Is It Possible To Write A Short Story Free From The White Gaze?
"Why would you want to tell this story about a bunch of black Southern guys discovering bread anyway? What purpose does it serve unless it’s to show yourself as somehow better than them?" An excerpt from Nafissa Thompson-Spires' short story collection Heads of the Colored People.
Junior was always trying out white folks stuff and bringing it to school for us to try. He wasn’t built for Jackson, Mississippi. There were things black people just weren’t supposed to do, like get caught on the wrong side of County Line Road after dark or use the word “persnickety,” and Junior did both of those things, among others.
When he brought potato bread to school for lunch, we were all like, what’s up with the yellow bread? For it was surely some white folks stuff and the dumbest thing we’d ever heard of until we tasted it. Once that yellow soft hit our mouths, though, it was like Apple Jacks; it didn’t even have to taste like apple, or potato.
Croissants, too, not those pop-can crescent rolls our mamas and the lunch ladies tried to feed us. Junior had real croissants—the kind where you aren’t supposed to pronounce the “r”—from a little bakery at the edge of the Fondren District. We ate the flaky edges of those croissants like they were Pop Rocks, just doing all their work in our mouths.
But most of us drew the line at brioche.
He mouthed the word “white” so that it made barely any sound, just an outline, like an expletive edited from a song.
“See, this is why I don’t tell you things.” Brian angled the laptop away from his side of the table, and looking around the library, lowered his voice. A blond woman in a gray sweater—who looked like a librarian but wasn’t one—stared from the adjacent table. “You’re writing this like you’re a white anthropologist.” He mouthed the word “white” so that it made barely any sound, just an outline, like an expletive edited from a song. “We had croissants, the real kind, and we didn’t eat those pop-can desserts, ever. We made things from scratch. And, Eldwin, did you just compare bread to Pop Rocks?”
Eldwin made his mouth a straight line and pulled the laptop away to reread.
“Why do you want to tell this story anyway?” Brian asked.
“Just tell me more about Junior and what you all ate. You know the assignment.”
The brief ethnographical assignment required each student to collect an interesting story from another student in the class and decide which details to recount in order to form a profile of both person and region.
“I do know the assignment,” Brian said, rolling his eyes. He looked young for his age. Only the deep-set horizontal wrinkle bisecting his forehead gave his age away. “If you want to write about race and food and whatever you think black Mississippians didn’t have, I would say bagels. I feel like bagels were only in white neighborhoods.”
“Bagels are everywhere,” Eldwin said while his fingers worked the keys. “There’s nothing explicitly or exceptionally white about them now, if there ever was—maybe Jewish at some point. But, I mean, everyone eats bagels now, and they aren’t as sexy as croissants. Hold on a second.” Eldwin didn’t alter his volume when he said the words “white” or “Jewish.” He typed for another minute or so. He was two shades lighter than Brian, but also believed himself two shades blacker, as far as those things can be measured. “How’s this?”
Junior was always trying out white folks stuff and bringing it to school for us to try with him. He wasn’t built for Jackson, Mississippi. There were things black people just weren’t supposed to do, like get caught on the wrong side of County Line Road after dark or use the word “persnickety,” and Junior did both of those things, among others.
When he brought potato bread to school for lunch, we were all like, what’s up with the yellow bread? Dumbest thing we ever heard of until we tasted it. Once that yellow soft hit our mouths, it was like Apple Jacks; it didn’t even have to taste like apple, or potato.
Bagels, too, shined up like soft pretzels. He actually asked the lunch lady, Ms. Martin, to toast them for him behind the counter, like we could do more than line up and eat the wet dog food they slopped onto our Styrofoam plates. But she did it for him, and we watched him take his little Tupperware container of Philadelphia cream cheese out of his bag and spread it over the hot bagels, and we pretended not to want a pinch so we wouldn’t look like we were begging for somebody else’s food.
But most of us drew the line at brioche.
Brian closed his eyes after he finished reading and pushed his wheelchair back a few inches from the table. “What exactly is ‘yellow soft’? It sounds contrived, like you’re trying too hard to sound country. No one would have said that, and on second reading I don’t like the way you’re representing the school.”
“What’s wrong with the school?” Eldwin said, scanning his work.
“It sounds like a prison-industrial complex.”
Eldwin tugged at his unkempt goatee, twirling the coils into a severe point. He was the kind of guy who thought the gesture made him look smarter and that the goatee made him look older.
“It kind of was a prison-industrial complex,” he started. “All those kinds of public schools are, and the private ones are part of the system in their own way.” Eldwin was also the kind of guy who said “the system” often.
Eldwin was also the kind of guy who said “the system” often.
“I get that,” Brian said, looking back at the white lady, who did not seem especially interested in the conversation, but who responded to Brian’s attention by slumping farther into her book. “But I don’t like the way it sounds when you write it,” he said, smoothing his black polo shirt. He never wore blue or red, a phobia he’d picked up as a young child watching movies about Compton.
“How would you put it, then?” Eldwin said without looking up.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure I would use the royal ‘we.’ I’d do more to try to distinguish the narrator from the other characters so it’s not like they’re some kind of monolith.” Brian looked back at the white lady, and indeed she looked impressed by his use of the word “monolith.”
They were both grad students in the Department of Anthropology at UC Riverside, occupying an atypical—almost magical— cohort that happened to include two black men. Their assignment required a combination of face-to-face interviewing and casual conversation, the field notes from which would form the sketches. It was Eldwin’s turn to talk to Brian. They had agreed to write about Brian’s time in Jackson—his current court case and disability were off-limits, Brian made clear—but Eldwin wasn’t interested in either anyway; he wanted to pursue a story that Brian had told him months before, about a kid who brought potato bread to school. It was also Eldwin’s idea—against the conventions of the assignment—to use first-person plural.
“I’m not writing about all black folks, or even all black people in Jackson,” Eldwin said. “I’m representing a specific group, this ‘we,’ and I’m not trying to make that we an ‘everyone.’”
“But in choosing the plural and the first-person plural you’re basically allowing that ‘we’ to work as an ‘everyone.’” Brian looked back at the woman and rotated his chair an inch away from the table, then back and away again.
Although both men felt like unicorns in their grad program, Brian had the most trouble with his horn, adjusting it nervously. He never apologized for his body; he was more self-conscious about his black maleness than his disability, though he felt at times that his cane, the wheelchair, and the contusions on his legs gave him a streak of rainbow hair to accompany the horn.
“You’re on some respectability mess,” Eldwin said without raising his voice, with the same tone he might use to say, There’s ketchup on your shirt. “It sounds like you’re not as concerned with protecting black Southerners as you are with white people reading this and then making assumptions about black Southerners.”
Brian was born in California, but he’d moved to Mississippi with his mother as a toddler, then back to the Inland Empire after his sophomore year of high school. He was tired of answering why, after living in California, he would ever consider moving back to Mississippi. People asked him more about that than his legs. He saw both states as home and liked the additional resources of SoCal, but he missed the smell of Yazoo City, his grandmother’s acres of walnut trees and blackberry bushes. He found “native” Californians smug and condescending, and he found their suggestion that their drought-prone home was better than everywhere else in the world vapid. Brian had started at UCLA, a beautiful campus with more prestige, but he had to leave the university, the entire county, because of a stalking incident involving an artist named Kim and the ongoing litigation thereof. UCR was a step below his original PhD program but the department was paying for his degree, and the campus was easier to navigate in a wheelchair, which he used on longer days instead of his trademark ebony cane; the commute from San Bernardino to Riverside, though ugly, was manageable.
"Why would you want to tell this story about a bunch of black Southern guys discovering bread anyway? What purpose does it serve unless it’s to show yourself as somehow better than them?"
“It’s not respectability anything,” Brian started. “There’s no real way for you to capture the regional differences without getting all stereotypical. Californians always think everybody else is less evolved, so no matter how conscious you think you are, you’re still reproducing that false superiority. It’s in the voice and”—he paused—“I don’t know how you would say it—the occasion for the story. Like why it’s being told in the first place. Like, why would you want to tell this story about a bunch of black Southern guys discovering bread anyway? What purpose does it serve unless it’s to show yourself as somehow better than them?”
“Because it’s a good story,” Eldwin said, “about cultural differences, intraracial differences, class differences. It’s more about how many different kinds of black people there are than it is about making everyone but Junior seem like a type.” He seemed proud of this explanation.
The men worked without speaking for several minutes, Eldwin returning to his computer and Brian fiddling with his book but not really reading.
“You want it to seem that way.” Brian put the book down.
“What way?” Eldwin asked, still tapping at his keyboard.
“The whole regional and intraracial thing you said, but it’s like when my mom went to undergrad at USC. She had just moved here from Jackson, and she had this white roommate. She had dealt with white people before—her best friend in high school was one of the only white girls at the school—”
“So she was like an honorary black girl, then?”
“But my mom had never lived with any white people. And this roommate, Sandy, Mindy, something, was always trying to take pictures of my mom when she got out of the shower, when her hair was wet.”
“Was the roommate a lesbian? Your mom was a lesbian?” Eldwin was excited now.
Brian cut his eyes. “So she could catch her in her ‘natural state.’ The girl was sending the pictures home to her family, like, look at this elephant I saw at the watering hole or this native with a disc in her lip.”
“That’s messed up,” Eldwin said. “Was the roommate blond?”
“I don’t know.” Brian intensified his frown. “Probably not. But yeah, my mom threatened to fight her, and she brought a couple of her friends for backup, and the girl cried. Typical stuff. She never took another picture of my mom though, and I think she got transferred to another room second semester.”
The white woman across from them looked amused.
Eldwin typed something.
“Wait, are you writing this down?”
“I’m taking some notes, that’s all.”
“The point of the story,” Brian sighed, “is don’t be that woman. You’re acting just like her.”
“I get it,” Eldwin said, but he was still typing.
Brian sighed, dragging out the syllables of his irritation. “Let me ask you something,” he said. “You were okay with not writing about my ex, Kim, or my court case.”
“Right,” Eldwin said. “You asked me not to; anyway, I wouldn’t touch crazy Kim.”
“Why is that?” Brian said, wheeling himself back toward the table a little.
“It’s not my story, not open access. Didn’t Kim have some kind of fetish? Didn’t she treat you like fragile art?”
“Word,” Brian said. “If I were in disability studies, I could write a whole dissertation on her and disability as fetish and the importance of self-narrating and all that.”
“How is the stalking case going?” Eldwin said, finally looking up.
His theory, he had told Brian before, involved learning to ignore the white gaze until it no longer came to mind.
Brian shook his head and resettled his wheelchair at the table. “It’s going. Anyway, you understand the issue with my mom’s roommate and why my case isn’t your story to tell, but you can’t see how you’re being a Kim with this bread thing?”
Eldwin paused at “being a Kim.” His name was supposed to be Edward, the family lore held, but his illiterate grandfather botched the spelling on his birth certificate. He felt more like an Eldwin anyway. Brian didn’t know that story, and Eldwin wasn’t going to share it now.
“I’ll be back,” Brian said, leaving his stuff on the table and disappearing, after a moment, into the stacks.
If Eldwin cared about the white woman—and he might have at some level, but it wasn’t a visible level—he would have seen that she was now very interested in the conversation. His theory, he had told Brian before, involved learning to ignore the white gaze until it no longer came to mind. Then, “and only then,” he’d said, “black people can be free from all that double consciousness bull.” If he cared about the white gaze or returned it with his own, Eldwin would have seen the woman take out a little notebook with a pink cat on the cover.
Eldwin had attended a multiethnic charter school in Riverside and undergrad at Pomona College, where he supplemented his scholarship money with three part-time jobs. Grad school was paid for with a fellowship and teaching, and that gave him more time—or simply more opportunities—to practice being what Brian and others in his life described as smug.
His revised sketch read:
Me and Junior, see, hadn’t been friends to begin with, until he brought that soft yellow bread to lunch one day. When he brought potato bread to school, I was like, “What is that? Who eats that?” But once it hit my mouth—a little yellow heaven.
He brought bagels, too, shined up like soft pretzels. He actually asked the lunch lady, Ms. Martin, to toast them for him behind the counter, like we could do more than eat the dog food they dumped onto our Styrofoam plates. But she did it for him, and after I watched him take his little Tupperware container of Philadelphia cream cheese out of his bag and spread it over the hot bagels, I begged my mom to buy me some, too.
Then there were other breads, brioche, challah—maybe not challah—but raisin bread with the six or seven grains in it. Junior and I became fast friends, eating lunch together, playing basketball. But I drew the line when he wanted to start a “gourmet club” at school. He was back on that white folks stuff and maybe some gay stuff, too.
Eldwin felt the sketch sounded worse than before. He wasn’t sure anymore why he wanted to tell this story in the first place or if it was even possible to do ethnography without “being a Kim.” Didn’t every story provide a narrow representation at best and fetishize somebody at worst? He thought of his grandfather and his name, how a misspelling had formed his identity. And why had his mother let his grandfather dictate the birth certificate anyway, knowing he couldn’t read? Could no one in the hospital spell “Edward,” or was that just a story the family told?
Brian returned from the stacks with two books and pushed one, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, across the table to Eldwin.
“Cute,” Eldwin said.
“You should really read it,” Brian said.
“I will as soon as you read Mumbo Jumbo,” Eldwin said, and they both laughed a little, though neither man thought the situation humorous.
Eldwin clasped his hands together and stretched his fingertips over and behind his head.
“Did you finish the assignment?” Brian tugged at the laptop from across the table.
Eldwin resisted, pulling it back. “It’s not ready.”
“You’ve almost got a full page now.”
“It’s not ready,” Eldwin repeated, and his face looked different, maybe sheepish. “Look, maybe you should tell this story yourself, and I’ll write something else, some other school story; you pick,” Eldwin said.
Brian shrugged. “Fine with me. You didn’t even have to read the Fanon book to get right.” He smiled.
The white woman, whose sweater was now draped over the back of her chair, looked flustered. She was taking notes but paused. She may have been an anthropologist, too. ●
An excerpt from the book, Heads of the Colored People © 2018 by Nafissa Thompson-Spires, published by Atria / 37 Ink on April 10, 2018.
Nafissa Thompson-Spires earned a doctorate in English from Vanderbilt University and a master of fine arts in creative writing from the University of Illinois. Her work has appeared in Story Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, and The Feminist Wire, among other publications. She is a 2016 fellow of the Callaloo Writers Workshop.