TRAPPED IN A WHITE UNIVERSE
These mischievous tales depict a black upper middle class who are forced to live in a world that cuts them off from their origins
First we meet Riley, a very modern, culturally savvy black man who wears blue contacts, bleaches his hair, and is irked that his enjoyment of anime might mean he’s “mistaken for a selfhating Uncle Tom”. This opening story sets the tone for Nafissa ThompsonSpires’s witty, mischievous short story collection, set mostly in California.
Throughout, she dramatises the flawed interactions of people whose shared skin colour has ceased to be a bridge towards understanding.
Her tales focus on snobbish characters whose parents’ wealth has made them “somehow unfit for black people”. The book’s title nods to the celebratory 19th-century sketches Heads of the Colored People, Done With a Whitewash Brush by the physician and abolitionist James McCune Smith.
But instead of depicting workingclass life, Thompson-Spires examines the black upper-middle class who find themselves isolated in historically “white spaces” such as Ivy League colleges. She portrays the emotional challenge to their mental health that is the downside of privilege.
In the hilariously meta A Conversation About Bread – a story about writing a story – the author teases white readers over whether they should be applauded for an act of solidarity, though hardly daring, in engaging with a black world that is beyond their life experience.
A white woman is intrigued by the language of two black graduates discussing the desirability of imitating the habits of white folk: croissants are acceptable but they “drew the line at brioche”.
Characters whose identity is constructed around their educational and financial achievements find that their peers, rather than becoming their allies, only sharpen their own sense of superiority. While, a story of two feuding black classmates in a predominantly white school develops into a sneering academic spat as their mothers wade in. The point-scoring of the two PhD-boasting women is told with delicious brutality. These coolly ironic and grimly funny tales brim with snap and verve, and this is a debut collection of daring and aplomb.
Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires