How To Be White:
Racial tensions just never ease off in the US, and writers have to find new stories to tell, to draw readers into the many aspects of the issue and keep them engaged.
Brit Bennett’s superb new novel The Vanishing Half, tackles the racism of a community of black people—the small town of Mallard, in Louisiana, which cannot be found on any map, is inhabited by light-skinned blacks, who, in a case of disturbing self-loathing, look down on people with dark complexions. But white people only employ them to do menial jobs–the colour of their skin does not save them from racial prejudice.
Mallard man Leon Vignes is lynched in a hate crime, and his killers are not punished. His wife, Adele, has to slog as a cleaning woman to raise her twin daughters. When the girls—Desiree and Stella– reach their teens, and realise they have no future in Mallard, they run away leaving behind their desolate mother. They go to New Orleans, where they find jobs in a laundry. Their education, intelligence, fair skin and hazel eyes do not allow them entry into the world of whites, back in the 1960s, when the few non-skilled jobs that employed females were open only to white women.
Even if they are mistaken for white, their own fear of exposure prevents them from accepting any privileges, till Stella decides she has had enough and taking advantage of her beauty, passes herself off as white. With a simple lie, she lifts herself over the high fence of racial divide, even if it means totally cutting herself off from her old life, abandoning her twin, and making sure she stays so bottled up that her secret never spills out. She marries a rich white man, and has a blonde, blue-eyed daughter, Kennedy. Stella and her husband live in a gated complex in LA, and she is terrified of being caught out when the family of a black celebrity moves next door. To prove that she is just like the other openly racist white women, Stella rejects the friendship of the black woman, and forbids her daughter from playing with their child; to her own shame she uses a racial slur against them, and participates in the hounding out of the black family from the neighbourhood.
Meanwhile Desiree continues to struggle, marries an ambitious black man, and gives birth to a girl, Jude, so dark that she is referred to as blueblack. She escapes her abusive husband and returns to Mallard with her daughter, who bears the brunt of the town’s vicious colourism. Desiree continues to grieve for her missing half, though she gives up the search for her after a point. She has a long-lasting but oddly uncommitted relationship with a bounty hunter, Early – a very unusual character.
By a quirk of fate, Kennedy (whose wealth and privilege open doors for her) and am impoverished Jude end up working in the theatre, and Stella is found out when Jude spots her mother’s twin at a party.
As if Jude has to make do with any happiness that she can find, Bennett has her get into a relationship with a white trans man, Reese, who finds a family amidst a group of drag performers. Still, their love story is full of tenderness, empathy and sacrifice.
The book spans decades and stands firmly on the side of the underdog, but the tone is never strident. Melancholy and sorrow for what is lost suffuses the stories of the Vignes women, also their courage against terrible odds. Desiree may be the strong one, but Stella is the tragic twin, who, by denying her roots, lost more than she gained. The Vanishing Half has been on the bestseller lists for several weeks, and is definitely worth a read. Today, blacks may have advanced a lot from the era of slavery and segregation, but every so often, an innocent man is shot dead by cops, and the volcano of racial hatred erupts.
The Vanishing Half
By Brit Bennett
Page Count: 352