This poignant and, to me, ultimately depressing book begins in Mallard, Louisiana, a fictional small town whose African American residents have made it a point of pride to breed only with others lighter than themselves, to meet the prevailing standards of acceptance and beauty. The ultimate goal was “passing” as white. Indeed, as Daniel J. Sharfstein wrote about in The Invisible Line (Penguin Press, 2011), American history has overlooked the mass migration from black to white as many African Americans gave up their identities in return for the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Some people, he documented, even chose poverty as “whites” over affluence as “blacks” to escape the poisonous consequences of racism.
It wasn’t that difficult, since, as Sharfstein notes, whiteness is more of an ideological construct than a reality.
As one of the twins who are the main protagonists of this book found, for someone with light skin, “all there was to being white was acting like you were.”
Thus twins Desiree and Stella Vignes took two different paths to surviving in the world. Desiree ended up marrying a very dark man and having a daughter, Jude, who was so dark she had “blueblack skin,” anathema to the horrified residents of Mallard.
Stella had been more traumatized than Desiree after watching their father get lynched by a mob of white men who apparently resented his business success. She opted to stay away from Mallard and “pass” as white, hiding her secret most of her life. Yet she remained terrified she would be found out; her mother once warned her, “We always know our own.”
As the novel goes back and forth in time, we learn what happened to the twins, and how they navigated the shoals of looking white in a racist world. Their paths were complicated by the fact that they had internalized prejudice based on skin color and its gradations. We also get to know those few they let into their lives – some of them also feeling like outsiders in society for different reasons.
The price the characters have to pay for not being what others thought they should be is so sad, even when some manage to find small islands of acceptance and even redemption.
Evaluation: This haunting story is filled with many permutations of our potential for cruelty towards one another. It doesn’t speculate on the reasons behind abuse, bullying, meanness, persecution, or the need by some to feel superior over another person or group. But it does show the consequences – especially the enormous toll such cruelty takes on the victim’s self esteem and capacity for joy, or even just a sense of ease in going about one’s life. This book has much to think about and discuss, making it an excellent choice for book clubs.
Note: This book made the 2020 National Book Award Longlist, as well as winning other accolades.
Published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2020