Perched on The New York Times Best Sellers list for the past four weeks with an HBO miniseries in the works, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is the anti-racism novel we need right now as the country grips with another tide of facing race relations.
The Vanishing Half, a novel in the 350-page range in the hardcover format, follows light-skinned Black twin sisters as they run away from their unique Louisiana town with only people of their complexions to New Orleans in the 1950s. As they adjust to their new lives, one twin disappears without a trace to pass as White to marry her White boss while the other one returns home after her abusive marriage to a dark-skinned Black man.
The colorism conversation when it comes to “passing”—when someone decides to disguise themselves in another race or ethnicity for a better quality of life—has been seen in previous books from decades prior when the act was practiced more often.
Passing was more common in the early 20th century amid the Great Migration and European immigration defining the big cities. Mostly when passing is mentioned, it’s in reference to Blacks with complexions light enough to pass as White, but European immigrants also practiced this with some considered to have darker skin like Italians passing for Jews, Jews passing for Gentiles, Poles passing for Germans, and Whites passing for Blacks, according to Neither Black Nor White Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature by Werner Sollors.
At the end of The Vanishing Half, Brit says she was inspired by Imitation of Life, more the 1959 film rather than the 1933 novel it was based on by White Jewish author Fannie Hurst, who came under fire at the time for stereotypical presentations of the Black mother character as a Mammy figure and her light-skinned daughter as a tragic mulatta passing as White. Culturally, it’s become a cinematic classic with Black mothers using the film as a cautionary tale for their Black daughters to not neglect their matriarchs under any circumstances, especially for White privilege.
During the Harlem Renaissance, Fannie also was a secretary for now-celebrated author Zora Neale Hurston while famed poet Langston Hughes created a satire play of Imitation of Life that reversed the roles with a Black family and a White maid. For insight on the tumultuous friendship of Zora and Langston mainly due to their relationships with others in the movement and their disagreements about their plays, check out Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal by Yuval Taylor.
The practice of passing has left holes in Black families since the end of slavery, and it’s a topic that’s still relevant today as people may or may not defend their ethnicities based on their looks. Nella Larsen, a biracial author from the Harlem Renaissance wrote a 1929 novel called Passing, a tale about two Black childhood friends in 1920s New York who are both light-skinned enough to pass as White. One woman does pass while the other stays in the Black community, similar to The Vanishing Half. Starring actresses Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, Passing will be a film set for release this year, according to IMDb.
Nella, a daughter of a Danish woman and a Danish West Indian man, was considered a rising star in the Harlem Renaissance with Passing and her only other novel Quicksand. After becoming the first Black woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship that she used for an artistic journey through Europe, she returned to New York and her nursing career, shedding her novelist life. With growing up in an all-White family after her father died and her mother remarried, her novels are considered semi-autobiographical.
The Passing film’s directors, Deborah Riley Draper and Jennifer Galvin, are also developing a TV series on the book described as “Downton Abbey meets Get Out.” And with The Vanishing Half also being turned into a miniseries for TV, stories on the history of racial passing, particularly for Black women, may gain more attention.