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

The Guardian Weekly - - Culture - By Colin Grant

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

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