21 OCTOBER 2019



Sign up to become a Fawcett member this week & for one week only, new members will receive a copy of Nafissa Thompson-Spires's Heads of the Colored People


  1. Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology




Riley wore blue contact lenses and bleached his hair—which he worked with gel and a blow-dryer and a flatiron some mornings into Sonic the Hedgehog spikes so stiff you could prick your finger on them, and sometimes into a wispy side-swooped bob with long bangs—and he was black. But this wasn’t 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, and yes, they were good and there was some resonance in those books for him, but this story isn’t about race or “the shame of being alive” or any of those things. He was not self-hating; he was even listening to Drake—though you could make it Fetty Wap if his appreciation for trap music changes something for you, because all that’s relevant here is that he wasn’t against the music of “his people” or anything like that—as he walked down Figueroa with his earbuds pushed in just far enough so as not to feel itchy.

Riley was wearing the wispy swooped version of his bangs and listening to Drake or Fetty, and he was black with blue contacts and bleached-blond hair. And, yes, there are black people who have both of those things naturally, without the use of artificial accouterments, so we can move past the whole phenotypically

this or biologically that discussion to the meat of things. And if there is something meta in this narrator’s consciousness and self-consciousness or this overindulgent aside, it isn’t meta for the sake of being meta; this narrator’s consciousness is just letting you know about said consciousness up front, like a raised black fist, to

get the close reading out the way and make space for Riley, who was the kind of black man for whom blue eyes and blond hair were not natural. He was the kind of black that warranted—or invited without solicitation—comparisons to drinks from Starbucks or lyrics from “Lady Marmalade” or chocolate bars, with nuts.

You would think with his blue contacts and unnaturally blond hair set against dark chocolate mocha-choca-latte-yaya skin—and yes, there is some judgment in the use of “you”—that Riley would date white or Asian women exclusively, or perhaps that he liked men. But you’d be wrong on all counts, as Riley was straight, and he dated widely among black women, and he was neither in denial, nor on the down-low, nor, like John Mayer, equal opportunity and United Colors of Benetton in life but as separate as the fingers of the hand in sex, nor like Frederick Douglass or many others working on black rights in public and going home to a white wife (and there is no judgment against Douglass here, just facts for the sake of descriptive clarity). Riley liked black women, both their blackness and womanness and the overlap between those constructs; nor was Riley queerphobic or the type of man to utter “no homo” in uncomfortable situations, because Riley was comfortable enough, if “enough” expresses a sort of educated awareness. There is so much awareness in these two paragraphs that I have hardly made space for Riley, who in addition to black women liked cosplay—dressing up as characters from his favorite. books and movies—and Dr. Who and Rurouni Kenshin and the Comic-Love convention, and especially Death Note, his favorite manga and anime series. And though that day he was dressed as Tamaki Suoh (per his girlfriend’s request), in a skinny periwinkle suit with a skinny black tie, his appearance gave him the flexibility to on other occasions dress as Kise Ryouta or Naruto, or, if he was feeling especially bold, Super Saiyan.

So it was bothersome, then, to Riley/Tamaki as he walked toward the Los Angeles Convention Center, when Brother Man at the corner of Figueroa and Fifteenth—not to be confused with the Original Bruh Man, whose actual origins or current whereabouts are unknown, but Bruh Man’s gradated type, this particular yet

stock Bruh Man, Brother Man—accosted Riley after he brushed away the pamphlet Brother Man was trying to hand him and put his hand on Riley’s shoulder and ventured to violate Riley’s personal space even further by using that large hand with cigarette-stained fingernails to turn Riley toward him. I am saying Brother Man stopped Riley on the street, singled him out in front of people dressed, respectively, as Princess Mononoke, Storm, Daleks, Cybermen, and Neil deGrasse Tyson (both in blackface and in their own black faces), put his hands on him, and forced him to look into Brother Man’s own face with the familiarity of a friend yet, contextually, with the violence of a stranger.

On any other day Riley might have acknowledged that he was wrong to walk past Brother Man’s initial “Howyoudoin,” which he pretended not to hear on account of the Fetty. On this day, however, Riley felt that since he was inhabiting the character of Tamaki, his decision to ignore Brother Man was just right, an exercise in method acting.

Riley was more than surprised—and did not need to borrow Tamaki’s affectations to feel slighted—that Brother Man had touched him, and by that point, even though he might have been just the kind of buyer for what Brother Man was selling, his pride wouldn’t let him concede.




It had long irked Riley that his blackness or the degree of his loyalty to the cause should be suspect because he wore blue contacts and bleached his hair blond and because, on top of all that, his name was also Riley, and not, say, Tyreke. It irked him that he might be mistaken for a self-hating Uncle Tom because he enjoyed cosplay and anime and comic book conventions and because he happened to be feeling the character of a rich Japanese schoolboy a little too much at that very moment.

By the time Brother Man said, “Uppity, gay-looking nigga,” Riley had bypassed logic and forgotten that he held none of the privileges of his costume.

There ensued then what Riley, in his costume, might have called fisticuffs, though in everyday life he would have simply said they got to scrappin, right on Figueroa Street.

The people who watched and filmed and circulated the scene from inside one of the lobbies of the convention center said it was just like Naruto v. Pain, only with two black guys, so you couldn’t tell if either one was the hero.


The above is an extract from the titular short story in Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires, 2019. Published by Vintage. Vintage is part of Penguin Random House. Find out more about the book here

Sign up to become a Fawcett member this week & for one week only, new members will receive a copy of Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires