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When Your Reflection Resists

Brit Bennett’s, The Vanishing Half, was an eloquently written novel about twin sisters, Desiree and Stella. Stella was satisfied with her studies and happy with her simple life versus Desiree who was torn up inside and would never be happy cleaning toilets for white people. Both girls had to live with a mother, Adele, who accepted things were just as they were. To Adele, this was simply the way of the world. This plot thrust the door open for the twins to migrate into two starkly different lives.

There were many themes distributed throughout the book, some more obvious than others. White standard of beauty, the subject of passing, transgender acceptance, and colorism were the ones that stood out the most. It made me question what striving for better actually looked like in the year 2021. I know the book’s setting began in the 1960’s but are people still passing today? Do people even want to pass in today’s time especially during all the social and civil unrest in America? I couldn’t help but wonder.

Mallard, a fictional town where the girls grew up, was represented by invisibility. It was a town that couldn’t be located on a map and when any character mentioned the place no one ever believed it even existed. I questioned if this was the author’s way to suggest how black people are often invisible in housing projects or slums and ghettos where only they know the inner workings of their communities. In those spaces, black people are invisible to the rest of the world unless something tragic happens. Only then are events considered news worthy. I felt this way when reading about the strange town of Mallard. Assuming my observation isn’t too farfetched; Britt Bennett effortlessly provided her white readers a scope to view a portion of black culture they would not have had insight to otherwise.

Brit Bennett attacked colorism by juxtaposing a mother and daughter in a community where the mother’s color was acceptable and the daughters the opposite. However, this didn’t come from outside racial borders but inside it. Jude, Desiree’s daughter, symbolized the COLOR in colorism. She was one of the darkest characters, “blue black” as Lou described her in the book. He just couldn’t “see how nothing that black could have come outta Desiree… I never seen a child that black before,” Lou exclaimed. This reminded me of the way black people look at a baby’s ear right after birth and say, “oh he/she gonna be dark. You can tell by their ears.” This is one of the ways colorism shows up in African American communities at the onset of BIRTH. It is residual from slavery when light skinned slaves were treated better than the dark ones.

The author created Jude as submissive and accommodating to her transgendered boyfriend until he suggested she not look into her Aunt Stella’s disappearance any longer. That was a pivotal moment for me. Did Brit Bennett intentionally write Jude’s character the way I interpreted it? Did Jude’s docile and soft spoken personality signify the way dark people hoped to go unnoticed but knowing it’s an impossible feat? If I speak softer or less harsh would I not be seen as black and angry? Struggling with these questions, I began to wish Brit Bennett wrote Jude’s character as the one who rose to most beautiful, most outstanding, most remarkable and most memorable. It made me look at my own life as a dark-skinned black woman who recognize racism from outside my race and colorism within it. I quickly thought back to the day in the late 80’s when my family moved to Arizona and black people teased me as the “black chicken-head from Chicago.” This was during the same time some white guys sprayed me with vinegar from their super-soaker and yelled out to me, “nigger go home!” I wished those people only saw me as a person and not a color. I wished to go unnoticed.

The other sister, Stella, chose a completely different path. She wanted to denounce her blackness altogether. She wanted to grasps all the things her extremely light skin could afford. She had no desire to remain in the weird town of Mallard or any of its adjoining black spaces. What Stella got in return was a connection to a group of people she couldn’t relate to and disconnected from the culture she understood the most. Britt Bennett showed her readers the cost Stella paid to be INCLUDED in a space not meant for black people. Her husband never understood why “Stella wouldn’t even hire colored help for the house, she claimed Mexicans worked harder” . . . or why “she averted her gaze when an old Negro woman shuffled past on the sidewalk.” It wasn’t because Stella hated black people. It was because she was a black person and was terrified to be found out. Ms. Bennett’s poetic descriptions of Stella’s close encounters with blackness gave me chills. It’s not often I can place myself in exact situations and wonder how’d I react. I was introduced to the term “passing” in college when we were instructed to read Nella Larsen’s book “Passing.” Britt Bennett tackled similar themes as Larsen of not belonging to any group once you pass and longing to belong to some group at the same time. The idea of yearning to have friends but fearing being found out to the point it shakes you to the core. Deciding to love a person because of the life they can give you and not so much being in love with them as a person. I guess you could say it’s similar to a gold-digger marrying for money. Britt Bennett prose was impeccable to me.

I read another review that stated the author left things to wonder about and was left with many unanswered question. I disagree. I never intended to learn everything about black culture, passing or colorism from one particular author, in one novel. Britt Bennett had a story to tell and delivered it. If you’re looking to touch the surface of any of the topics the author undertook, The Vanishing Half will not leave you empty-handed. It is a carefully crafted story about sensitive issues told with beauty and grace. I would surely recommend reading it or buying into the audiobook.

Happy Reading

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