Monday, July 27, 2020

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

I want to talk to you today about a 2020 novel by Brit Bennett entitled, The Vanishing Half. It is the story of twin girls who run away from a small town when they are sixteen, and only one of them returns fourteen years later; the vanishing half, Stella, is missed and searched for by Desiree, the twin who returned.

The small town from which they run is named Mallard.

It was a strange town.

Mallard, named after the ring-necked ducks living in the rice fields and marshes. A town that like any other, was more idea than place. The idea arrived to Alphonse Decuir in 1848, as he stood in the sugarcane fields he’s inherited from the father who’d once owned him. The father now dead, the now-freed son wished to build something on those acres of land that would last for centuries to come. A town for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes. 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. Maybe that’s what made him dream of the town. Lightness, like anything inherited at great cost, was a lonely gift. He’d married a mulatto even lighter than Himself. She was pregnant then with their first child, and he imagined his children’s children’s children, lighter still, like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream. A more perfect Negro,. Each generation lighter than the one before. 

Like Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Bennett takes on questions of race, gender and identity.

It is Desiree who is the restless one and feels compelled to escape the small town, but since the twins are inseparable, Stella agrees to leave with her, and it is Stella who does not return.  Their mother and other town-folk are sure they will return soon. “They’d run out of money and gall and come sniffling back to their mother’s porch. But they never retuned again. Instead, after a year, the twins scattered, their lives splitting evenly as their shared egg. Stella became white and Desiree married the darkest man she could find.”

Although Stella is bright and has many skills, when she applies for office jobs and honestly identifies herself as Negro, she is turned away. But when she allows employers to see her as white, she is hired. “At work, Stella became Miss Vignes, or, as Desiree called her, White Stella.

Bennett spends a lot of time describing the many shades of color of negroes, from clabber white to blue black. Ironically, Stella doesn’t really decide to pass for white, she simply lets others see her as they choose.

But what had changed about her? Nothing, really. She hadn’t adopted a disguise or even a new name. She’s walked in a colored girl and left a white one. She had become white only because everyone thought she was.

But then Stella begins to date a man from her office, and eventually they marry. Of course she cannot let her husband find out; now she must disappear completely into her new white life. She has a daughter, and it is the daughter who eventually discovers Stella’s secret and despises her for it. 

Because of a photograph of the twin sisters that Stella’s daughter discovers, Stella is finally forced to acknowledge her true history. In order to find her estranged daughter, Kennedy,  she returns to her hometown and to Desiree. “Like leaving, the hardest part of retuning was deciding to.”

I have focused primarily on questions of color and race, but this is also the story of a family, from the 1950s to the 1990 and all the political turmoil of those times, the assassinations of the Kennedys and of Martin Luther King. Author Bennett mainly simply observes and describes, but the descriptions make clear where her allegiances are. 

I think this is a wonderful, important and insightful novel. It sent me scurrying back to Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. I hope I have not given away too much of the plot, since this is partly a kind of mystery story along with its social commentary. 

I intend to go back to Bennett’ earlier novel, The Mothers. She writes with great heart and wisdom.

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