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 bookIntroduction
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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?