“The Vanishing Half,” by “The Mothers” author Brit Bennett, is this summer’s must-read novel, which tackles themes like racism, colorism and identity with ease and eloquence. It tells a generational story of identical twins Stella and Desiree Vignes and their daughters set between the 1950s and 1980s. “The Vanishing Half” largely focuses on the aftermath of their escape from their hometown, Mallard, Louisiana. After a year, they split apart and live very different lives; shy, studious Stella, with her “creamy” skin, hazel eyes and wavy hair, marries a white man and passes as a white woman, whereas free-spirited Desiree has a child with “the darkest man she could find.”
Desiree characterizes Mallard as “more of an idea than a place.” It is colorism embodied, built on the sugar cane fields where slaves used to tend. Even in the post-emancipation world, Mallard, a microcosm of society by and large, cannot escape its racist roots. Mallard was founded in 1848 by Alphonse Decuir, a light-skinned freedman who married a mixed-race woman so that his children would have fairer skin. Mallard’s residents followed suit, painstakingly enough so that 100 years later, there were natural blondes and redheads. Despite these efforts, they “would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes.”
Colorism is deeply internalized in Mallard’s citizens. For example, women avoid coffee and chocolate during pregnancy for fear that their children might “come out dark.” The purposefully problematic language Bennett uses to describe skin color further proves their inherent prejudices: Desiree’s skin tone is described as “the color of barely wet sand”; the gradual lightening of Mallardites is like a “cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream”; when working as a tenant farmer, Desiree’s boyfriend, Early Jones, has skin that “caramelized into deep brown” under the sun. Such descriptions, especially when food-related, fetishize dark skin and objectify those that have it.
In Mallard, no one “marrie[s] dark” because, according to the Vignes twins’ mother, darker-skinned spouses would grow to resent their partners for having what they could never attain. Desiree’s husband, Sam Winston, proves her mother right the first time he hits her. She was 24. As the abuse continues, Desiree finds herself making excuses for the man she loves. At first, she is charmed by his “subtle gallantry,” and his job as a prosecutor was more than enough to provide for her and their daughter, Jude.
Further, although they have few similarities in appearance, they can still empathize with each other’s experiences with racism. Despite growing up in the Northeast, where racism was less overt than in the South, white professors would ignore Sam in class and girls did not want to be seen with him in public. As for Desiree, because her mother was Black, there were very few opportunities for her to make money. Desiree and her sister had to drop out of school at 16 to help the family, washing white people’s clothes.
Desiree had also witnessed her father’s lynching at a young age. Even in Mallard, being Black “meant that white men could kill you for refusing to die.” I appreciated the way Desiree recalls this experience, as well as the assassinations of MLK and JFK Jr., postulating that important men are killed to make a point — after which they become martyrs. Unimportant men are only killed to emphasize their insignificance.
Despite her childhood trauma and distaste of the town, when Desiree finally comes to terms with the fact that Sam would kill her someday, she does the unexpected: She returns to Mallard, albeit with worries that her mother will turn them away, disgusted by her daughter’s “blue black” skin tone. Instead, her mother tries and fails to lighten her granddaughter’s complexion.
Being the darkest girl in Mallard causes problems for Jude at school. She is relentlessly bullied by a boy, whose attraction to her later becomes obvious when they frequently make out — only at night, though, when no one can see them together. However, like Stella, Jude is stoic and intelligent. Her hard work earns her an athletic scholarship to UCLA, where she meets Reese, a pretty boy who openly loves Jude in a way she has trouble believing is true.
Stella, because she passes as white, becomes a victim of her own internalized racism, which leads her to antagonize others. She is curt with other Black people, whom she fears will discover her secret, threatening the new life her lies have brought her. When a Black family moves to her upper middle-class neighborhood in Brentwood, Los Angeles, quiet Stella Vignes surprises everyone by vehemently objecting to it. When they do move in, she eventually warms up to the mother, Loretta Walker. However, she keeps their friendship under wraps and does not discourage her neighbors from breaking the Walkers’ windows or leaving feces at their door. Unfortunately, the Brentwood wives’ gossip about her association with Loretta makes Stella paranoid that they will find out who she really is. She forbids her daughter, Kennedy, from playing with Loretta’s daughter Cindy; Stella’s daughter later calls Cindy a racial slur.
When the Walkers move away, Stella falls into a depression that she ameliorates by pursuing her dream of going to college. She earns her G.E.D., obtains a bachelor’s degree from Loyola Marymount University and becomes an associate professor of statistics at Santa Monica College. Although her husband, Blake Sanders, had suggested that she take classes to get her mind off the Walkers’ absence, he later regrets it, saying, “I thought you’d, I don’t know, take a flower arranging class or something.”
Desiree’s boyfriend, Reese, also faces issues due to his gender, although not in the form of sexism. He, too, has a secret — he is actually trans, which was especially stigmatized at the time. Both he and Stella must wrestle with the difficulty of freeing themselves from the constraints of their birth identity by transforming, in one way or another, into someone they are safer or more comfortable being.
Identity comes into play with the other characters as well, particularly those with a knack for deceiving or performing. Stella’s life, as we know, is literally a lie. Her daughter, Kennedy, is comfortable lying as well, and frequently pretends to be someone else in the form of acting. Reese’s friend Barry reinvents himself at night as his drag queen alter ego, Bianca. Jude tries to whiten her skin, to no avail. While the intent of these characters differ, their transformations (or lack thereof) tie their various subplots together and complement what “The Vanishing Half” has to say about the oppressive natures of racial and gender identity, as well as the lengths people go to escape them.
Stella, “the vanishing half” of her and Desiree’s duo, returns to Mallard — albeit for a day — at long last, pressured by her daughter and Jude, who serendipitously met Stella and Kennedy while she was a student at UCLA. By the end of the novel Desiree finally accepts that she and her sister have gone down very different paths and that Stella’s years of pretending have fully changed her into someone new. She built a supposedly better life for herself at the dear cost of losing her family ties.
In sum, “The Vanishing Half” is a substantial, moving story about how people experience and cope with racial and gender identity. Brit Bennett weaves the four women’s perspectives in an effortless and fluid way that underscores the connections between them. I would not be surprised if “The Vanishing Half” becomes a standard high school literature requirement in the future.