I have other book reviews to write, but somehow, writing about The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett feels like the most important review to write given what is happening around the country right now. Its release date of today, 2 June 2020, is timely, as its discussion of race is one we all need to have right now.
The thing is, I don’t have the words or experiences to do the novel justice. I am white. I was born into a lower-middle-class family of educators. We did not have a lot of money, but we were not poor by any means. We lived in predominantly white neighborhoods and never had to worry about crime or violence. I went to predominantly white schools, with just enough diversity for the school district leaders to feel good about themselves. The police were not something to fear but something to honor and respect. I did not have to choose between my education or getting a job when I was a teenager; I got a job for spending money only. I almost never had to worry about the color of my skin when in certain situations, although I am ashamed to admit that there were certain neighborhoods we passed through to get to my brother’s baseball games where we would lock the doors and try not to call attention to ourselves for fear of harassment or even violence against ourselves. In other words, Stella’s and Desiree’s situations are so far removed from my own as to be almost foreign.
Yet, it is this unfamiliarity that makes such novels like The Vanishing Half so important. We don’t just learn about the experiences of others. These novels force us out of our comfort zones by challenging us to look at what makes up reality for millions of others. They demand us to directly look at racism and hatred in ways not available to us, and in so doing, requires us to understand their situations. For me, The Vanishing Half did nothing but raise questions I would love to ask but am afraid to do so because it shows my ignorance of the Black experience.
The story’s premise is one that follows the lives of twin girls, born and raised in a poor Louisiana town that prides itself on the whiteness of its denizens, even though the town is a Black town. One of the twins disappears one day, having decided to pass herself off as white, forever leaving her family and heritage in the past to prevent her secret from becoming known. The other twin ends up marrying a very dark black man but moves back home when she starts to fear for her life at the hands of her husband. Both sisters have daughters, whose stories we also follow.
The story itself is impeccably written, balancing between establishing the setting without sacrificing character development. We feel all four ladies’ shame and fear, their anxiety, and their love. We care for all four women, in spite of their very different lives. Even if we don’t agree with some of their decisions, we appreciate their sacrifices and the journies they travel.
But the questions are what will make me remember The Vanishing Half. More than Stella’s passing, more than Jude’s compassion, I remain haunted by the questions I have because of their experiences. Just the idea of a Black town that is as white in skin tone and hair and eye color as most of the neighborhoods in which I grew up is fascinating to me and makes me ask what actually defines race? According to the novel, it is not necessarily skin color, and yet, isn’t that what we are taught? That we base race on skin color? Yet, this town, which is fictional but I’m sure exists somewhere, identifies itself as a Black community, faced with the same laws of segregation and fears of lynching as any other Black community in the South in the 1950s. Does this mean we define race based on identity? Or is it heritage?
Then there is this idea of degrees of blackness, where even Black people favor those with whiter skin. Desiree sees this firsthand in how the community does not accept her husband and later actively prejudices itself against her dark-skinned daughter. Why would a community do this? Do we, as humans, need to feel like we are better than someone else, so much so that we look down on people of our own race
One cannot discuss The Vanishing Half without talking about Stella’s passing over. I admit that there is still a part of me that wonders why this is such a big deal. After all, don’t we, as parents, want our children to have a better life than the one we had? So, for a Black mother, would that not mean becoming white if possible? I recognize how ignorant this question is because I do understand that Stella’s passing over means that she is making a statement about her heritage being less important to her than her own comfort. But Stella doesn’t just pass over because she no longer wants to fight against racism and segregation. She does so because she can and because she likes the feelings passing as white gives her. This put my mind down a completely different path, as I wonder how often people passed over in the past. How often does it happen now? Most importantly, why would someone do it? If you do, do you hate yourself, do you hate your family or your heritage, or is it something else?
Stella’s behavior toward Blacks as a white woman of privilege also raises eyebrows and questions. Or maybe it doesn’t if you are a BIPOC reading it. I just don’t know. I do know I struggled to like Stella as a person as she focused only on the inexplicable idea of how being near another Black person would jeopardize her secret, which then allowed her to treat them as bad or worse as anything she experienced as a child. I don’t understand it, and I definitely don’t like it or her for doing it.
Lastly, I find it very telling that Stella, as a white woman, is the only one of the four women to get married or remain married. Desiree marries someone who abuses her and leaves him fairly quickly in the novel. She finds her long-time love but never makes it official. Jude finds her one love but does not marry him for various reasons. Kennedy never finds the one. What does this say about the institution of marriage among Blacks versus whites? Is there something Ms. Bennett is saying about marriage in Black culture that I don’t understand?
The thing is that I most likely will never get satisfactory answers to my questions, and I think that is okay as well. Learning comes through exposure to new ideas and situations and asking questions about them. I may never understand why Stella does what she does or the level of fear and degradation Desiree and Jude feel, but by reading The Vanishing Half I know more than I did before. The questions the novel raises for me will make me seek out other novels written by Black authors or books about race, and I will continue to seek answers and listen to others’ experiences. As a white woman, that is the very least I can do.