Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half is the latest addition to a long list of books exploring racial passing as a social experiment. Intentionally or not, Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella, Passing springs to mind as the two main characters go on to live very different lives after one of them crosses the colour line.
Racial passing – the act of relinquishing one’s racial identity for another ‘perceived’ one – has a long history in the colonised Americas, although it is generally accepted as an inherently US question. Tied to the structural racism born of the institution of slavery, passing has meant many things for African-Americans: access to freedom, civil rights, job opportunities and more recently, a rejection of blackness.
Despite its tragic consequences, passing continues to fuel our imagination both as a challenge to the concept of race as a biological truth and as a supposed tool for treachery and even revenge.
The Vanishing Half begins in 1968 when Desiree Vignes returns to her hometown of Mallard with her eight year-old daughter Jude, 14 years after she and her twin sister, Stella, had run away. There are no words of Stella.
Mallard is a very special town. Founded by a community of light-skinned black people, Mallard is a haven for those who couldn’t be treated as whites but refused to be treated as their darker-skinned counterparts. In Mallard, fairness – and any social advantages it has to offer – is paramount.
But fair is not white. Stella and Desiree are soon traumatised by the violent death of their father whose light skin could not save against the wrath of the white men who lynched him not once but twice. The prospects of a life spent serving as maids in wealthy white households – the undignified toil of their own mother – seems unacceptable. The sisters have dreams of their own. Desiree loves the spotlight, Stella wants an education.
So one night, they disappear without leaving a trace to start a new life in New Orleans. In the vibrant city, the stark contrast between Stella and Desiree leads to a dramatic betrayal.
Stella who passes as white to work as a secretary is also involved with her boss. When he asks her in marriage, she doesn’t hesitate. It is her big break out of a life of struggle. Stella leaves everything behind once again without a word of goodbye for her sister.
Serendipitously, both Stella’s and Desiree’s daughter meet in California years after the events of News Orleans. Jude, Desiree’s daughter, is as dark as Kennedy, Stella’s daughter, is white. Jude had to grow up in Mallard where her skin colour made her an outcast while Kennedy enjoyed a life of privilege bought at the steep price of her mother’s secret. A secret Jude viciously spills in a moment of anger after she accidentally uncovers Kennedy’s mother’s true identity – Stella is the long lost aunt whose absence haunted her childhood.
Kennedy, a struggling actress, begins a journey of self-discovery only partially appeased by her mother’s admission of who she once was. Afraid her family could further upend the life that she’s built, Stella travels to Mallard and pleads for their discretion before vanishing again in the morning light.
The Vanishing Half doesn’t offer a happy ending, nor a morally satisfying resolution or even an exploration of Stella’s motivations. Bennett draws a parallel between lives on both sides of the racial line – the inherent fragility of Stella’s house of cards, Desiree’s lasting trauma, the destructive effects of colorism in the black community and the profound instability that comes with not owning your origin story.
With The Vanishing Half, Bennett writes intricacy with the efficacy of a well-oiled machine and lets the unassuming Stella steal the show. We want to spend more time with her, unravel the psychology of someone able to shut down parts of their life while maintaining a lie for decades on end.
Unfortunately Bennett lends little flexibility to her characters, restricting any potential growth to their assigned roles. In this machinery, every cog falls into place when and where they should.
The one-drop rule, colourism and the high stakes of racial passing
Western societies were built on a background of white supremacy that feeds the structural racism people of colour continue to experience to this day. In a world where racial hierarchies favour or disfavour you based on your perceived traits, passing can be liberating as much as it is an exile. Often chosen, sometimes imposed, it always alienates those who leave family and culture behind.
In the US the one-drop rule still actively drives how people classify and view themselves as if nature truly trumped culture. By that standard, does Kennedy’s lineage make her less white when it is the only identity she’s built and the only way she knows how to move into the world?
The difference between Stella and her daughter is that one acquired whiteness when the other one was born into it. But to pose the question, it is crucial to accept whiteness as the social construct that it is – a truth that society at large seems unable to contend with still. This cognitive dissonance is why passing continues to be the fascinating topic that it is.
It’s an unresolved mystery because we let it be so. Confronting it is hard and perhards unforgiving.
The Vanishing Half comes particularly short in letting the reader connect with what should be Stella’s deepest fear – being outed in a country where anti-miscegenation laws were officially enforced until 1967. If passing meant escaping the woes segregation and discrimination, ‘tricking’ and enjoying the fruits of a society built to exclude people of colour could also be a death sentence.
Today the high value of passing has lost its luster. It is less a matter of survival than maybe a tactical manoeuvre for more economic opportunities in a job market still very much geared to benefit white and light skinned people.
A glaring example in recent memory is how Mariah Carey was ‘white-coded’ for years to help extend her reach beyond the urban market. With her fame more solidly established (and once she could escape her destructive relationship with Tommy Mottola) Carey went back to her roots. But to many, the belief that Carey is white still holds true. On the other hand she has been accused of rejecting her blackness, which Carey vehemently denied. So where is the truth?
Lately and in a strange reversal of order, the apparent popularity of racial ambiguity propelled to the fore by the Kardashian sisters has turned the one-drop rule into a desirable exoticism playing right into the colourism communities of colour have yet to tackle. But where white women are caught ‘blackfishing’, there are no real consequences befalling them when they decide to resume a privileged life where they act and look white – a luxury people of colour do not have.
Passing has been framed as a cheat, as taking advantage of what was never meant for you. In the zero sum game that is race, passing only blurs the colour line between the haves and have-nots, the worthy and the unworthy where there should be no line at all.
Cover photo © Brit Bennett