The Vanishing Half
The Vanishing Half
by Miriam R. Kramer
President Barack Obama put Brit Bennett’s thoughtful, complex novel about identity, The Vanishing Half, on his list of favorite books from 2020. Her book follows the lives of Stella and Desiree Vignes, identical light-skinned African-American twins growing up in a small, self-segregating Louisiana community, from the 1950s to the 1980s. One chooses to retain her heritage, while the other decides to pass for white and leave her roots behind. After the past summer’s “Black Lives Matter” movement exploded, The Vanishing Half came out at the right time to become an instant bestseller. Its most prevalent theme is the ridiculous yet constant impact of racial identity on our lives, and how it defines us and limits or expands our futures in America.
Mallard, an insular, close-knit hamlet not labeled on any map, discriminates against those with darker complexions. As an African-American community, it was founded by the twins’ ancestor, a freed slave with a white father. As the creator he desired it to become whiter and whiter over time as light-skinned people married and had children, even if it was never known as being white by the outside world. It would become as white, and therefore as acceptable within America and a Black community that cherished lighter skin, as possible. Within the book, it feels symbolically as though the town cannot be identified on a map because it has become pale enough to disappear amidst the melting pot of Louisiana.
Both twins are scarred indelibly by the lynching death of their father, a man seen by those outside their community as Black regardless of his light coloring. At sixteen they secretly leave home one day for New Orleans, looking for a better future outside the strictures of a small town, leaving behind the memories of race-based cruelty.
When the twins live together in New Orleans in the 1950s, the quiet, orderly Stella takes a job in New Orleans as a secretary, first deciding to pass as white because she would never be hired as a Black woman. After she becomes close to her boss, Blake, a white Yale graduate, he falls in love with her and asks her to marry him.
The twins’ paths diverge completely in New Orleans. Having dropped her idea of attending a HBUC (Historically Black College or University) because she had no money, Stella disappears into the wider world of white America. If she cannot attend college, she decides to look for an easier future in which she does not have to be a maid or a nanny, a future devoid of the restrictions of being Black. To do so she breaks all ties with her twin and family, leaving her sister a brief note before disappearing and pretending to her husband and in-laws that her relatives are dead. She is haunted by her father’s death from racial violence, fears that cause her to sleep with a baseball bat near her bed.
The more restless, rebellious Desiree accepts her Black heritage, moving from New Orleans to Washington, DC, and marrying a darker man. Her husband abuses her out of jealousy and the need to control her, concerned that she will leave him for someone else and accusing her of being uppity because she is so much lighter than him. Her child, Jude, is as dark as she is light. When they escape him, returning to Mallard to live with her mother, Jude is treated at school as the Black “Tarbaby” among the whiter children, discriminated against by her peers.
While Desiree finds happiness back in Mallard with an African-American bounty hunter originally hired by her husband to find her, Stella settles into the life of a well-to-do housewife and hostess. Her young blonde daughter seems as white as Jude is Black. Stella is an unlikely rebel, but a rebel nonetheless: one afraid both of life as a Black woman and of being discovered not to be white. Like those around her rejects the idea of a Black family moving into her ritzy Los Angeles neighborhood, afraid of her own racial identity coming to the fore. Her ambivalence comes out as she tentatively makes friends with the wife, who is rejected by the community.
The Vanishing Half is a wonderful book club selection for many reasons. Taking a deep dive into the book is as easy as falling. It is very well-written and easy to read. Bennett presents complex layers and facets of African-American reality, but her story can be understood on the most human level by members of any dysfunctional family hiding secrets and struggling with alienation. It includes an African-American character transitioning from a woman to a man, thus adding to that character’s intersecting identities, while sympathizing with and accepting his desire to become who he was meant to be. The author seems to validate his desire to be a man more than Stella’s urge to disappear into a calm, idyllic mainstream.
We live in a country that is only now coming to terms with the idea of different levels of racial identity, such as being biracial. How fluid is racial identity? Which aspects of identity can we choose, and which are thrust upon us? How white does one have to be to be white? How Black to be Black? How can you be intimate with your family when you lie about your roots because you fear rejection for having Black ancestry? Is it worth abandoning one’s family for the ease of being white in a world that sees complexion as a value judgment? How fluid is other kinds of identity, such as gender?
The twins, the two halves that separate, do not remain completely apart as the book progresses. Their legacies are their children, and their children are released into a changing America that is not changing fast enough to answer questions of identities. Both are, according to America, “Black.” Stella and Desiree collide for the author’s sense of completion, and she keeps us on tenterhooks as the story progresses. Yet we are left with unanswered questions about the twins’ life choices and no simple resolutions. Nor are there meant to be. This is the thorny, tangled question of race in America, presented with beauty and empathy.