Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

Dark and absorbing, Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ debut story collection, Heads of the Colored People, explores the unstable moorings of black identity and citizenship in blistering stories peopled with indelible characters.

The title derives from a series of 19th-century literary sketches of free black laborers penned by Dr. James McCune Smith. That Smith, a black abolitionist, intellectual, and elite, chose washerwomen and gravediggers for literary representation and pondered them as “heads” of the black community was remarkable. As was his sharp inversion of the day’s popular fascination with phrenology. Where the pseudoscience obsessed over the shapes and sizes of black skulls, Smith’s brief narrations of black life imagined black labor as a means of uplift.

Thompson-Spires’ contemporary riff on Smith’s theme grapples with heads more broadly, from concussions and migraines to leadership and psychology, and is just as provocative. While heads factor into each story, it’s the heartbreaking vulnerability of black bodies that will sear readers’ memories. The visceral details—a cigarette burn, a fibroid with teeth and hair, a stump sealed with skin like the thread of a baseball caked in clay—ground the literary allusions and intellectual abstractions in blood and bone.

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