IN 1851, FOUR years after the inauguration of his anti-slavery newspaper The North Star, Frederick Douglass decided to reach out to the black man he would later say influenced him more than anyone else: James McCune Smith. In Douglass’s estimation, McCune Smith was one of the sharpest intellectuals of the era. Sometimes considered the most erudite African American prior to W. E. B. Du Bois, McCune Smith — largely forgotten despite his then-resplendent star — rose to prominence as a cosmopolitan who, upon being rejected from Columbia’s and Geneva’s medical schools in New York for being black, earned three degrees from the University of Glasgow in Scotland and thus became, upon his return to the United States, the first African-American university-trained physician to set up his own practice. He would go on to found the Radical Abolitionists and add to his fame through his criticism of Thomas Jefferson’s myopic views on race in Notes on the State of Virginia. Douglass wanted him to compose some sketches for the paper — rebranded that year simply as Frederick Douglass’ Paper after financial difficulties and a merger with the white abolitionist Gerrit Smith’s Liberty Party Paper — and McCune Smith responded with an extraordinary set of works titled “Heads of the Colored People, Done with a Whitewash Brush,” under the pseudonym “Communipaw.” Appearing between 1852 and 1854, the highly intertextual, at times even recondite articles each focused on some aspect of the black working class in New York, portraying vendors, fugitive slaves, interracial sexuality, and more. His evocations of black women’s sexuality, in particular, boldly defied the respectability politics of their time and made even Douglass — who preferred more sanitized, chaste portraits of African Americans — uneasy.
“Word paintings,” McCune Smith declared his installments, and they were just that, anticipating William J. Wilson’s famed 1859 “Afric-American Picture Gallery,” in which Wilson, through text, “painted” ennobling portraits of black subjects, like Phillis Wheatley and Toussaint L’Ouverture. That same year, another series of groundbreaking word paintings of black Americans (and also of the African diaspora more broadly) appeared in the brief-lived Anglo-African Magazine: “Fancy Sketches,” by Jane Rustic, whose real name was Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Like McCune Smith, Rustic remains neglected today but was a prominent intellectual of her era — a black woman who lectured across the country for abolitionism, published prolifically (including poems and serialized novels), and advocated for feminism.
These three series are mentioned in Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s debut story collection, Heads of the Colored People, which can be read — even from its title — as a new millennium’s idiosyncratic version of McCune Smith’s installments. Thompson-Spires’s stories owe many additional debts — a number of which the author acknowledges in an endnote and even in a supplied bibliography — to a wide range of texts, from popular Japanese anime to Percival Everett to Ralph Ellison. Clever, cruel, hilarious, heartbreaking, and at times simply ingenious, Thompson-Spires’s experimental collection poses a simple, yet obviously not-simple, question: what does it mean to be a black American in this day and age?
Thompson-Spires’s metafictional satires, oriented around questions of blackness, join a particular tradition of African-American fiction, recalling the sardonic absurdism of Everett’s Erasure and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, among others. The opening story’s incessant hedging about language — meant, in part, to parody, ad nauseam, the almost paranoiac way that our language about identity tends to be policed — also echoes the seemingly half-serious, half-satirical narration of Danzy Senna’s recent novel, New People, in which a light-skinned part-black woman is driven near to madness by her obsession over not appearing “black enough.” Not all of Thompson-Spires’s stories are overtly satirical, and they become progressively more serious as the collection progresses, but a thread of outrageous, glaring self-awareness runs through the collection, granting even many of the more severe tales a tone of dark comedy.
The collection’s quick nod to Ellison’s Invisible Man belies its debt, too, to that novel, as these characters, like Ellison’s narrator, are tormented at once by being too visible and not visible enough, though these characters often wish their blackness was more visible. Unlike Ellison’s narrator, some of these characters use social media, and the addictive cost of visibility there, too, becomes a relevant leitmotif. Many exist in liminal states of blackness: black, but not, but inescapably black, but, but. The opening story, which shares part of its name with McCune Smith’s series, begins with a deadpan assurance to readers that a black otaku named Riley who “wore blue contact lenses and bleached his hair” didn’t do any of this out of
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. […] He was not self-hating; he was even listening to Drake — though you could make it Fetty Wap if his appreciation of trap music changes something for you, because all that’s relevant here is that he wasn’t against the music of “his people.”
In “The Subject of Consumption,” Ryan, a black fruitarian, ponders the way other African Americans might frown upon his marrying a white woman, Lisbeth, out of the assumption that he did not care for women of his own race and merely wanted “light-skinned babies.” The blackness of these characters is simultaneously stable and always in question.
“A Conversation about Bread” revolves around Eldwin, who wishes to tell a story about growing up with a boy who defied his blackness by eating fancy croissants and brioche; another black male, Brian, is flustered by how and what Eldwin is writing, claiming that he is composing a stereotypical narrative like a “white anthropologist” that, through its “royal ‘we,’” implies all black Americans are a “monolith.” Eldwin thinks Brian is “on some respectability mess.” The story’s quietly comical drama heightens as Eldwin wonders whether or not “every story provide[d] a narrow representation at best and fetishize somebody at worst” and questions whether or not he should even risk writing his narrative at all, lest black people come off badly by him telling his version of the truth. In one of multiple interlinked stories about a black girl named Fatima, a blonde albino black girl called Violet — her albinism lending her a liminal ethnic identity — advises Fatima how to be “really” black. Fatima “had been accused of whiteness and being a traitor to the race”; Violet ironically teaches her how to be “blacker,” with the “[p]ale Violet” becoming “the arbiter of Fatima’s blackness, the purveyor of all things authentic.”
The key idea that runs through the collection is authenticity. “Authenticity,” Salman Rushdie wrote wryly in “‘Commonwealth Literature’ Does Not Exist,” “is the respectable child of old-fashioned exoticism. It demands that sources, forms, style, language and symbol all derive from a supposedly homogeneous and unbroken tradition.” Authenticity is, in other words, a fraudulent romanticization, an oversimplification of identity, not unlike the European mythologizing of the East Edward Said famously critiqued in his famous 1978 study, Orientalism. In Heads of the Colored People, authenticity is the specter Thompson-Spires almost immediately exorcises, showing that there is no way to be “authentically” black, even as many of the characters are convinced, even fatally, that there is.
Heads of the Colored People refers, as the author notes at the end, as much to heads as to bodies. In this metonym exists a darker, secondary image: that of the literal heads of the colored people, a gruesome evocation that made me first think of a notorious scene in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, wherein African heads on poles surround Kurtz’s encampment. This more macabre reading of the title is apt, given how materially the specter of death hovers over the stories. Death is as frequent as it is mundane and absurd in the collection. “Suicide, Watch” follows Jilly, a validation-craved depressive who posts cryptic, suicide-suggesting messages on social media and obsessively watches and interprets the likes and comments. The story begins with a Plathian evocation:
Jilly took her head out of the oven mainly because it was hot and the gas did not work independently of the pilot light […] she conceded that she would not go out like a poet. But she updated her status, just the same:
A final peace out
before I end it all.
Treat your life like bread,
no edge too small
Her status is both serious and a test of the “1,672 Facebook friends and 997 Twitter followers […] she collected […] like so many merit badges.” The story is a perfect demonstration of the neurotic addictiveness of social media, whereby serious subjects like suicidal ideation can become little more than repetitive quests for validation of one’s supposed self-worth from “likes.” Death becomes darkly comedic — and, in the twist ending, ironic.
After two unarmed black men are shot by police in the first story, the narrator — slipping from sardonic humor to frustration — mentions, with a casualness suggesting a banality to such evils, the “constants” of the “off-screen” shooting: “unarmed men, excessive force, another dead body, another dead body.” The repetition of the latter, and its use of “another,” speaks quiet volumes to the volumes of needless corpses.
The macabre metafictional atmospherics go deeper still. The opening story’s reference to the mega-popular series anime and manga series Death Note is particularly revelatory. (I may have fangirled at the reference.) In Death Note, Shinigami — gods of death — control human life spans, able to cause someone to die (and even specify how and when they expire) by writing their name in their Death Note, a black notebook; the series begins with a Japanese schoolboy, Light Yagami, finding a Death Note that a perpetually grinning Shinigami named Ryuk dropped on Earth. Light, who is a solitary, rigidly scheduled, successful student, becomes drunk with power when he learns that the book allows him to kill anyone whose face and name he knows, and he assumes a pseudonymous identity, Kira, when the Japanese police — and then governments around the world — learn that someone is able to murder at will. Death Note is a study in god complexes, in the simultaneous terror and tragedy of obtaining great power. So extreme is the series’s body count that sudden, unnecessary deaths become almost quotidian, echoing Hannah Arendt’s famous idea of “the banality of evil,” immortalized in her study of Nazism in Eichmann in Jerusalem, whereby even great evil can come to seem strikingly, disturbingly normal.
Death Note’s fleeting invocation serves as an early example of Thompson-Spires’s sepulchral leitmotif: the ubiquity of death in her stories, and the way that we — especially as nonwhite Americans — are not always in control of our lives, but can, instead, have our lives wrenched from us in a moment due to an unfair power structure. The story’s narrator becomes an ambivalent, unwilling Kira, grinning like Ryuk as they explore the absurdities of the situation even as they are also, clearly, frustrated at how quickly, pointlessly, and unsurprisingly their characters die. To be black in the United States, the stories say without saying it directly, is difficult to define, but perhaps the closest definition is to have death always near, even when there is no sensible reason we should hear her wings.
When McCune Smith began writing about sexuality, an affronted Douglass suggested that “the real ‘heads of the colored people’” could be found “in the way of churches, Sunday Schools, Literary Societies, intelligent ministers and respectable congregations among our people in New York”; where were the “wise and wholesome” black portraits, he mused? His respectability politics echoed how Du Bois, in the following century, would excoriate the Jamaican-born Claude McKay’s 1928 novel Home to Harlem — the first black American best seller — for its luxuriant descriptions of sexuality, drinking, and partying; depicting such things did not, the puritanical Du Bois argued, uplift African Americans. “I feel distinctly like taking a bath,” Du Bois wrote of his experience of reading the novel in a cantankerous review in The Crisis, a paper Du Bois had founded. McKay had portrayed, unrelentingly and unrepentantly, “that utter licentiousness which conventional civilization holds white folk back from enjoying — if enjoyment it can be called. […] As a picture of Harlem life or of Negro life anywhere, it is of course nonsense,” Du Bois said, channeling Douglass’s denial that such joie de vivre could — or, at least, should — be something to which impressionable readers, white ones most of all, were exposed. “Untrue,” he added with a hint of acid reluctance, “not so much on account of its facts but on account of its emphasis and glaring colors.”
The problem was not that McCune Smith or McKay had written untruths; it was that they had written too much of human truths more conservative black intellectuals wished to suppress from mainstream viewership, lest they confirm racist stereotypes. To be black, these critics implied, one had to behave, even in literature.
We are both beyond these respectability debates and not beyond them at all. Thompson-Spires, thankfully, depicts a wide range of people, not seeking either overwhelmingly positive or negative images of a race but capturing diversity — reality — in much of its multifarious beauty and terror: the validation-seeking suicidal teen, the ungainly college professor transplant, the unarmed black men murdered by the police, the fearful single mother, the unapologetic otaku, the hypocritical judgmental churchgoer, the young ASMR YouTuber who performs so much she begins to be trapped by her persona, the pettily feuding parents, the awkward black girl who has an uneasy relationship with blackness, the students writing about blackness who still worry that revealing too much, in too real a way, will be dangerous. The real heads, of course, as this brilliant collection of word paintings displays, can be on anybody’s bodies.
Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Tin House, The New York Times, Electric Literature, New York Magazine’s The Cut, Vice, Guernica, Slate, HuffPost, and many other places. She is the recipient of a Poynter Fellowship from Yale and holds both an MFA and a PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She lives in Brooklyn.