Heads of the Colored People: Stories by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

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The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here

In my quest to be a “good and responsible” book reviewer I am reading my way through many of the long listed books for The National Book Award. I know I won’t read them all any time soon, but I’m making a major effort to read a chunk of them. I love book awards, even if I seldom agree. Heads of the Colored People is my third book from the fiction long list.

Here is more about this book

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—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, or 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. Her stories are exquisitely rendered, satirical, and captivating in turn, engaging in the ongoing conversations about race and identity politics, as well as the vulnerability of the black body. Boldly resisting categorization and easy answers, Nafissa Thompson-Spires is an original and necessary voice in contemporary fiction.


There is so much to enjoy about this book. It is smart, and dark, and funny, and really well done. The stories feel well thought through and edited. I never lost interest, often times I wanted more. Her characters were specific and their desires clear. She breathed deep full breaths into each of her characters.

Heads of the Colored People excels at humanizing Black experiences. Not in the way that we see that Black people have feelings too, but in a way that allows Black people the privilege of being wholly individual. They get to care about stupid things like fluorescent lighting. They get to do odd things in the privacy of their own homes. They get too have control issues. They get to exhibit the mundane personality flaws that we so often see represented through Whiteness. Thompson-Spires gives Black characters the space and freedom to be unique, idiosyncratic, particular, neurotic, and vulnerable. All the things we often associate with Whiteness. Her characters are free to be alive and to have non life threatening issues. She makes space at the table for individuality in Blackness.  Heads of the Colored People is a reminder that Blackness is not a monolith, and it never has been. This type of representation matters.

What Thomspon-Spires is doing with Heads of the Colored People is almost more important than what she is saying; no one story stands out as more valuable than any other. Rather, they all work together to paint elaborate tableaus of modern Black life. There is now a book in the world where these stories of Black people being human exist. I don’t know that the specifics of the majority of these stories will sick with me. I think that is okay. What will stick with me is that this book happened and I read it and it was good.

If you like fiction short stories, dark humor, and want to examine people’s quirks this is your book. The writing is well crafted and intentional. It tackles themes of what it means to be Black in new ways. It hits all its marks and works on many levels. It is short and sweet, and I certainly look forward to what more Nafissa Thompson-Spire brings to the table.

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • PublisherAtria / 37 INK; 1st Edition edition (April 10, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy Heads of the Colored People on Amazon

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Ep. 27 Talking Investigative Journalism with Nancy Rommelmann

cropped-TheStacks_logo_final.jpgThis week we are joined by author and journalist, Nancy Rommelmann. Nancy talks to us about her newest book To The Bridge: A True Story of Motherhood and Murder, her process as an investigative journalist, and about the time she traveled to see John Wayne Gacy on death row.

You can find everything we talk about this week in the show notes below. By shopping through the links you help support The Stacks, at no cost to you. Shop on Amazon and iTunes.

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Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr.

E4FA3654-5315-4685-8748-2A65FF1D6F41Every year I try to read at least one or two Pulitzer Prize winners, while I generally don’t enjoy the fiction books for a myriad of reasons, I have found some of my favorite nonfiction books have won or been short listed for the Pulitzer (Blood in the Water by Heather Ann Thompson, sticks out a recent favorite). It was a no brainer to pick up Locking Up Our Own, it won the Pulitzer in 2018 for general nonfiction, and had a subject matter that excited me.

Here is a little more about this book

Former public defender James Forman, Jr. is a leading critic of mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on people of color. In Locking Up Our Own, he seeks to understand the war on crime that began in the 1970s and why it was supported by many African American leaders in the nation’s urban centers.

Forman shows us that the first substantial cohort of black mayors, judges, and police chiefs took office amid a surge in crime and drug addiction. Many prominent black officials, including Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry and federal prosecutor Eric Holder, feared that the gains of the civil rights movement were being undermined by lawlessness―and thus embraced tough-on-crime measures, including longer sentences and aggressive police tactics. In the face of skyrocketing murder rates and the proliferation of open-air drug markets, they believed they had no choice. But the policies they adopted would have devastating consequences for residents of poor black neighborhoods.


This is a smart and thoughtful book. It highlights the role Black politicians, officials, and community members have had on mass incarceration. I appreciated Forman’s in depth look at this small and specific group of people. There are many nuances and subtleties in the giant machine that is the prison industrial complex, and this book zeros in on one of those nooks, especially from the vantage point of a defense lawyer.

The book mostly focuses on Washington DC (a majority Black city), and places a lot of blame on Black leaders, which Forman explains in detail. However, found myself questioning how different these laws were in other cities with large Black populations and White elected officials. A lot of the blame is laid at the feet of the African Americans who run DC, but it isn’t clear if this is unique to DC. If these trends were seen nationwide, including cities with few Black leaders, the case made against the Black leaders in DC is significantly diminished. I didn’t feel that I understood if the movement toward stricter laws was truly being led by Black folks, or if it was more a national trend in cities with large Black populations. Said another way, sure, Eric Holder enacted harsh search and seizure initiatives in DC, but was this any different than stop and frisk in Giuliani’s New York? This makes a huge difference in the argument, and these questions were left unanswered.

The writing style of Locking Up Our Own was mostly straight forward, nothing particularly fancy or noteworthy. Forman does include the cases of his past clients to connect the laws in theory to the lives they affected in practice. This didn’t feel like a priority for the book, but rather an after thought, and therefore these stories fell flat. They functioned more like interludes than anything else.

I enjoyed learning about the role that Black people have played in the mass incarceration crisis, even if it wasn’t clear if they were following trends versus creating a road map for The United States. I appreciated a much more subtle look at something that has become a topic that engenders a lot of debate.

If you find nonfiction to be a little dry, this isn’t the nonfiction book for you, I might suggest Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, because it has a much more human element (thought it is more focused on death penalty law). I would suggest you read this book if you’re like nonfiction, even when it is not story based, and are well versed in mass incarceration. It is a great compliment to The New Jim Crow  by Michelle Alexander.

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • PublisherFarrar, Straus and Giroux; Reprint edition (February 6, 2018)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Locking Up Our Own on Amazon

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The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.