The Vanishing Half: Love, Identity & Empathy
“The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Many years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?
Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.” – Goodreads
Brit Bennett’s newest work, The Vanishing Half, was my book for October. I was coming out of a bit of a reading slump and had decided to start a new reading challenge although the year is nearly at an end, and my first prompt was a book that was published in 2020. I finished the novel in October but held off writing down my thoughts until I went to my first virtual book club meeting to discuss it with others. It turned out that the novel divided the crowd a bit, with some really enjoying it and others wishing certain aspects of it were done differently to provide more depth. It was really interesting to hear other people’s thoughts and it did make me consider points that hadn’t occurred to me when I read it. But overall, I found myself being really drawn in by the novel, and not just because it was an easy read that was full of intrigue. For me, the magic of The Vanishing Half is how it explores the complexities of identity within a fundamentally racist, heteronormative and patriarchal society. There is so much I could talk about with regard to this, but these are the three key thoughts I had while reading the novel:
- Whewww chile, the COLOURISM
It is clear from the outset that colourism is a key theme in this novel. The establishment of the Vignes twins’ hometown of Mallard is steeped in it. The founder of the town was the mixed race son of a plantation owner(and the twins’ great-great-great grandfather). He wanted to build a “a town for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refuse to be treated like Negroes.” I know I refer to it often, but I wrote about the impact of colourism in my piece on The Bluest Eye – this hierarchy of colour within the Black community and this pathology that dark skin is to be equated with vice and undesirability. We see those same sentiments reflected in Mallard too, with lightness being considered as a “gift.” It is also these same sentiments that made Jude’s life a misery growing up there, where she was bullied and made fun of because of her dark skin (in some ways reminding me a little bit of Pecola).
However, we see the irony in the founder’s idea of this “third place,” created for light-skinned Black people who refuse to be treated like Negroes, when we read about the fate of the twins father – he was dragged out of his home and lynched by a group of white men. The cold reality is that the people of Mallard were still Black, no matter their efforts to distance themselves physically and biologically from that fact, and proximity to whiteness does not protect you from its evils.
- Can I empathise with Stella?
I really, really don’t know how to feel about Stella. Reading her story as I went through the novel had me feeling all sorts of emotions – from understanding to incredulity to disappointment. On some very basic level, I think I can understand her impulse to pass as white, especially given the historical context. The United States was (and still is) a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Even with the existence of classism, being white was definitely more advantageous than being Black. Stella thought passing would make her life easier, at least in the world of work, and once the lie started it took on a life of its own.
What really spun me – and what I found hard to reconcile – was the way Stella had to perpetuate anti-Blackness in order to keep her true identity private. She kicked up a fuss about a Black family (the Walkers) moving into her neighbourhood, inadvertently taught her daughter to use the N-word, but then when the Walkers move in Stella couldn’t help but become friends with Loretta, the wife and mother in the family. I don’t doubt that trauma played a role in Stella’s decision-making, or that she was terrified of what would happen to her if her truth was ever discovered, but the way she weaponised her pretend whiteness against Loretta‘s husband Reginald – telling her white friends that he looked at her funny, knowing full well that such an accusation could get him killed – will never sit right with me. She took her acting a little too far with that one, you know what I mean?
I have to say I am glad Jude caught up with her and she was forced to confront her past. If there is a lesson for Stella in here, I guess that it is this: you can’t outrun or ignore your Blackness, no matter how close you are to whiteness.
- Jude and Reese – my heart 💜
I don’t want to give too much of the novel away, but I do have to be honest and admit that my favourite aspect of this novel is the relationship between Jude and Reese. The treatment Jude was subjected to growing up in Mallard as a dark-skinned Black girl, how it dampened her joy, really saddened me and all I wanted was to see her win. So when she went to college and met Reese I was sitting in my chair screaming “YAAASSSSSSS!!!!!” Both characters are drawn together through a shared experience of being outside the ‘norms’ of their respective worlds: Jude growing up as a dark-skinned Black girl in Mallard and Reese being a trans man. I really appreciated Bennett’s inclusion of a trans character in this novel, Especially considering our society now where trance people are fighting for their right to live freely and safely. Reese’s journey is really eye-opening and I love that he found love and support in Jude.
When I bear all of the above in mind, I understand why the novel ended the way it did (no spoilers, don’t worry!) I found it a bit abrupt, but that is only because I was so invested in Jude and Reese that I wanted to see where they went in their lives and careers and their relationship – I wanted them to have allllll the things. But the ending is both symbolic and poignant, so I can’t really complain; I’ll just sit here and imagine Jude and Reese living their best lives together.
Overall, I really enjoyed the novel. After being in a bit of a reading slump, this book was perfect for getting me out of it: easy to read but still compelling and dealing with important issues with great care. I understand and appreciate some of the critique of the story, but for me it was unputdownable. Definitely recommend.
Have you read The Vanishing Half? What do you think? Leave a comment below!