The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
The novel The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett explores the phenomenon of “passing,” which is when a light-skinned black person “passes” for white. The novel begins by introducing us to a small town in Louisiana called Mallard whose inhabitants are all light-skinned blacks who pride themselves on being fair-skinned. They intermarry so as to keep their skin light. Nonetheless, the world still considers them to be black and, in mid-twentieth century America, they are subject to racism, restrictions, and much worse.
The novel focuses on a pair of twins, Desiree and Stella, descendants of the town’s founder. The book opens in 1968 when Desiree is spotted returning to Mallard after a long absence and we learn that 14 years prior, when they were 16, the twins disappeared from Mallard. We learn that they ran away to New Orleans and that, sometime into their stay there, Stella left, and Desiree has not seen or heard from her since.
Upon her return to Mallard in 1968, the townspeople note that Desiree has a child with her, a very dark-skinned child, and this is almost more notable than her return in a town where being light skinned is so valued. This child’s dark skin is the topic of much gossip, and will be a factor in how the town treats her.
I had a conversation with a friend recently about how, in today’s world, people are able to choose their gender (I’m not saying this is easy or without struggle) and he commented: what if people could also choose their race? In this book, that is the central issue. Can a light-skinned black person choose to “pass over” and live their life as white? And, if they do, what are the consequences? And what are the consequences of the racism endemic to our society that would cause a person to want to live their life in a lie?
This book looks deeply at those issues, and examines them from different sides, because we see how the light-skinned blacks are treated when they venture out of Mallard, and how the dark-skinned girl is treated in Mallard by the rest of the community. Bias runs deep. We also look at the impact of these choices on family bonds.
Years ago I taught Bennett’s first book, The Mothers, in my Hot Off the Press class, and it’s an excellent book. If you read and like The Vanishing Half, I recommend you read her first book, too. And if you discover The Vanishing Half the way so many readers are finding it these days, because it’s popular and highly recommended on BookTok/TikTok, then good for you – you made a good choice!
Finally, I’ll mention the book that first introduced me to the phenomenon of passing, which is Nella Larsen’s novel Passing. First published in 1929, the book takes place in Harlam and is about two black friends, one of whom is passing and is married to a white man. It’s a powerful and important book, so add that to your reading list as well!