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The Vanishing Half (2020)
Book Reviews

The Vanishing Half (2020)

A powerful and honest story about generations experiencing colorism and learning to accept people living outside our binary world.

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Colorism is an interesting aspect of racism. For many blacks, they experience safety because the color of their skin provides them with another identity. They can move more easily through the world if their skin reflects the ‘standard’ Euro-centric beauty. And yet, when they participate in the safety of their lighter skin, they also produce another identity to live ‘freely’ in the world they’ve created for themselves, pushing the boundaries on the binary world we live in.

The author of The Mothers, Brit Bennett, takes a deep look at the racism during the Jim Crow era in The Vanishing Half, deciphering colorism and how there are liminal spaces outside the binary where people can live. She also examines how people viewed gender norms during the 70s and 80s, and how there’s always more to people than what they show the world. It’s quite the story, one that’s already being adapted into a limited series for HBO.

Desiree and Stella grow up in a tiny village, with generations of whiteness lightening their skin tone until they could pass for ‘white’. After watching their black father lynched from their hiding place, the sisters decide to escape their deadbeat lives and lose themselves in the big city of New Orleans at age 16. From there, their lives separate into two directions; Desiree meekly returns to her hometown with a blue-black child in tow while her twin while Stella disappears one night and secretly lives as a white woman.

Desiree’s daughter Jude has a difficult time in the small village, where everyone is lighter skinned than her. She keeps to herself, wishing she could lighten her skin so people wouldn’t be so alarmed at the sight of her. Her grandmother helps her in trying to achieve this. It isn’t until she embraces her color that she realizes the little town isn’t where she’s meant to live. On the other hand, Stella maintains her façade as a white woman, giving birth to a white child. Her life is one of luxury and time, and where she constantly stresses over not being discovered.

Jude leaves the familiar but scrutinizing gazes of her hometown for the wide open spaces of UCLA, where she earned a track scholarship. There, she meets and falls in love with Reese, a young transgender man who changes her world. It’s also where she runs into her aunt Stella and cousin Kennedy at a party in Beverly Hills she helps cater. In California, Jude is given the space to become the person she’s meant to become – hardworking and tenacious. Kennedy is the exact opposite – a spoiled, lazy actress who expects others to help her.

Though Kennedy and Jude are tied through bloodlines, their stories couldn’t be more different. They walk through life in different circles, mainly due to their contrasting skin tones and how they were brought up. Our identities are inherently tied to our environment – wherever you’re from, people will forever remember you as that person. We’re meant to evolve and grow, so when we change our environment, we can stretch ourselves to fit. But at what cost?

Everyone has to discover their true identity as they grow up because if we’re not being true to ourselves, who can we be true to? The Vanishing Half is a stunning and beautifully written story that handles race, gender, and the liminal spaces people choose to live in – and between – with grace and dignity. Brit Bennet’s beautifully detailed story challenges us to realize that there aren’t always two choices in life but an entire spectrum of how we can live, and how we choose to show ourselves to the world.

About the Author: Evelyn Wong