Brit Bennett's New Novel Explores the Difficult History of 'Racial Passing'

In Depth
Brit Bennett's New Novel Explores the Difficult History of 'Racial Passing'
Photo: (Riverhead Books)

From Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing to Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, the act of racial passing has long fascinated the literary world. Born of a culture that values whiteness over blackness and which uses violence to reinforce this order, the literature that examines racial passing has tragedy at its core: forsaken identity, exclusion, and the psychological toll of performing a new identity. Brit Bennett’s captivating second novel, The Vanishing Half, joins the canon of passing literature by positing what might happen if the person passing doesn’t meet a tragic end, but lives.

Desiree and Stella Vignes are twins born in 1960s Louisiana. They live in the fictional town of Mallard, which “had always been more of an idea than a place.” Mallard is a town comprised of light-skinned black people, “no swarthier than a Greek,” a town so small that it doesn’t even exist on a map. The twins are inseparable until their move to New Orleans, where Stella splinters off to live life as a white woman, disappearing completely from Desiree’s life and forging her own. For Stella, living with the impact of her decision means that her identity, which has always been inextricably attached to that of her sister’s, is fractured.

Stella’s departure is in part the result of bearing witness to her father’s lynching, “at home while his twin girls watched through a crack in the closet door, clamped over each other’s mouths until their palms misted with spit.” In this moment, Stella and Desiree’s twin-ship encounters its first fissure. “Something shifted between them in that moment,” Bennett writes. “Before, Stella seemed as predictable as a reflection. But in the closet, for the first time ever, Desiree hadn’t known what her sister might do.”

Stella’s life as a white woman takes on a very different trajectory than that of her sister; she marries a wealthy white man, moves to Los Angeles, and has a daughter, Kennedy, who also lives her life as a white woman, because she knows nothing else. Desiree’s return to Mallard, with a bruise on her neck from an abusive partner and a “blueblack” daughter named Jude, opens the novel, and Bennett traces the twins’ different paths through flashbacks and jumps in time. Mallard’s reputation as a town of light-skinned black people, most of whom intermarried for decades to maintain the lightness of their complexion, makes life in Mallard difficult for Jude. Eventually, Jude decamps to California, carrying the weight of her mother’s burden on her shoulders, and finds her cousin, Kennedy, by chance rather than design.

Through Stella and Desiree’s daughters, Bennett shows how easily inherited family secrets can become psychic trauma. For Jude and Kennedy, cousins on very different paths, the unanswered question of what happened to their mother’s missing half haunts them throughout the novel. The book’s focus is primarily on Stella, whose bifurcated identity lends her an air of inscrutable mystery and sadness that neither her daughter nor her husband can truly understand. While the other characters’ journeys are interesting in their own right, Stella’s story is the heart of the narrative—her absence leaves a void in the Vignes women’s lives that they are trying ceaselessly to fulfill.

Passing is a form of shapeshifting, assuming another identity that is completely outside of your own, for the chance at a better life and a different experience, and Bennett fully explores the psychological burden through Stella, who spends the duration of the book simmering with inarticulable anger. When a black family moves into her all-white suburb in Los Angeles, Stella is the most vocal about keeping them out, but eventually befriends the wife, Loretta. In the relatively safe space of Loretta’s home and friendship, Stella lets down her guard, basking in the warmth of a kinship that eventually curdles, in part due to a calculated effort on her part to end the friendship before she’s found out. For Stella, whiteness is a carefully constructed facade that threatens to collapse at any moment.

Bennett is careful not to paint Stella’s decision an act of deception, but deftly illustrates how two different women who look the same can lead very different lives. While Stella enjoys the privileges that whiteness affords, Desiree moves back to Mallard, works in the local diner, and serves as the sole caretaker for her mother, who eventually succumbs to Alzheimer’s. Stella misses what she left behind, but her successful deception means that she can never go back. Bennett doesn’t linger too much on the why, focusing instead on the internal strife caused by Stella’s decision. Her writing, which is engaging and deft, moves the story forward towards a conclusion that feels inevitable and a little obvious, but plays out quietly. Bennett lets the story she’s written speak for itself.

Like Bennett’s debut, The Mothers, which tells the tale of an unwanted pregnancy narrated by a Greek chorus of church women, The Vanishing Half feels a bit like a classical myth. Mallard, a fictional town, shares similarities with other small towns like East Jackson, Ohio, where a small community of black people who could very easily pass for white maintain claims to their blackness. The long shadow of the “one-drop rule,” which considered anyone with a drop of African blood to be black, still lingers in these spaces. Secrets abound in any family, but identity is taken at face value. In Bennett’s telling, passing isn’t an act of bravery, but a choice made because there is no other option.

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