty to the cause should be suspect because he wore blue contacts and bleached his hair blond and because, on top of all that, his name was also Riley, and not, say, Tyreke. It irked him that he might be mistaken for a self-hating Uncle Tom because he enjoyed cosplay and anime and comic book conventions and because he happened to be feeling the character of a rich Japanese schoolboy a little too much at that very moment.

By the time Brother Man said, “Uppity, gay-looking nigga,” Riley had bypassed logic and forgotten that he held none of the privileges of his costume.

There ensued then what Riley, in his costume, might have called fisticuffs, though in everyday life he would have simply said they got to scrappin, right on Figueroa Street.

The people who watched and filmed and circulated the scene from inside one of the lobbies of the convention center said it was just like Naruto v. Pain, only with two black guys, so you couldn’t tell if either one was the hero.
In truth Brother Man was burly but not violent and rather liked to regard himself as an intellectual in a misleading package. If he could have made a wish before the end of that day, it would have been that he, too, had worn a costume to soften the effects of his image.

When he put his hand on Riley’s shoulder, it was only because he disliked the sight of someone, especially one of his own, turning his back to him without hearing him out. It was also because he needed to promote Brother’s Spawn and had thus far convinced a meager four passersby to buy a $4 copy that day, and because Brother Man felt, unapologetically, that black people should stick together and that the blue-eyed, wig-wearing brother in the purple suit should have at least acknowledged him with a nod, if not a handshake or a howyoudoin.

Though in the aftermath, people would call his papers religious tracts, indoctrination materials, and “some kind of gang documents,” Brother’s Spawn was Brother Man’s self-published dystopian comic series set at Pasadena City College, where he first learned of Octavia Butler and her work. The comics were hand-drawn with the dimensions of a postcard, though he also hoped to sell broadsides featuring a poem he had written.

Brother Man—aliases Kyle Barker, Cole Brown, Overton Wakefield Jones, Tommy Strawn, and pen name Brother Hotep—was selling the postcard comics illegally (he preferred the term “without official city permits”) between a food truck and a juice cart that day. On other days he sold them near the Century City Mall, in Ladera Heights, in Little Ethiopia, and as far as Inglewood.

That day, he banked on the convention center’s Comic-Love traffic and the potential readers it might attract, boasting to his girlfriend earlier in the morning that he would probably sell out, “even without one of those official tables in the convention center, watch.”

And though he would say he was not usually the type to call Riley a sellout or an Uncle Tom, that day, Brother Man (real name Richard Simmons, yes, Richard Simmons) could not handle Riley’s refusal to acknowledge him or his art. He could find reasons to dismiss the hundred or so people in costumes, some speaking English, some other languages, who shook their hands no at the laminated mock-ups he tried to show them, but he could not abide a black refusal, especially one from a black guy in a Japanese prep-schoolboy costume, the very kind of audience Brother Man hoped to cultivate.

Thus, when he put his hand on Riley’s shoulder, he never meant to hit him, and if he could, Brother Man, hereafter Richard, would have imagined that Riley didn’t plan to fight him either. And neither man ever would have thought that amateur karate (pronounced in the authentic Japanese accent) would be involved, their arms flailing and legs kicking out in poorly choreographed mortal combat.
On his way to a meeting, Kevan stopped at the SweetArt Bakeshop in Saint Louis to purchase a vegan brownie for himself and a purple cupcake with tiny candy hearts for his daughter Penny, who was with him for the weekend. The whole shop was lined with canvases of varying sizes, painted by the owners and sold from the bakery, which served as a gallery and community meeting space. Tiny vases holding local flowers adorned each table. Kevan wore a black T-shirt that said in white letters, “Eff Your Respectability Politics.” He liked the irony of the word “eff” instead of the F-word, but he still debated whether it was better to change “your” to “yo.” He wasn’t sure if anyone understood the stakes in these decisions or in any of his other art, which he sold online, from his car, and occasionally from a small suitcase in the barbershop on Washington Avenue.

He had one hour left with Penny before her mother would pick her up so Kevan could meet a potential business partner and pitch an idea that he couldn’t shake.

He chose a table in the middle of the nearly empty shop, with yellow-and-green flowers in the vase. “She’s a superhero,” Penny said, pointing to the largest canvas on the wall adjacent to the bakery case, and inhaling another glob of frosting. The frosting accumulated at the corners of Penny’s smile, but her tongue missed those spots each time it swept her mouth.

“She’s cute. Daddy can teach you to paint like this,” Kevan said, passing Penny a napkin across the table.

Kevan wasn’t a vegan, but he supported black business and black art, and regarded SweetArt as a place where his own work might one day be represented. The T-shirt sales provided him a stash of petty cash, but Kevan had sold only three paintings, and that grieved him. He supported his daughter Penny with a court order and a “real job” as a UPS deliveryman, but he “always took care of my responsibilities,” even before Penny’s mother, whom he alternately called a gold digger, that whore, and my queen, demanded official monthly payments.

“My superhero name is gonna be”—Penny paused to pull back the wrapper and expose the last quarter of the cupcake, its frosting smooshed and all the candy hearts gone—“my name’s gonna be Purple. Purple Penny Powers. I will make things purple like this,” Penny said, zapping something with her arm.

“Purple Penny Powers.” Kevan pretended this was cuter than it was. “Wow.”

He was trying not to think about a joke he had seen earlier in the day, trying not to remember the sight of two dead bodies that had appeared casually in his news feed, trying to rehearse instead his pitch for the realization of something he had read in a book that he found in a used bookstore.

The Afric-American Picture Gallery was a series of written sketches by William Wilson, under the pen name Ethiop and following the form of similar sketches—which Kevan found with more research—by James McCune Smith in The Heads of the Colored People and Jane Rustic (a.k.a. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a black abolitionist poet and suffragist). Kevan wanted to commission painters, including mostly himself, to create a full exhibit of heads of the colored people, now and then, to take the written, literary work and render it visually. The idea intrigued him, the heads talking to him like the books in Equiano—though he didn’t know that reference yet.

In Kevan’s collection, there would be, as in Ethiop’s original, Phyllis Wheatley, Nat Turner, and a doctor, but he would update his favorite sketch, “Picture 26,” of the “colored youth” who was “surrounded by abject wretchedness” to reflect a sort of current abjection. To these he would add a superhero for Penny and a collage of the black men (and women, he would concede, with some coaxing later from Paris Larkin) who had been killed by police and other brutalities.

“Now what’s your name going to be?” Penny’s voice seemed especially shrill at the moment.

“I don’t know.” Kevan was still thinking about the bodies and the grainy video of the two men arguing and the way one of the men had held out his hand when the police officer entered the scene; it was clear that the man wasn’t holding a gun or a knife, but something soft, like paper.

“Daddy, your name,” Penny demanded.

“I don’t know,” Kevan repeated, and blurted out the first thing that came to his mind: “Bruh Man.”

“Bruh Man?” Penny jutted her head back. “What does he do?”

“He paints, and whatever he wishes, he can paint it and make it happen.” Kevan made Penny lick a napkin so he could wipe the leftover icing from her face. “And he can make bad things unhappen, if he paints them right.”

“That’s gonna be my power, too,” Penny said, pulling away from his grooming and hesitating in the way of five-year-olds, “but I’m just gonna think and make it happen or unhappen.”

He wished briefly that things were so simple and then began to outline something on a napkin.
Paris Larkin was meeting Riley at the convention center after two shifts at her part-time job for Dark Shadows Hollywood Cemetery Tours. Her official job description said, “Tour Narrator: Vocal talent. Must be able to memorize stories and stand for long periods of time on moving bus while engaging audiences.” I ain’t saying she a gravedigger, Riley liked to begin when he introduced her as his girlfriend, but really, she digs graves, like, loves them. It was one of the things that had attracted him to her when they first met, her dark cheeriness and her nonjudgmental approach to his lifestyle. And his soft-landing punch lines were one of the things Paris liked about him, and his interesting face, and the way he wasn’t at all who she expected him to be.

When he took his contact lenses out at night and tied his hair down with a durag, Riley looked just as comfortable and kind as when he dressed up and hung out at his favorite comic café in Pasadena, drinking boba tea and playing chess with kids from Caltech, where he studied engineering and was one of a handful of black students on campus.

If Paris could have a superpower, it would be to make herself visible, because even though she stood at the front of the bus with a microphone, pointing out alleged sightings of Marilyn Monroe to hungry tourists with camera phones and fake Gucci sunglasses, she wasn’t the main attraction, and she preferred to narrate the tours with reverence instead of theatrics, to fade into the background and let the spirits speak for themselves. With Riley she could be seen, since they got a decent amount of attention when they were together and especially when they dressed up. Certain cosplay purists (read: racists) did not always approve of Paris’s or Riley’s respective costume choices or the idea of black people dressed as nonblack characters. Paris had come to anticipate and almost enjoy the surge of anxiety that came with entering these spaces, had felt her flight-or-fight instinct the closest thing to being fully alive. And the ghost tours, too, made her think that by comparison, she was at least more alive than the bodies that filled those holes.

That day was not her day off, so she took the Metro and two buses to meet Riley at the convention after work, after showering and changing into her long silver wig and meticulously sewn necromancer dress, her dark skin contrasting with the purple-and-white pinstripes of the dress, the gray armor on her arms and legs elevating her mood. She had debated dressing as Haruhi Fujioka, the counterpart to Riley’s costume from Ouran High School Host Club, but her choice of Eucliwood Hellscythe created a bigger impact, she thought. Though she kept her blue contacts down and focused on her sketchbook, her eyelids, adorned with heavy black-and-white shadow, warned other transit passengers to dare her, that day.

When Paris entertained visitors from out of town, or when she and Riley caught the spirit, she liked to ride the Metrolink from Highland Park to Glendale to visit Michael Jackson’s mausoleum, which you couldn’t exactly get close to, but which still sent a melancholy shiver through her and her guests. During most of her time on the bus or the Metrolink, Paris drew Riley and many other people—you could call her a sketch artist, though not in any official, paying capacity.

She called her sketchbooks a collection of heads, for she never drew bodies, and anyway, Paris was lighthearted and laughed frequently, showing the gap between her teeth, not nearly as morbid as her job and curated heads make her sound. She called Riley Fuzzy Lumpkins, and he called her Bubbles. She was listening to “Say My Name,” attached as she was to all things nineties, even though she was nineteen and had been born after Tupac and Biggie were already dead. That morning, Paris had watched reruns of Martin and laughed at a character’s plea for a wish sandwich. In the nineties, she felt—and you should fill in for yourself a kind of longing here—something melancholy, plaid, flannel, but not overwrought.

It isn’t true, at least not in Paris’s case, that you can sense what the future holds. That day, she had jokingly, in an exercise of character acting, avoided pronouncing Riley’s name near the word “death” or at the graveyard or while dressed as Eucliwood, lest she kill him. But no psychic, metaphysical force warned her to tell Riley not to go to Comic-Love or to avoid arguments without spoils or to immediately put his hands up when instructed to do so. Nothing told her, still humming “Say My Name” in her best humming voice, not to walk toward the large crowd of flashing lights, police cars, and costumed and uncostumed bystanders. Her stomach urged her to look away, once she got close enough to be sickened, but she couldn’t then.

She didn’t feel more alive from the surge of panic in her body or in comparison to Riley on the ground.

Years later, she would regret not drawing the offending officer that day. Since then, she has sketched his face over and over, penciling his name and image in her notebook as a sort of plea, saying it aloud, wishing that she, like Eucliwood, could pronounce the names of those she wanted to die and make it so.

When an artist named Kevan Peterson wrote to her about a project he wanted to finish—really, to finally begin—Paris was glad for her sketches of Riley.
A well-read, self-aware, self-loving black man with blue contact lenses and blond hair and a periwinkle suit was shot down in Los Angeles after a reportedly violent altercation with a well-read street promoter, who was also shot, after police officers answered a complaint. “Who was also shot” here signals the afterthought that was Brother Man, Richard, because he was not the one with the blond hair or blue contacts or in any way exceptional, except for his size and the things he had overcome (too many to name here), and his comic books.

And you should fill in for yourself the details of that shooting as long as the constants (unarmed men, excessive force, another dead body, another dead body) are included in those details. Hum a few bars of “Say My Name,” but in third person plural if that does something for you.

A few more points I should not leave to the imagination: in the chalk drawing on Fifteenth, you can see Riley’s leg kicking out like Spike Spiegel and an additional rectangle above the outline of Richard’s hand, where he might have held his comic books or a laminated mock-up.

The picture the Associated Press chose came from a Throwback Thursday photo that Riley had posted on social media, a picture of him in a costume from an undergrad party, at which he wore an oversize blue shirt and a bedazzled blue bandana over cornrows. His mother, and girlfriend, Paris, explained repeatedly that he was not dressed as a thug, but as nineties Justin Timberlake.

Brother Man’s picture was an old mug shot, accompanied by a story that emphasized a criminal charge from five years ago—for child support nonpayment and tax evasion—and his penchant for false names.

Both men’s families would say the pictures didn’t say anything, that that’s not how anyone who knew them would remember them.

The Neil deGrasse Tysons disagreed over the number of gunshots they heard; the one in blackface said ten, while the one with a brown face called black said thirteen. The autopsies would not conclude, but there might have been marijuana in Riley’s or Richard’s systems, at some point.
I think a cop shooting is too melodramatic when the story was interesting on its own, and my preoccupation with race is perhaps overdone, but it was O’Connor, I think, who said—and I say “I think” here more as a device, to affect a sort of nonchalance, when in fact I know she said—everything that rises must converge or something like that (“or something like that” serving as another affected clause). But that makes the ending sound intentional or overdetermined, when it wasn’t, though I believe—I know—it was Donika Kelly who said “the way a body makes a road,” or in this case an outline, impression.

• • •

How to end such a story, especially one that is this angry, like a big black fist? The voice is off-putting. All the important action happens offscreen; we don’t even see the shooting or the actual bodies or the video. Like that one guy in fiction workshop said, meta is so eighties. The mise en abyme is cool but overdone. This is a story of fragments, sketches. Dear author: Thank you for sharing this, but we regret.

I concede that it might have been so much more readable as a gentle network narrative, with the cupcakes and the superheroes and the blue eyes and the nineties image-patterning. But I couldn’t draw the bodies while the heads talked over me, and the mosaic formed in blood, and what is a sketch but a chalk outline done in pencil or words? And what is a black network narrative but the story of one degree of separation, of sketching the same pain over and over, wading through so much flesh trying to draw new conclusions, knowing that wishing would not make them so?

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Heads of the Colored People includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book


In Heads of the Colored People Nafissa Thompson-Spires grapples with black identity and the contemporary middle class in the compelling, boundary-pushing vignettes.

Each captivating story plunges headfirst into the lives of new, utterly original characters. Some are darkly humorous—from two mothers exchanging snide remarks through notes in their kids’ backpacks, to the young girl contemplating how best to notify her Facebook friends of her impending suicide, while others are devastatingly poignant—from a new mother and funeral singer who is driven to madness with grief for the young black boys who have fallen victim to gun violence, to the teen who struggles between her upper middle class upbringing and her desire to fully connect with black culture. Thompson-Spires fearlessly shines a light on the simmering tensions and precariousness of black citizenship.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. In the opening story, “Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, And No Apology,” what similarities arise in both Riley and Brother Man? In the height of the conflict between the two men Thompson-Spires writes, “it was just like Naruto v. Pain, only with two black guys, so you couldn’t tell if either one was the hero.” Discuss why their race would help dictate knowing which was the hero.

2. In the same story, before Thompson-Spires shares a few of the details of the shooting, did you already predict them? Were your predictions correct?

3. As Randolph speaks with DIY in “The Necessary Changes Have Been Made” she says to him:

“ Sometimes the problem is the environment; sometimes you are the environment. In your case, you think you’re making changes, but you take the problem with you, like you did exchanging your old job for this one,” she said, tapping one side of her head. Then she gestured with one hand for him to leave. Randolph left the meeting furious with DIY, though he couldn’t put his finger on exactly why. He asked Carol about the new office that day, and though it looked like another demotion of sorts, it represented, for him, a battle he won, growing a pair.”

Do you agree that Randolph is the problem here? Who won the battle Randolph or Isabela?

4. In “Belles Lettres,” how does the feud between Dr. Lucinda Johnston and Dr. Monica Willis highlight the challenges upper class minority families’ face? Which letter did you find the most offensive and yet comical, and how do the two women reconcile?

5. Fatima and Christina are now adults in “The Body’s Defenses Against Itself,” as Fatima reminisces on childhood we learn more about what really happened in their school-aged years. What did Christina’s mom call “the body’s defense against itself?” In closing, what does Fatima mean when she says, “I’ve been doing this yoga since I was a child?”

6. In the opening paragraph of “Fatima, The Biloquist: A Transformation Story,” Thompson-Spires writers, “Fatima felt ready to become black, full black, baa baa black sheep black, if only someone would teach her.” Describe how Violet teaches Fatima to be black.

7. Fatima spends weeks hiding her relationship with Rolf from Violet, her new best friend and the person who has helped her become comfortable being herself. What would make Fatima hide Rolf from Violet or was she hiding Violet from Rolf? Where did Rolf go wrong in meeting Violet at the mall?

8. On page 81, Thompson-Spires writes, “other things she hadn’t told Violet because she wasn’t sure which lip she was supposed to use.” How did you interpret “which lip she was supposed to use?”

9. In “The Subject of Consumption,Lisbeth and Ryan are fruitarians practicing detachment parenting while filming a reality TV show. While the tension in their relationship is sensed early on, it does not reflect the love the couple had in years prior. What is the main issue in their relationship now?

10. In Heads of the Colored People, we see just how dynamic relationships can be, both in person and digitally. In “Suicide, Watch,” Jilly leans on her online Facebook community as she drops hints of her coming suicide. In “Whisper to a Scream,” Raina feels safer in her ASMR videos. What are the pros and cons of social media in these instances? How and why does Jilly’s attempt to warn her “friends” fail?

On page 126, we see Carmen’s response to Raina feeling unsafe.

Her mother had said she wanted to “deal with this situation,” but she also asked Raina, “Did you do anything to make him think he could touch you like that? Did you give him any ideas?”

How do you feel about Carmen’s response to Raina’s confiding? How does this response mirror the way larger society handles sexual assault?

11. What are your initial impressions of Marjorie in “Not Today Marjorie?”

Do your friends know how hard you are on yourself or how much you care about what other people think?” Alex had asked just last week during their session. “Because it seems like your Christianity offers you grace, but you don’t seem to ever offer any to yourself.” Marjorie almost told her about Coryn and Charles then, but she decided against it. Instead she said quietly, “I’m just trying to keep my hands clean, day by day. I’ve done a lot of bad things in my life, and I’ve asked for forgiveness, but I feel like I can’t stop doing them.

What do you believe about the concept of grace? Should Marjorie be completely honest with Alex and forgive herself?

12. It is often said that people repeat cycles until they learn the lesson they need to learn. In “This Todd,” we are introduced to Kim an artist who repeatedly has unsuccessful relationships with disabled men. What must Kim learn in the way she handles these relationships? Is she tender? Was Brian right to call the police as Kim lugged a wooden leg into his home?

13. In “A Conversation about Bread,” we hear more of Brian’s story and spend time with him and his classmate Eldwin as they complete an assignment. Another character we see but do not hear from is the white woman listening in on their exchange. Thompson-Spires writes:

If Eldwin cared about the white woman—and he might have at some level, but it wasn’t a visible level—he would have seen that she was now very interested in the conversation. His theory, he had told Brian before, involved learning to ignore the white gaze until it no longer came to mind. Then, “and only then,” he’d said, “black people can be free from all that double consciousness bull.”

How would you define the “white gaze?” Do you believe it is possible for minorities to live outside of the white gaze?

14. Explain the significance of the title of the book. How did the theme show up in the different stories within the collection?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Throughout the collection, how are you feeling in your own body? Did the collection make you more aware of the space you take up in the world by gender, race and/or class?

2. Brian was not pleased with the way Eldwin portrayed the bread story. “I’d do more to try to distinguish the narrator from the other characters so it’s not like they’re some kind of monolith,” he states along with other reasoning. In the end, Eldwin decides to go with another story. What do you believe convinced him to do so? Have you ever had a person tell your story from an angle that displeased you? How did that make you feel and what does it say about the ownership of certain narratives in society?

3. In “Wash Clean the Bones,” Alma has witnessed a lot of death in her life, from Terry to her patients to the bodies at the funerals. When she asks Bette, “But how would you protect him?” referring to her son Ralph, what is the urgency and fear in her asking? How does this fear arise in other stories?

4. What surprised you most in the collection of stories? Did one story resonate very strongly for you? If so, why?

5. Of This World author Allegra Hyde wrote, “Nafissa Thompson-Spires explores what it means to come to terms with one’s body, one’s family, one’s future.” In what ways do you see Heads of the Colored People exploring what it means to come to terms with one’s body, family and future?

About The Author

Photography by Adrianne Mathiowetz Photography

Nafissa Thompson-Spires earned a doctorate in English from Vanderbilt University and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Illinois. Her work has appeared in Story Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, and The Feminist Wire, among other publications. She was a 2016 fellow of the Callaloo Writer’s Workshop. She is the author of the short story collection Heads of the Colored People.

Product Details

  • Publisher: 37 Ink (January 22, 2019)
  • Length: 224 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501168000

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Raves and Reviews

“Nafissa Thompson-Spires has a way of staring intense, awkward, comic, and sorrowful situations right in the face. There's no escaping her honest gaze. Heads of the Colored People is a necessary and powerful new collection with, thankfully, not a dull sentence to be found.”

– Peter Orner, Am I Alone Here?

"With devastating insight and remarkable style, Nafissa Thompson-Spires explores what it means to come to terms with one’s body, one’s family, one’s future. The eleven vignettes in Heads of the Colored People elevate the unusual and expose the unseen, forming an original—and urgent—portrait of American life.”

– Allegra Hyde, Of This New World

"Vivid, fast, funny, way-smart, and verbally inventive, these stories by the vastly talented Thompson-Spires create a compelling surface tension made of equal parts skepticism towards human nature and intense fondness of it. Located on the big questions, they are full of heart."

– George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo

“Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires is an unusually intricate matrix of clear-eyed observation and devastating revelation about what it means to be a human being alive on this aching, raucous, unjust planet in the early 21st century. It is also, often, extremely funny, and is very smart on every page and gorgeously, rewardingly varied in its sentences and forms.”

– Laird Hunt, Neverhome

“The stories here are dazzling, wise, wicked and tender. Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ debut is a knockout.”

– Kelly Link, Get in Trouble: Stories

“What a true pleasure it is to spend time with this alive mind thinking so openly and interestingly on the page about character and culture and storytelling and one’s everchanging role in it all. This book made me laugh many times, and I also sometimes stopped midpage to read a paragraph aloud just to relish how Thompson-Spires was moving her story along. A marvel of a debut.”

– Aimee Bender, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt

“The stories in Heads of the Colored People bring layer after layer of awe, humor, style, and vividness. All of that comes as Nafissa Thompson-Spires finds new and distinct angles to show the contours of each story’s world. On the bus. At the DMV. On social media. The fine details and the narrative style show the minds, bodies, and circumstances of an evocative mixture of folks. There’s so much to recommend here, from the commentary to the line, where these sentences build feelings, rooms, and the people we find there. The fidelity of the voices comes through in a way that makes Nafissa Thompson-Spires work stay with you.”

– Ravi Howard, Driving the King

“Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ stories fearlessly tackle broad issues of race, identity politics, and the body, while never losing sight of the intricately-faceted individuals inhabiting those bodies. She writes with a precision of psychological insight that is both moving and profound. Dignified, controlled, and, above all, original: Thompson-Spires is an important new voice in contemporary fiction.”

– Jamie Quatro, I Want To Show You More

“Nafissa Thompson-Spires has taken the best of what Toni Cade Bambara, Paul Beatty, Morgan Parker and Junot Diaz do plus a whole lot of something we've never seen in American literature, blended it all together and giving us one of the finest short story collections I've ever read. The super thin lines between terror, intimacy, humor and hubris are masterfully toed, jumped and ultimately redrawn in the most exciting and soulful fiction I've read this century. The nation needed Heads of Colored People 40 years ago. Thankfully, Nafissa Thompson-Spires gave it to us now.”

– Kiese Laymon, Long Division

“Stuffed with invention… Thompson-Spires proves herself a trenchant humorist with an eye for social nuance.”

– Publishers Weekly

"We need a new word for this story collection. Dark humor isn’t quite it. But it’s close. It’s dark; it’s funny; but it’s kind, too."

– Tayari Jones

Nafissa Thompson-Spires brilliantly delves into the concept of black identity in modern times in Heads of the Colored People, a collection that echoes the power of Junot Díaz and cements her role as an incredibly important voice in literature right now.


“What’s interesting is the use Nafissa Thompson-Spires makes of race – as a plot-driver, irony engine, and comic goad – in the self-aware manner of Paul Beatty and others.”

– New York Magazine

"Presenting unique characters, gifted storyteller Thompson-Spires navigates the black experience with humor and poignancy while also acknowledging the inherent tensions and exposure to violence black citizens encounter. Highly Recommend."

– Library Journal, Starred Review

Darkly humorous and incredibly moving, Heads of the Colored People is a wonderful collection of short stories that tackles what it means to be black in a world that thinks it's "post-racial." (Spoiler alert: It's not.) The book couldn't be more timely — and even the stories that seem light-hearted on the surface are, at their center, incredibly intelligent reflections on race, identity, and blackness. Nafissa Thompson-Spires has written a masterpiece.


“For the freshest voice in literature, look no further than Nafissa Thompson-Spires blisteringly clever short story collection, Heads of the Colored People… Sometimes, a voice comes around that is so singular, so funny, so wholly original, that you go back and reread each story once you finish it… In each of these humorous, intelligent vignettes, Thompson-Spires explores aspects of being Black and middle-class in today’s America. This is a special collection. Buy it so you can read it more than once."


“This collection resonates on many frequencies. There are direct links between characters in several of the stories, many of whom are foils for each other, and their nuances are sure to strike a chord with any reader who’s struggled with insecurity and a search for self… Thompson-Spires writes with grace, a lightly bitter humor, and a real eye for a detail that calls attention to the simultaneous reality and fictionality of each story… A profound and truly enjoyable collection."

– The Riveter Magazine

"An unforgettable debut, Heads of the Colored People examines black identity in boundary-pushing new ways. Full of unique characters, the stories offer a mixture of humorous and dark tales. From mothers exchanging snide notes to a teen struggling with her identity, Thompson-Spires shines a light on the insecurity inherent in black citizenship."

– Redbook

"Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ exquisitely original Heads of the Colored People is fresh, inventive and sure not to disappoint. Each short story starts in the familiar and then leads to unexpected and compelling revelations."

– TheRoot (

“In an era when writers of color are broadening the space in which class and culture as well as race are examined, Thompson-Spires’ auspicious beginnings auger a bright future in which she could set new standards for the short story.”

– Kirkus Reviews

"Thompson-Spires’ dazzling collection of short fiction addresses black identity in the so-called post-racial era... Transgressive and wildly funny, Heads announces a major new talent."

– Ms. Magazine

"With a well-tuned ear for the cadence of comedy and dialogue, Thompson-Spires uses her characters to illustrate what real conversations about identity can be."

– Booklist

"A writer to watch… Extraordinarily powerful.Thompson-Spires distinguishes her work by keeping explicit violence off the page and focusing on raw grief, pushing her readers to confront the senselessness based solely on the strength of her voice and her characters… [E]loquent, funny, forceful and occasionally shocking."

– amNewYork

"Here's an author to watch. Thompson-Spires' first story collection is a fascinating, lyrical, and profoundly moving examination of contemporary black identity."

– Entertainment Weekly

“Funny, smart, and #ofthemoment, this electrifying debut marks the emergence of a daring talent whose characters are as comfortable referencing Octavia Butler and Flannery O’Connor as they are dropping allusions to Fetty Wap and Patti Mayonnaise."

– O, the Oprah Magazine

"Superbly witty debut… The topics [Nafissa Thompson-Spires] takes on are often deadly serious (one is about an impending suicide), but every story flashes grim humor. She is also a brutally sharp observer. The epistolary story 'Belles Lettres' could have been written with a scalpel?"

– Janet Maslin, New York Times

“[Thompson-Spires] electric style is extrovert, erudite and hugely entertaining. . . You end the collection greedy to read whatever is coming next from this unmistakable talent.”

– The Observer

“Brilliant… Thompson-Spires’ stories are dark, have a cutting sense of humor, and are entertaining and essential.” -


‘[Thompson-Spires] writes satire of the Paul Beatty school, her humour as daring as it is disarming. This is a firecracker of a book, sizzling with politics, but it's also a triumph of storytelling: intelligent, acerbic and ingenious" - Financial Times

Clever, hilarious, heartbreaking, and at times simply ingenious." - Los Angeles Review of Books

“Smart, witty, and so very well written.” – Roxane Gay

Awards and Honors

  • Chicago Public Library's Best of the Best
  • TX Lariat Reading List

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images

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