THE VANISHING HALF
By Brit Bennett
Brit Bennett’s new novel, “The Vanishing Half,” grapples with that American racial chimera known as passing for white. Bennett asks: What is the cost, to an individual and to a community, of the passing person’s estrangement from family, friends, culture and identity — all sacrificed to maintain an assumed whiteness? What toll might such a decision take on those left behind in blackness? With great ambition, Bennett explores these questions through 20 years in the lives of twin sisters, Desiree and Stella Vignes, one of whom chooses to pass while the other does not.
In 1954, Desiree and Stella disappear from their home in tiny Mallard, La. Sixteen years old and already pressed into domestic service for a white family, the girls run away to New Orleans. Fourteen years later, Desiree returns home just as suddenly as she left, sans Stella but with a dark-skinned child in tow. News spreads fast, but the truth is more banal, and more heartbreaking, than the townspeople’s gossipy suppositions: The child is Desiree’s daughter, Jude, the product of an abusive marriage to a man in Washington, D.C.
Mallard is at once repulsed and intrigued by this little girl, described as “blueblack” — “like she flown direct from Africa.” People in the town live by a strict color code: All are descendants of the mixed-race light-skinned man who founded the place “for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes.” In Mallard, “nobody married dark.”
As Desiree settles back into her childhood home, she is haunted anew by her twin sister’s absence. Stella vanished from the girls’ New Orleans apartment leaving nothing but a note: “Sorry, honey, but I’ve got to go my own way.” In Mallard, Desiree searches for Stella with the help of a rekindled old flame, a bounty hunter named Early Jones. Curiously, Stella is untraceable, despite Early’s detective skills.
In due time, we discover that by 1968 Stella — now Stella Sanders — is living as a white woman in Brentwood, Calif., married to a wealthy white man with whom she’s had a daughter named Kennedy. We meet Stella on the precipice of crisis: A black family is poised to move into all-white Brentwood. “Would they see her for what she was?” Stella wonders. “Or rather, what she wasn’t?”
To grasp the full measure of Stella’s position, we must consider the concept of hypodescent, colloquially known as the “one-drop rule.” This codification of racial identity stipulated that people possessing any African or African-American blood were black, regardless of appearance or parentage. The “one-drop rule” is foundational to all legislation around segregation in America, from the Jim Crow South to the de facto segregation of the North. A Louisiana court upheld the law as recently as 1985. Hypodescent continues to inform our understanding of who is black and who isn’t, and who has the right to the privileges of whiteness. And with it came the insidious notion that a passing person has acted fraudulently in order to partake in freedoms she should not have.
The subject of passing has an impressive literary legacy. In 1929, the Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen explored it in her novel “Passing”; her light-skinned female central characters come to no good end, done in by racism and good old-fashioned patriarchy. Bennett’s novel, written some 90 years later, has a third-wave feminist bent and steers clear of old narratives about biracial women — chief among them that of the “tragic mulatta,” which is just what it sounds like. Desiree flees her violent husband, falls in love with Early but never marries him because, well, she doesn’t want to. Stella, after many years as a dutiful housewife, discovers a love of statistics — and feminism — and pursues degrees in mathematics despite her husband’s whiny disapproval.
In Stella, Bennett balances the literary demands of dynamic characterization with the historical and social realities of her subject matter. Stella is hard to like: Her choice to cut herself off from blackness is a psychic suicide that leaves her empty, lacking in empathy and bigoted. When she discovers Kennedy playing with the newly arrived black neighbor’s child, she rushes across the street and snatches her daughter away “because we don’t play with niggers.”
In stark contrast, Desiree is left to contend with a slew of black women’s burdens: She works long hours for little pay at Mallard’s only diner; she cares for her mother, who eventually develops Alzheimer’s disease; she loses Jude to brighter prospects thousands of miles away, as did so many black Southern mothers whose children decamped for the North and West. Despite these hardships, Desiree is a woman with agency and a clear sense of the compromises she’s made to ensure her well-being: “She’d made a sort of life for herself here, hadn’t she? … No surprises, no sudden anger, no man holding her one moment, then hitting her the next. Now life was steady.”
The novel, Bennett’s first after her much admired debut, “The Mothers,” might well have stayed with these women in whom there is such depth, possibility and dramatic propulsion. Instead, it switches focus to their daughters and in so doing loses vitality. After graduating from high school, Jude arrives in Los Angeles on a track scholarship to U.C.L.A. A gig with a catering company takes her to a party in Brentwood, where she serves her cousin Kennedy (unbeknown to either at the time) and catches a fleeting glimpse of Stella. The sighting vexes her until she meets Kennedy again a few years later, when, somewhat improbably, she attends a small theater production in which Kennedy happens to have a role. Their relationship moves forward in fits and starts, facilitated by plot convolutions that bring them into proximity.
Jude is obsessed with her vanished aunt and dazzled by Kennedy, who treats her with breezy disdain. But it seems Jude’s real concerns are elsewhere — money problems, her medical school applications, her boyfriend and his challenges as a transgender man in the 1970s and ’80s. Within the realm of Jude’s experience, her long lost Aunt Stella is family lore, a shadow. When Jude wonders, “How could she leave the people who still longed for her, years later, and never even look back?” we get the sense that the question belongs to Desiree, not Jude, however much the novel labors to force the weight of the past onto her young shoulders.
In Kennedy’s case, the stakes are more straightforward. Stella’s choices create a void where the past ought to be. Kennedy’s relationship with her is strained. In a scene late in the novel, Kennedy confronts Stella with evidence of her true identity, but Stella is impassive, as always. “She just expected her mother to feel something. … Kennedy deserved that, didn’t she? One moment of honesty.”
These inspired moments aside, as a character Kennedy is a bit flat, the spoiled rich white girl straight out of central casting, self-pitying and little altered by the events of her life. Toward the end of the novel, sexual role-play with a black lover leads Kennedy to recall the childhood incident in which she, like her mother, called her black Brentwood playmate the N-word. “Saying the word to him was different than saying it to Cindy. Wasn’t it?” Well, no, but Kennedy doesn’t dwell on this long. It isn’t a miraculous evolution that’s wanting, but a more thorough examination of Kennedy’s stagnation. The novel fails to imagine meaningful story lines or compelling links between the young women and their mothers’ burdens. As a result, their sections struggle to find momentum and weight.
Despite these shortcomings, “The Vanishing Half” is a brave foray into vast and difficult terrain. It is about racial identity, of course, and three generations of mother-daughter relationships. It is also about a particularly American existential conflict — the tension between personal freedom and responsibility to a community. The novel raises thorny questions about the cost of blackness. The answers are complicated: Desiree and her daughter emerge intact. Desiree has a sense of belonging to a place and a people, and a fully developed identity. Certainly, Stella fares better by every possible socioeconomic measure, but she and Kennedy are shipwrecked, bobbing in open water, even if their life rafts are bejeweled. It would seem that it isn’t quite possible to stop being black in America, no matter how hard you try.
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