Brit Bennett’s book, The Vanishing Half, is an exploration of family relations, of the flawed notions of colourism and their insidious and long-lasting effects on the human psyche, and of two sisters’ determination to carve out their lives in spectacularly different ways from their small farm town, Mallard. The book is above all, a story about family and the sometimes tenuous, but enduring links, that bind generations together.
In Desiree and Stella’s desire to live their lives beyond the confines of Mallard, a small fictional town in the American South we see their different characters grow and evolve to match the challenges that life outside of Mallard presents.
Mallard, founded by Alphonse Decuir, a freed slave and son of a white slave owner who wanted Mallard to be a town for people like him, those …”who never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes.” Born light-skinned, “His mother, rest her soul, had hated his lightness; when he was a boy, she’d shoved him under the sun, begging him to darken”. The author conveys Decuir’s desire to belong and for a place that was home as the overarching reason for the conception of Mallard, first as an idea, then as the place it was.
“Lightness, like anything inherited at great cost, was a lonely gift.”
The book opens with Desiree, one of the Vignes twin’s returns to Mallard after disappearing fourteen years prior. In that opening chapter, the author leaves the reader with no doubt of the views of Mallard residents towards dark-skinned black people. Desiree’s return, with her ‘blue-black’, ‘black as tar’ daughter to town is seen as outrageous and offensive to the townspeople’s sensibilities. Her reappearance disrupts the equilibrium of their small town. She is the pariah of the town, for she not only having left Mallard but also having gone and married a dark man – both things that no one in Mallard ever did. To them, the biggest travesty is not that the twins ran away from home at sixteen, or that Stella, the other twin ‘became white’, but that Desiree went and married the darkest man she could find.
Aphonse Decuir’s idea of Mallard is imagined with his grandchildren, generations after, fair-skinned, ‘like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream. A more perfect Negro. Each generation lighter than the one before’.
Desiree’s return to Mallard is to escape her abusive husband. Her return takes her back to the town where she first met the dark-skinned boy, Early Jones – the only boy who had ever piqued her interest because he was neither familiar nor as ‘safe as cousins’ as were the Mallard boys.
Meeting Early Jones again in Mallard is not a coincidence. He is a bounty hunter who has taken on a job from Sam – Desiree’s husband – to find Desiree. Their worlds collide again in this small town that never welcomed Early and his dark-skinned complexion years before and has made a pariah of Desiree and her dark-skinned daughter.
Desiree settles back to a simple life in Mallard, living with her mother and daughter and working a Lou’s Egg House, the local diner.
Stella, Desiree’s twin sister’s life takes a far different turn. Although the twins’ escape from Mallard was initiated by Desiree, the bolder of the two; driven by Desiree’s impatience with Mallard’s colour struck people and clamouring for a bigger city life far from the confines of Mallard’s small-town eyes, the reader gets the impression of Desiree as the instigator and Stella as the loyal sister and follower. Stella’s complicity in the twins’ disappearance from Mallard does not seem as calculated as Desiree’s. She is a spectator in the planning and even on the day they leave, she does not fight her sister with any convincing arguments about staying.
In New Orleans however, it is Stella that does the leaving. Severing ties with her sister in a note that simply states: Sorry, honey, but I’ve got to go my own way.
She carves her life out as a white woman, passing over or white-passing – passe blanc.
Hers is a materially full but equally empty life. Her life is upper middle class, with her white friends, and an arm’s length distance in all her relationships. This distance is meant to protect herself and her secret, for it was illegal in that time to pass as the race you were not born into. White passing was a threat to the white supremacist structures created by the Jim Crow laws and upholding racism in the country. In this context, Stella’s life is a daily performance of maintaining the charade.
In having to live as white, Stella also takes on the prejudices of her white friends, with one chapter describing her actions towards a black family that has recently moved into her mainly white neighbourhood. Here, the author evokes all the tropes of the racism faced by black home-buyers moving into white neighbourhoods but centres Stella, a black woman in all of it. For it is Stella who is most vociferous in her opinions against the black family moving in. This is to ensure she does not get caught out, have her secret revealed, for she learnt very early when she was still living as a black girl and testing the how far she could go with white-passing that other black people had an uncanny way of seeing past her white appearance and seeing her as a black person.
The author carefully balances the different narratives, telling the story from not only Desiree and Stella’s points of view, but also from Jude – Desiree’s daughter, and Kennedy, Stella’s daughter. The daughter’s lives are as polar opposite as their mother’s. Jude grows up in colourstruck Mallard, insulted and teased from her arrival, for her dark skin.
“By High School, the names no longer shocked her, but the loneliness did”
She leaves Mallard and heads to UCLA on an athletic scholarship – escaping the small town her mother had fled from a lifetime earlier.
Brit Bennet cleverly crafts the different lives, from Desiree’s rejection of Millard’s values to her sister’s complete embrace of the whiteness that Millard wanted. Jude’s life as a dark-skinned girl black girl in Millard is world’s apart from Kennedy’s, a white-passing mixed-raced girl.
Brit Bennett touches on numerous themes in this book and lends different voices to the story through different perspectives. From Desiree’s boldness and thwarted ambition to Stella’s own courage and loneliness; Jude’s lonely childhood imbues her with a certain self-awareness that is absent in Kennedy’s privileged white life. Desiree’s rejection of whiteness and the so-called privileges it can earn one stem from their father’s death – who was shot, twice, by white people who accused him of having written a flirtatious note to a white woman, even though he was illiterate. For her, the colour of her skin did not protect you from white people, who would just as quickly lynch you for being black, no matter how white you looked. Just like her father.
For Stella, her passing gives her access to places and people she would not have. She is employed as a secretary, a job she gets because she is mistaken as white. Her lightness is an advantage that she makes full use of. In her embrace of it, she also fully immerses herself in her new white world, and farther from her family and roots.
The Vanishing Half explores racism, colourism and class, melding the three but equally writing distinctly of each one and its distinct effects on the characters.