“The Vanishing Half” Portrays the Effects of Multigenerational Racial Trauma

The Vanishing Half tells the story of twins whose lives diverge. (Courtsey of Facebook)

“The Vanishing Half” tells the story of twins whose lives diverge. (Courtsey of Facebook)

Four years after she published her critically acclaimed debut novel, “The Mothers,” Brit Bennett returns to the literary scene with her dazzling new novel,“The Vanishing Half.”

How do you understand your DNA? Many would argue that DNA defines our present appearances, making it seem that two Black twin girls in the rural south would have similar experiences. Yet, in Brit Bennett’s second novel, she critiques the notion of America’s social expectations for Black women and asks readers to understand the nuanced sacrifices some women take to survive. 

Spanning from 1940 to 1990, “The Vanishing Half” follows Desiree and Stella Vignes, two twin girls born in Mallard, Louisiana, a small town founded by their ancestors as a haven for African Americans with lighter complexions. Stella and Desiree, like many of their neighbors, watch as Mallard’s population becomes lighter over time, “like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream.”

Even in their small haven, the Vignes twins are unable to escape America’s violent history of racism. They witness their father’s lynching at 16 years old. They choose to leave, escaping to New Orleans until their separation one year later, when Desiree returns to Mallard and Stella assimilates into white America, passing as a young white woman. 

The ways in which Stella’s and Desiree’s futures differ is indescribably complex, as readers watch both characters build families separated from each other. Particularly, Bennet’s understanding of the human condition dazzles readers in its assessment of Stella’s later family and life. Her marriage to a white man and birth of children with him asks bold questions about the importance of family history in understanding personal growth. 

Moreover, throughout the novel, Bennet’s prose displays the effects of racial trauma on both its direct victims and generations thereafter. While in conversation with studies of epigenetics and racial trauma, Bennet makes these very scientific studies of racial trauma personal, forcing Stella to confront her family’s history in simple and elegant prose. 

It is this simple — yet unquestionably powerful — prose that has made critics compare Bennet to some of America’s foremost authors, such as James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. Her talent for displaying stories about the American family shines in both of her novels and has cemented her position as a prominent voice in contemporary literary fiction. 

Since the novel’s release in early June, it has become a number one New York Times bestseller and is in the works for a television adaptation at HBO. Although the title reads “The Vanishing Half,” Bennet’s work is not vanishing into the background anytime soon; it will continue to occupy readers’ minds and help give clarity to the experiences woven into their DNA.