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Brit Bennett on Racial Passing and The Vanishing Half

Posted on 3rd May 2021 by Mark Skinner

Racial Passing - where a member of one racial group is accepted as a member of another - is central to the plot of Brit Bennett's acclaimed novel of post-war America, The Vanishing Half. In this fascinating exclusive essay, Brit recounts other instances of passing in American fiction and reveals why she began The Vanishing Half's narrative in 1968 and not earlier in the twentieth century.

A few years ago, while on tour for my debut novel, I found myself at a luncheon with a book club where someone asked what I was working on next. I began to describe what would eventually become The Vanishing Half—a story about twin sisters who decide to live on opposite sides of the color line—and when I mentioned that the book would span the fifties to the eighties, a woman beside me frowned. “Oh no,” she said, “that’s far too late to set a story about passing. Those stories take place in the twenties and thirties.” She was right, in a sense. Most of our iconic narratives about racial passing were published earlier in the twentieth century. James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, a fictional account of a biracial man who passes for white, was published anonymously in 1912 and re-released to acclaim in 1927. Two years later, Nella Larsen published Passing, a novel about the fraught friendship between two light-skinned women after one passes for white. Even the famous 1959 melodrama Imitation of Life has an earlier literary antecedent; the film was adapted from the Fannie Hurst novel published in 1933. So what, then, was I doing, starting my book in 1968?

When I was in college, a history professor once described 1968 as the dying gasp of the idealistic sixties. It was such a tumultuous year in America—from the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and Robert Kennedy to the protests at the Democratic National Convention and escalating violence in Vietnam. More personally, this was also the year when my mother left her small town in Louisiana to move to Washington, D.C. She arrived at the nation’s capital the same week Dr. King was murdered and the streets lit up with riots. This small bit of family lore has always struck me as oddly symbolic, a historical crisis serving as my mother’s baptism into adulthood. When I started to think about when to open the novel, I kept returning to Dr. King’s assassination as an inflection point for Desiree and Stella. Naturally, the violent murder of a non-violent man reminds them of their father’s death. But beyond this shared recollection, both twins react to this historical moment differently. Amidst the chaos, Desiree finally seizes a chance to escape her abusive husband. Across the country, Stella is privately grieving. Still, days later, she finds herself defending segregation within her white neighborhood out of fear that new black neighbors might expose her secret.

Throughout The Vanishing Half, I wanted to write toward American history in a way that illuminated who these characters are. I think that, perhaps, is what drew me so much to the post-Civil Rights Movement era. What does it mean to perform race at a time in American history when the scripts for race are being rewritten? Unlike Passing’s Clare Kendry, who marries a loud and proud bigot which puts even more pressure on her to hide her secret past, Stella marries a moderate who actually feels embarrassed by her aversion to black people. She grew up experiencing legal segregation then becomes white in a place where explicit racism is considered gauche. She’s affronted when a black family attempts to move into her suburban neighborhood and realizes that she now lives in a world where a black family can legally do such a thing. She spends her life trying to hide her secret past from her daughter, who rebels by moving to a black neighborhood and dating a black man. Stella’s idea of how to appropriately perform whiteness is always changing.

What I loved most about writing a more contemporary story about passing was leaning into the ambiguity and complexity of racial identity. In most famous passing narratives, the story ends with the passer being exposed or deciding herself to return to black life. In Passing, Clare’s husband catches her at a Harlem party and, moments later, she dies after falling through an open window. Both the 1934 and 1959 film adaptations of Imitation of Life end with a memorable funeral scene where the white-passing daughter flings her body onto the casket of the dark-skinned mother she’d disowned. This return of the prodigal daughter is not only dramatically satisfying but it also signals a return to the racial status quo. By wailing “Mama!” in the streets, the daughter has publicly reclaimed her blackness. Her passing ends as the story itself concludes. But I was less interested in exposing or punishing Stella for transgressing racial categories. Instead, I wanted to write toward a more contemporary idea of racial identity that acknowledges that race is both a social construct and a lived reality. What does passing even mean if we understand that categories like race are not stable, obvious, or even knowable? I loved grappling with this question, and I hope you find it interesting too as you read The Vanishing Half.

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