The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett led me to think about other books in addition to Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. Bennett’s book concerns light-skinned Black twins, one of whom in adulthood passes for white. I first thought of Band of Angels by Robert Penn Warren, which was recommended to me by my friend Glen in the seventh grade. Growing up in our all-white Wisconsin town as the Civil Rights Era was emerging, Glen and I were learning that race was at the core of America. We discussed race often, and because we were both readers, his recommendation of the book fit into our conversations. (Glen once came up with the solution to the country’s racial problems. He said laws should be passed requiring marriage to someone from another race. Glen was convinced that in a few generations our racial problems would be gone. He was also more advanced musically than I at that dawn of the rock era, and he would tell me what songs and artists to listen for. Looking back, Glen shaped me a lot more than many of my other childhood friends.)
Band of Angels is not quite a passing-for-white story although there is an element of that. In the book a privileged, pampered daughter of a plantation owner finds out when her father dies that her mother was a slave. Therefore, she is Black. In short order, she is sold into slavery. Etc. Etc. Even at the age of thirteen, while I found this to be a searing, shocking story that made me reflect on slavery and race, I thought that the book was a trashy melodrama. Even so, it gave Glen and me a lot to talk and think about. (By contrast, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men is a great book. Although Willie Stark is not the central figure that many think him to be in the book, an interesting book group would read any of the several excellent Huey Long biographies with Warren’s masterpiece for the potential of extended and interesting discussions.)
While I would not recommend reading Band of Angels in conjunction with The Vanishing Half, a book group could benefit from discussing other books along with Bennett’s. The classic in “passing” literature is over a century old, but I have only recently read James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. The book holds up, and it would be interesting to compare and contrast the importance of a lynching in the two books.
The Vanishing Half, however, did make me think of a newer book that I have read: One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets, a memoir by Bliss Broyard. Her father, Anatole Broyard, was a literary critic for the New York Times who wrote many daily book reviews that influenced my reading selections. After he died, it was reported that he was “passing,” although his situation may be more complicated than that. Many people knew that Broyard was Black, and few examples, if any, of him claiming to be white are given. He didn’t seek to hide his race; it simply didn’t come up. I am white, but I don’t proclaim it. Why should it be different for a Black? In any event, Bliss Broyard did not grow up thinking of her father, or herself, as Black, and her book discusses her explorations of her father’s family and the effects on her of learning this history. These are the same themes explored fictionally in The Vanishing Half. Discussing the real and fictional side-by-side could be interesting.
And perhaps The Vanishing Half should be discussed with Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, which many thought was inspired by Anatole Broyard even though Roth said otherwise. In any event, at the heart of The Human Stain is Coleman Silk as imagined by Nathan Zuckerman (as imagined by Philip Roth), a college professor who crosses over the color line. (Perhaps only in a Roth book would someone leave Blackness to become Jewish.)
The Human Stain, however, undercuts my notion of discussing novels together. Since The Vanishing Half, James Weldon Johnson’s book, and One Drop all contain main characters raised as Black who choose to pass as white, my premise of discussing books together should lead me to form a book group that included these as well as the Roth book. However, The Human Stain (which I have only just read because I thought that I ought to in order to write this post) is singularly rich and thought-provoking. Its language begs to be dissected and savored. In short, the novel’s unique power and intrigue would only be diluted by considering it with those other books. The Human Stain is a stand-alone and deserves its own discussion.