Author Brit Bennett gifted me a phrase that I have been looking for all my life to describe myself and my dark sisters in this world. Growing up in a country where beauty is measured in how little melanin one has in one’s skin, I understood and related to what Jude Winston, a character in Brit Bennett’s breathtakingly beautiful book, The Vanishing Half felt in her school, her blue black, dark skin a contrast to the light skinned African American children. She was called a ‘tar baby’. Nobody wanted to be her friend or sit with her fearing her dark color would contaminate their fair skin. The question, of course, arises why did Black people revere their light skin and why did Black people shun Jude for her dark, glistening color? Because white skin meant (and means) freedom, white skin meant (and means) opportunity, white skin meant (and means) grabbing the lion share of world’s resources. And white skin also meant (and means) beauty.
Of course, colorism in African American community is just one aspect of the story. The Vanishing Half tells the story of 2 sisters Desiree and Stella Vignes, who were born in a small town called Mallard in Louisiana. A town which was so small that one could not find it on a map. The town had a history though. The founder of the town, Alphonse Decuir, a newly freed slave was son of a white man and a black woman. His color was white and he married a light skinned woman to start off a progeny of very light skinned, white passing African American descendants. The Blacks in the town of Mallard could pass for Whites. The Vignes twins, great, great, great, great, great granddaughters of Decuir, were no exceptions. On August 14th, 1954, when they were sixteen years old, Stella and Desiree, finding no future in Mallard decided to run away to New Orleans. No one in Mallard, including their mother Adele heard from them in 10 years. After 10 years, one morning the townspeople saw one twin, Deisiree walking towards her mother’s house holding a little girl’s hand. Desiree returned back to her mama with her baby girl Jude, but Stella was gone. Stella, the quiet one of the two, left Desiree in New Orleans itself and word had it she lived as a white woman. Why? Stella hoodwinked the world and existed in it as a white woman to free herself from the shackles that bind black people. An incident in their childhood involving their dad imprinted in Stella’s mind that white people had the ability to hurt non whites and not be held accountable for it. Stella wanted to protect herself from that possibility. However, as we read about her life the question arises at what cost did she choose to lead a life of lie? Desiree had not set her eyes upon her twin those last 10 years. It seemed like Stella had disappeared into thin air. Jude, however, does not look anything like her mother, Desiree. She is dark like midnight. And no matter what her white passing grandmother applies on her skin, her color never fades. For inhabitants of Mallard, this blue black child is like a fly in milk, a ‘tar baby’, ‘ugly.’ And later in the story, she is perceived as beautiful, “difficultly beautiful” for some perhaps.
The story is told from perspectives of Desiree, Stella, Jude and Stella’s daughter, Kennedy to give a fuller understanding of the characters and the story. The progression of the plot is non linear, jumping from 1954 to 1968 and then backtracking a few years, only to jump ahead. But this technique was so seamlessly done that it adds to the fluidity of the plot. The book touches on many issues like race relations, transgender, relationships between sibling and children, domestic violence and love. And they all are folded in beautifully within the story of the sisters, the lives of their daughters and other supporting characters that build the foundation of the plot.
This book is brilliant. And I am grateful to Brit Bennett for she the gift of the phrase that will stay with me forever. Difficultly beautiful. Those of us with dark skin grew up hearing:
“You are ugly because you are dark.”
“Black is ugly”.
“Too bad her skin is so dark, she could have been pretty otherwise.”
“Nobody will marry her because she is so dark.”
And it went on and on and on.
We are beautiful, though. We are difficultly beautiful. Difficultly only to those who have been conditioned by society to define beauty in the way that society, media, race dictates. We can only hope they can break out of the shackle. It must be so binding!