The Vanishing Half

Brit Bennett

This incredible novel spans from the 1950s to the 1990s, exploring issues of race, sexuality, identity and the controversial topic of passing. The book centres around the small fictional town of Mallard in Louisiana where the citizens are African Americans are light-skinned and ‘refuse to be treated like negroes.’ This is the town where identical twins, Stella and Desiree Vignes, are born and the town that they run away from when they are 16 years old. Cut to 15 years later and Desiree returns to Mallard with a dark-skinned daughter in tow and hasn’t seen or heard of Stella in almost as long, ever since Stella left without a word and started living her life as a white woman.

The best part of this novel is the pacing and natural change between characters. The pacing perfectly balances pushing forward the narrative and always leaving you wanting more. The interplay of character perspectives afford you the opportunity to empathise with and relate to each of the characters in a unique way because you gain genuine insight into their life and how they’ve ended up the position they have. This is particularly important when it comes to Stella’s story. When we are introduced to Stella she is living in as a white woman in a a gated community that is facing the prospect of an African American couple moving into one of the houses. And Stella is the loudest protester of this.

Bennet’s exploration of Stella’s complicated emotions around race and the decisions she’s made in order to pass as white and benefit off her caucasian features. For Stella, being white offers the indisputable opportunity to have a better life; an oppotunity she can’t say no to as a fragile 16 year old forced to drop out of school to clean houses. However, we meet a version of Stella that lives in fear of being found out, desperately trying to keep her secrets and distancing herself from everyone around her as a result.

Bennet has written a beautiful story exploring the complexity of racism and the value of lightness among African Americans which brings together a fascinating plot and charming language in a truly incredible novel. This book asks many questions of identity; what it means feel part of a community, what it takes to distance yourself from where you came from and whether that’s even possible.

Noughts and Crosses

I remembered reading the novel Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman when I was younger and thoroughly enjoying it, so I was thrilled to hear it was being adapted into a six part BBC series, particularly since it had been a while since I read it so felt like I was going into it with fresh eyes. The story takes place in a dystopian world where Aprica (or as we know it, Africa) colonised Albion (equivalent to Britain), which is now a partially segregated society made up of the ruling black crosses and the oppressed white noughts.

The show aims to explore race politics and demonstrate the injustice black people face within our society by flipping the roles and power dynamic of white and black people. The most obvious example of this is the depiction of police brutality against the noughts. They are frequently thrown up against police vans or to the ground whilst having the slur ‘blanker’ spat at them.

Another brutal example of the discrimination experienced by the noughts is within the wider justice system. The series shows us how the noughts are faced with far harsher sentences, and then treated so much worse once they are inevitably put in prison. The courts are not there to provide justice for the noughts, they are there to punish them, and this could not be made clearer than through the treatment of the noughts once they are inside prison.

However, beyond the blatant discriminatory behaviours, the aspects of the show that I found more interesting were the far more subtle examples of the power of the crosses permeating society. Examples of this that I found most intriguing were how the noughts in the army have their hair corn-rowed, as is required as part of the military dress-code, Sephy (a cross) giving Callum (a nought) a plaster that doesn’t match his skin tone, and only ever seeing crosses on the tv in the background of scenes. It is these subtler nuances of the show, rather than the bigger acts of racism, that make the world seem so realistic and draws a true parallel between this fictional dystopia and the real world we live in.

The main way in which the story deviates from our world today, however, is in the criminalisation of interracial relationships, which brings us to the main plot point that draws us into the show; the illegal relationship between Sephy and Callum. The two met and became friends as children because Callum’s mother, Meggie, works as a housekeeper for Sephy’s parents and she would often bring Callum to work with her during the school holidays. When the two run into each other at a party where Callum is working and Sephy is socialising they develop a romantic relationship, and become the star-crossed lovers at the centre of the show.

Unfortunately, not only is this illegal, placing Callum in significant danger if their relationship is discovered, but Sephy’s failure to understand Callum’s life and the way society, and the ruling crosses, treat him continually proves to be a source of conflict for their relationship. No matter how good her intentions are, Sephy repeatedly fails to consider how certain experiences may be different for Callum, particularly with regard to how authority figures and organisations treat him. Their relationship is an excellent representation of how, even when making a conscious effort, there will always be things that the privileged overlook when it comes to the experiences of the oppressed.

Finally, the depiction of the two mothers in the show is also particularly noteworthy. Watching their relationship to one another and how they aim to prioritise the welfare of their children is incredibly insightful. Whilst you cannot fault Jasmine’s concern for Sephy, her treatment of Meggie when under pressure always highlights how those in power are prepared to sacrifice those without it in the name of protecting those close to them.

This leads to an intelligent and brilliantly told story of structural racism with the deliberate intention of making the viewer uncomfortable.  I would definitely recommend to anyone that they watch this show.