A discussion on Brit Bennett's 'The Vanishing Half'
The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett’s lauded sophomore novel, celebrated its first birthday this spring but it already feels like a timeless classic. All the praise and discussion it has accumulated since its release has been beyond valid. It is the kind of fiction generations to come will continue to study and write book reports on. Merely reading and containing it within yourself won’t feel enough. The novel inherently elicits us to read, reassess, share, and have conversations with others. It gives us a lot to think and ponder over.
Bennett spent five years of writing, editing, and several re-writes to arrive at the novel’s final form. The novel was finally published widely in June 2020. In the backdrop of this book’s release was a time where Black lives were momentarily mattering again, as protest matches ensued following the state-sanctioned deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The book, which among its labyrinthine lines of thought, takes two Black American women as its center of gravity from which we see how their environment, and the hostile histories that shaped it, take them on separate journeys through their lives.
The Vanishing Half is a historical fiction and a multi-generational family saga that begins in the author’s invented town of Mallard, Louisiana set in the 1960s. The logic of the town, more of an idea than a real town as the author describes, is a community of light-skinned black people who never marry ‘dark’ in hopes of ultimately becoming as light as their white counterparts. Though it is a place of Bennett's invention, it is actually informed by hearsay she received from her own mother’s account of a place she heard of with a similar logic in the south. The aforementioned central women of the story are the twins Desiree and Stella. They witness the brutal and violent lynching of their father at a very young age in the hands of racist thugs and as they reach puberty they leave this idea of a town for new lives elsewhere. Some years after leaving their hometown behind, Stella, described as the more introspective and reserved twin, tries her luck and applies for a clerical job available to white people only. She does this knowing the possibility of being mistaken for white could work in her favour. And so, as it turns out, the white employers accept her as such and just as easily opened the position for her. This becomes not only a stepping stone but an entire leap into another life for Stella. It becomes a steady path of self-negation and denial brought on by internalized and implicit self-loathing. She leaves her sister behind without any notice and starts off this new life as an upper-middle-class white woman.
Though the twins came from an environment devoted to genetically engineering their own population towards an ideal, an ideal of whiteness, this didn’t save their father from his own murder. The fact of this, and the strive for fairer complexion brought on by the complexities of colourism which continues to plague many communities, not just in the black diaspora, only reinforces the aspiration for racial hierarchy as futile at best. The supposed freedom that comes from aligning with a social cache is by and large a seductive fallacy. But the damaging chokehold of a culture and history that brings on the need for pursuing this very freedom is just as cogent in the mind. The word ‘freedom’ is applied here in the form that contains within it, a kind of comforting love, acceptance, and belonging that makes life for the most part, livable.
Stella’s trauma from witnessing her father fall victim to their race isn’t lost on her impetus for transgressing. It is the very material implication of racial violence and its cumulative trauma. It is one that psychically kills the self as well as family. Throughout the book, we see how this plays out and many interwoven narratives that spider out of these twins’ stories. In the following discussion exchange, our contributors, Ruby Chijioke-Nwauche and Emmanualla Ololo sort through Bennett’s ambitiously accomplished novel and some of the questions it raises through its cast of characters and their intertwining narratives. Chijioke-Nwauche and Ololo who are from the African diaspora also use the text as a departure for relating personally to some of these thematic questions Bennett culls up.
I finished The Vanishing Half with a lot of thoughts swirling in my mind. In the novel, the protagonist Desiree Vigness returns to her hometown, Mallard, accompanied by her daughter Jude. In Mallard preferential treatment is given to people of fairer complexion, something that proves problematic for Jude who is “blue-black…like she flew directly from Africa”. This is one of the first and most prominent instances of hypervisibility in the novel. Isis H. Settles, Nicole T. Buchanan, and Kristie Dotson describe hypervisibility as “scrutiny based on perceived difference, which is usually (mis)interpreted as deviance, and is the result of an individual being recognized for their ‘otherness’ or deviation from the norm”. I would like to use this definition to guide the discussion and to illustrate that in her work Bennet highlights the ways in which hypervisibility relates to identity. I’d like to begin our discussion by looking at the issue of hypervisibility as it relates to issues of identity.
In the novel, Jude’s skin becomes a statement in and of itself, one that influences her ability to create herself, a luxury that other characters, such as Stella and Kennedy, are given. At a point, Kennedy herself admits that her blonde hair and blue eyes have allowed for mediocrity, as well as ambivalence. On the other hand, Jude is forced to quickly mature from a young age while simultaneously being restricted by expectations put on her by others.
Moreover, Jude’s dark complexion alienates her and makes her the object of bullying by other children, who likened her to a “cockroach”. Her skin is demonized and othered so much that she begins to believe that love is something she might only be ‘lucky’ to experience in her life. Accordingly, when she meets and eventually begins a romantic relationship with Reese, she constantly finds herself wondering what he sees in her, brushing off his compliments, and wondering if he loves her despite her skin rather than because of it.
The idea of Mallard and its treatment of Jude follows her even when she manages to escape into the real world. “Manages”, because Jude seems to lack the passion for self-exploration. By chance, she discovers that she is an excellent sprinter, and uses this talent to get as far away as possible from Mallard. But even in LA, Jude is not completely at peace with herself. On one occasion when she and Reese visit the beach, she refuses to dress down in order to properly enjoy the environment, for fear of drawing attention to herself. Again by chance, or rather by her association with Reese, she decides to take an anatomy class, realizing that this is an area of interest to her, setting her on the path to become a doctor. The aforementioned examples display how Jude lacks agency and rather acts upon personal circumstances or in reaction to others within her community.
This connects to the notion of hypervisibility, as it interferes with Jude’s ability to self-create due to identities that have already been prescribed to her based on preconceived notions that come with dark skin. An example of such preconceptions includes dark skin being associated with mediocrity and stupidity. For this reason, in the final pages of the novel when Jude returns home for her grandmother’s funeral the townspeople are eager to get a glimpse of “that dark girl”, doubting reports of her having made something of herself. Jude refuses to award them the satisfaction that comes with her being a spectacle, allowing and solidifying her ability to exist as simply human, and without the burden of their expectations and judgment. Rather, she escapes to the river with her ‘light’ lover who loves her not despite, but because of it all.
I’m sure that like myself you have a lot to say about how the novel discusses visibility in connection to identity and colourism, I’m looking forward to reading your response.
The theme of hypervisibility and how it pertains to issues of colourism and identity in relation to Jude is a compelling place to start Ruby. You’re right, I do have a lot to say about these topics. The hyper-visibility of Jude’s body and the scrutinizing gazes it receives in Mallard plays substantially into the ways in which she interprets being perceived while in LA.
The experience of marginalization in Mallard due to her skin tone instills in Jude a Mallardist gaze. She subconsciously internalizes scrutiny of her body in both its existence as a sole entity and its existence in relation to other bodies, particularly lighter bodies. Jude’s internalization of othering due to her external hypervisibility, manifests as her having a problem with being seen and occupying space in LA.
The internalization of being undesirable because of her skin impacts the way she navigates her relationships and her experiences.
To an extent, I understood Jude as a body in LA, a mind in Mallard. She operates in this new or other space with Mallard’s ideology deeply internalized. The effects of Mallard’s founding ideology and continuing reality undoubtedly have a lasting effect on Jude. This internalization of her skin tone as some undesirable spectacle is not easy to unlearn. It continues, and drives, to some extent, how she operates in the world –within relationships and in spaces. It is not simple, nor quick to unlearn or undo. Jude’s view, in LA., was/is tinted by the colorist gaze. However, she is not amiss in being cautious of the eyes on her. Mallard, indeed, is not an isolated hive of colorist leanings. It exists outside the borders of the small town as evidenced by Kennedy in her spiteful remark to Jude about guys like Reese not choosing girls like Jude. The colorist ideas/notions/thought, the devaluation of dark skin, the undesirability attached to it, is not isolated to Mallard, and as much as Jude was projecting Mallard onto LA, so was LA, some people in LA, existing as a macrocosm, an extension, of Mallard. It is no wonder Jude still operates differently under the gaze of people. The effects of Mallard is a lasting one, continuing one–until it is unlearnt or disregarded.
As a dark-skinned black woman who’s dealt with colourism and its effects from a young age, I was relieved by Jude’s eventual shedding of this internal scrutinizing gaze of her skin and how it fits into spaces. I am relieved by her rejection of mallard projections. There is an acceptance of her visibility, but rejection as you said, to exist as a spectacle. She actively occupies space in Mallard as shown when she strips to splash in the river with Reese. A moment that symbolizes her growth as she can freely occupy space even when the space was not created for her.
I think other characters also grapple with this issue of being seen pertaining to their identity, self-created or otherwise. Bennett does an outstanding job of showing, through her characters, the nuances of colourism; and its ability to impact an individual psychologically, socially, and economically.
Ella, I enjoyed reading your thoughts on Jude’s physical and psychological relationship to Mallard and how this shapes her movement through life. I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that The Vanishing Half might not have achieved even half of its success if it were a novel about two brothers. This is because for some reason, colourism in our society is more centered around women than men. An aspect of the novel I’d love to discuss further is the relationship between colourism and femininity. When Jude leaves Mallard on a Greyhound bus for Los Angeles, we witness a moment where the bus driver remarks- though internally- that “he’d never seen a woman that black before”. This moment in the novel struck a chord with me and I’d like to dig deeper into the interactions between race and womanhood. An example of this can be seen in the word “fair”, which was once synonymous with the word beautiful and used as a descriptor for women. Lightness in a woman is seen as a sign of beauty, a thing to be desired; so much so that the skin bleaching industry has made fortunes from women convinced that they need to manipulate their skin in order to be appreciated. In the novel this can be seen with Adele, who attempts to bleach her granddaughter's skin. It is not that Adele doesn’t love Jude, but that Adele herself has been deceived into believing that beauty is equivalent to light skin.. Notably, there is a brief moment where Early, Desiree’s longtime suitor, ponders his darker skin tone and its effects on his relationship with her. Despite this, the novel primarily focuses on women and their relationship with colourism.
Beyond the borders of the book, colourism is rampant in the entertainment industry. Oftentimes talented dark-skinned women are bypassed for roles by their less-qualified lighter-skinned colleagues. This can be seen with rappers Megan thee Stallion and Saweetie. Saweetie who is biracial and the lighter of the two is often praised for her [arguably] lackluster music. Although both rappers explore similar themes, Megan who is [arguably] more talented receives more criticism. Many argue that this is not a colour issue but rather an issue of desirability and beauty but it’s important to note that in western society beauty is connected to colour. Essentially, pretty privilege is light-skinned privilege in many cases. In the novel, Jude is required to do exceeding amounts of labour in order to receive the bare minimum. Dissimilarly, with Kennedy as a result of her blonde hair and blue eyes she has the luxury of being average, something she acknowledges.
Moreover, to return to the example of Saweetie and Megan thee Stallion, it also becomes apparent how women are given different levels of empathy based on their skin colour.
After being the victim of a shooting in 2020, Megan was caught on camera bleeding on the side of the road, an image that went viral. Her trauma was not met with compassion but rather with jokes and memes that left the rapper feeling even more vulnerable and exposed. The treatment received by Megan directly opposes that of Saweetie when it was revealed she had been in an abusive relationship. Lightness is associated with femininity and with that comes the assumptions of vulnerability and softness. Inversely, darkness is perceived as masculine. As a result, darker-skinned women are seen as tough and expected to be strong. The issue is that we live in a society that already treats lighter-skinned women with preference while darker-skinned women are left moved to the background, only left to uplift each other. Singer Danileigh recently released, “Yellowbone” which praises lighter-skinned women. In such a system as the one we live in, statements such as the one made by Danileigh in her song can seem tone-deaf and insulting, to women who experience marginalization due to colourism. I’m curious to know what your thoughts are about this, and if you have a deeper or different understanding than I might have.
The ways in which having light skin is exalted predates the world outside the novel. In Nigeria, “oyinbo” and “yellow pawpaw” are lexicons applied in private and public social spheres to sing praises of lightness, particularly in women.
As a dark skin girl who grew up in Nigeria, the overt praise of light skin was not lost on me. It often relegated me to the margins, a fact I grew accustomed to. I feel there exists a margin of acceptable blackness, or more particularly, acceptable darkness. Often, the antagonizing of dark skin disoriented me as it came from the people I least expected, my own community of dark-skinned people. Take, for instance, a boy darker in complexion than I, randomly declaring to a fourteen-year-old me that I was actually pretty but he could not date me as I was too dark for him. This experience parallels the point you made about Jude feeling or made to feel undeserving of love because of her skin tone. The act of assessing and affirming my attractiveness was also a reaffirmation that my darkness made me undesirable. Perhaps I found myself slipping into Jude’s place when she felt self-conscious about her complexion under Reese’s gaze despite it being a loving gaze. Over awareness of self seems the inevitable product colourisms.
Crossing the diasporic waters to North America, colorist notions and behaviours are no different. The marginalization of darker-skinned women is glaring. To go back to your comment on Danielle Leigh’s song “Yellowbone”, I think it is worth noting how current acknowledgment and appreciation of dark skin people, women in particular, happening in the social-scape, the music industry and in literature, cannot be seen in the same light as the exultation of light skin black people. Largely because the standardization of lightness as the desirable standard serves to reinforce the colorist divide. Inversely, the exaltation of dark skin is happening as a de-marginalization effort.
The appreciation of darker complexions across social media is counter-hegemonic. Darker tones are shown and represented and reconstructed to annulify colourist ideologies. These representations of darker skin aid in creating new positive meanings for what it means to have dark skin, especially in capitalist spaces like the beauty and television industry where dark skin has been either discarded or displayed in a negative light. Moreover, this creates an affirmation of the presence and normalization of dark skin.
This book, through its telling of Jude’s story, compactly tells the stories of many dark skin girls around the world. In its pages lies bare the insidious effects of colourism. I think it’s a wide-ranging phenomenon that the dark child and the dark woman must learn or cultivate a radical sense of self-love through skin-love. The education of the dark skin girl involves the shedding of negative skin consciousness and adoption of love in its stead. It goes beyond being proudly black to being proudly dark. Because still, both in Nigeria and here in the diaspora, many still operate, knowingly or not, from within the parameters of colorism.
Thank you for your words. I really loved your notes on the “radical love” required for dark-skinned Black women to meander society boldly and unapologetically. I wonder if this love is aided by the love of those around them? In Jude’s case, Reese’s love gives her newfound confidence and she begins to see herself as lovable. However, it’s unfortunate that it took a stranger and not her family for her to see her own beauty.
This brings me to your point about how “your own dark community” also exhibited colourist behaviour towards you. I’ve been pondering and researching the roots of colourism, and I’m yet to discover its origins. Perhaps our readers might find this funny because to most people, colourism is obviously a result of racism. I agree with this on some level, especially being that race seems to be an amplified issue in the western world, like you mentioned. However, it seems more than unfortunate that even African communities like our own country, Nigeria, subscribe to colourist ideologies and behaviours. Growing up, I was the lightest in my family, and many people around me constantly remarked upon that fact. I would go out with my mother and people would compliment my ‘fair’ skin and jokingly ask my mother if I were really her child. At the time it seemed normal, but now I realize how offensive it really was.
My mum would also always tell me to be mindful of the sun, in order to avoid my skin getting darker. I imagine that for her, a dark-skinned woman growing up in Nigeria, she had similar experiences to you. I feel that for her these experiences matured into internalized self-esteem issues, which in turn shaped her attitude towards me. Knowing all this, knowing that in Nigeria race is not a social organizer, as people identify as ‘Igbo, Yoruba, etc., rather than black and white, the reality of colourism in that society haunts me on a deeper level.
I suppose my question would be, is colourism a direct result of racism, and thereby sustained through racism? During slavery, darker enslaved people were made to work in the field while lighter ones were made to work in the house. The ideology behind this was that lighter slaves were ‘presentable’ and therefore deserved a place in the Master’s house doing less difficult work, while the darker slaves belonged in the field, toiling harder. This is a thread that one can trace to the current prevalence of colourism in our contemporary society. To reiterate a previous comment, darker-skinned people are often made to work harder for recognition, while the mediocrity of lighter people is rewarded due to the ‘pretty privilege’ that comes with fair skin. In spaces such as the modeling industry darker-skinned models often complain of the difficulty of finding work. On many sets, beauty is generally inaccessible due to makeup artists and hairdressers who refuse to educate themselves on how to cater to the specific needs of dark-skinned women. However, when we think about homogenous countries like Nigeria, or even India, where caste systems and skin shade are indelibly linked, I wonder if colourism is a separate issue with a life of its own; And an issue that must be tackled, perhaps not always in relation to race.
I am about to contradict myself. Let’s consider Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex. A black woman, albeit a fairly light-skinned one; when I think of people that could ‘manage’ passing as white, she often comes to mind. Ms. Markle has had a terrible experience under the scope of the UK media, which perhaps largely contributed to Prince Harry’s decision to denounce his official royal duties and status. My point in bringing Ms. Markle up is to signal the hierarchy that our society exists in. Looking at this hierarchy through a colourist lens, Meghan might be considered at the peak. Due to her complexion, however, to the UK tabloids who see the royal family as sacred, her blackness, regardless of her ability to “pass” is still a problem. Perhaps not a remedy to my previous question but a way to rationalize race in connection to colourism is to see the ways in which colourism stems from the internalized hatred that racism brings. It is an attempt to recreate a pecking order, in an attempt to regain power.
To return to the novel, my final thought is of Stella, who simply wills herself to be white by positioning herself in white spaces and feeling entitled to be in them. More than anything this demonstrates that race is a social construct. Yes, melanin is visible and tangible, but the existence of concepts such as “passing white” acts as proof that these invisible systems function also as tools to oppress those deemed to be other. In order for us to move past colourism, we must all collectively confront these ideologies of ‘lightness’ and ‘darkness’ that exist within different communities and serve to limit the experiences of some, for the benefit of few.
You know it's true, Stella hardly places much effort into becoming or being “white Stella”. You could probably divorce the “white” from Stella and she would still be herself. The transition to being white when she applies for the secretary job is seamless. There seems to be very little distinguishing Black Stella from her white self (if you do not count her moments of performed racism). Everything that makes her characteristically black carries into who she is as a white person. Yet notably, she is perceived as white exclusively because of her skin tone and thus defined by the values of what it is to be white.
The image of Blackness, in the era the book is set in, was limited and rigid and this I believe aided Stella's ability to blend racial lines and the lines of perception. These ideas of Blackness did not account for the multiplicities of Blackness. For this reason, Stella becomes a challenge to the societal construct of what and who a Black person is and what and who a white person is. Stella’s transgression is not so much that she changes anything about her actual self physically or behaviourally. Her transgression is the defiance of not fitting into nor bending into the socially defined molds of Blackness.
Stella, being Black, has the racial markers of a different race yet cannot be identified by the people of the race she has been marked as, as being different. Something that historically has been understood as the binaural opposite of whiteness. What then is a determinator of whiteness? Stella’s passing destabilizes the rigidity and legitimacy of racial categories and their value-laden qualities. It reveals the dichotomous theoretical construction of race as false as individuality transgresses these definitions.
I believe this novel affirms the existing discourse of social constructs, hegemony, and their ability to marginalize the individual. Yet, we continue to operate within this limiting framework. Perhaps the novel is set in the past as a way for us to look into history to uncover something we can hopefully examine and learn from.