Brit Bennett – The Vanishing Half

brit bennett the vanishing half
Brit Bennett – The Vanishing Half

Everybody in the small Louisiana town of Mallard has always just called them the twins. That’s what Desiree and Stella Vignes are, just like some inseparable unit. Together they grow up, together they ran away to find a better life. A big dream for two black girls in the middle of the 20th century when segregation is a fact and opportunities for girls are limited. But then, Stella finds a job as a secretary, due to her relatively fair skin, they mistake her for white and with her diligence, she suddenly sees the chance to reinvent herself. After years of playing the role of the white secretary, she is ready to turn the role into her new self, but this requires leaving everything behind, also her twin sister. The girls take different roads, but they can never forget each other completely. It will take years until their paths will cross again and until they will need to ask themselves who they are and who they only pretend to be.

Brit Bennett’s novel covers the time span from the 1950s when the twins are only teenagers until the end of the 20th century when they have grown-up daughters. It is a tale of two young girls who are connected by their looks but quite different in character, girls with hopes and dreams living in a time when chances in life are determined by the skin colour. One of them accepts things as they are, the other decides to make the best for herself of it, but the price she has to pay is high and it is also a price her daughter will have to pay, ignorant of her mother’s story. Beautifully written the author not only follows the fate of the two individuals, but she also mirrors in their fate a society in which some alleged truths are deeply rooted.

When starting reading, you have the impression of being thrown in at the deep end. Somehow, you are in the middle of the story and first need to sort out the characters and circumstances. The author sticks to the backwards and forwards kind of narration which only little by little reveals what happened to the sisters. Just as both of them are ill-informed about the other’s fate, you as a reader, too, have to put the bits and pieces together to make it a complete story. I totally adored that way of gradually revealing what happened to them.

The narrative also quite convincingly shows that you can never just make a decision for your own life, it will always have an impact on other people, too, and even if you imagine having left all behind you and buried it deep inside your head, one day, the truth will come out and you’ll have to explain yourself. Brit Bennett similarly demonstrates how fragile our concepts of race, gender, class and even identity can be. We might easily be misled because quite often we only see what we want to see and prefer looking away over confronting our stereotypical thinking.

A must read drama with strong characters but also a lot of food for thought.

Maurice Carlos Ruffin – We Cast a Shadow

maurice-carlos-ruffin-we-cast-ashadow
Maurice Carlos Ruffin – We Cast a Shadow

An unnamed southern city some day in the near future. Nigel’s parents want to do everything for their kid, they live in a good part of town and raise their boy with love. Especially his father wants to protect him from what he himself went through. Being black, he knows exactly what racism is like and every single day of his life, he is reminded of his skin colour. It’s the small nasty remarks of his colleagues, the fact of being identified as a danger wherever he goes and the constant reminder that he is inferior to people of white skin that almost exhaust him. Penny, his wife is white and this makes Nigel bi-racial with a much lighter skin colour. Yet, a birthmark troubles his father and therefore, he seeks help in a clinic where demelanization has become the latest trend: getting rid of the apparent sign of inferiority. He wants the best for his son but actually thus, he does the worst thing he could do to his small family.

It is easy to sympathise with the father since he is the first person narrator of the novel. At the beginning, we meet him as a junior lawyer in a high-profile company where he tries to fight his way up, yet is greeted with racism daily – some of it hidden behind nice words, some outspoken openly. It does not take too long to understand that the work environment is only a microcosm of the society he lives in and which has a clear ranking of power and prestige: male white heterosexuals rule whereas blacks, women and others have to fight to survive and will never be considered equal.

His decision to make life easier for his boy can easily be understand in this context, what it means for Nigel and for his family is a lot more complex. Maurice Carlos Ruffin succeeds in depicting the conflicting emotions and the oppositional opinions of the characters. From each respective perspective, they are right in their position which clearly outlines that there is not right or wrong and no objective correct answer to the question of what should be done.

Even though the novel is set in the future and surely the society is portrayed in an exaggerated way when it comes to racial questions, I assume there is a lot of truth in it that can be understood as a warning and gives you food for thought.

Afua Hirsch – Brit(ish)

afua-hirsxch-british
Afua Hirsch – Brit(ish)

Afua Hirsch, daughter of an Englishman of German-Jewish descent and a Ghanaian mother, grew up in Wimbledon in rather affluent and educated surroundings. Her skin colour did not really matter when she was a kid, but growing up, she became more and more aware of the fact that she does not really belong: she isn’t white as the others and she isn’t black either. Being “mixed” did not double her identity but create a gap. For years she has been searching for her identity, for a place of belonging. “Brit(ish)” is the result of this process and a sharp analysis of what “black” and “white” actually mean in Britain.

I found Afua Hirsch’s book quite informative and interesting. She creates an easily readable mixture of a personal report, her feelings and experiences, combined with journalistic facts and figures which underline and support her theories. Thus the book gives you a deep insight in this highly complex and definitely neglected topic.

Afua Hirsch addresses several aspects which reflect the concept of “otherness” pretty well, amongst them origins, bodies and places. The simple question “where are you from” becomes highly difficult if you feel like being British but are perceived as being different and foreign. It becomes even more complicated when you go to another country, in Afua Hirsch’s case Senegal, where you are identified as absolutely British. The sense of not belonging to either group makes it especially hard to build an identity. Added to this a cultural attributions society makes to certain groups, e.g. the black being uneducated and criminals – which might run counter to one’s own perception. Afua Hirsch describes it as

“a permanent and constant consciousness of feeling at odds with my surroundings, of being defined by skin, hair, an unpronounceable name, and the vague fact of a murky background from a place that was synonymous with barbarity and wretchedness, I was that awkward, highly noticeable outsider (…), everywhere.”

The examples she provides of what happened to black people in Britain are stunning, we as Europeans like to believe that we are less prejudiced, more open-minded and “colourblind”, particularly in comparison to the USA, but reality tells a different story. In Britain, the concept of class adds to the racial differences and complicates the situation even more.

What I personally found most interesting was the contrast between the American blacks and the British. How they identify themselves, how they bond and develop a kind of group identity or sense of belonging overseas whereas the British never became a common group since they did not share an experience like segregation in the US.

Even though the book is neither journalistically neutral nor a pure personal report, it is absolutely worth reading to get an impression of the topic. I would absolutely agree that there is a white spot on black British history which needs to be filled.