The Vanishing Half

by Brit Bennett

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Part III: Heartlines (1968) Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on August 26, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1345

Chapter 7

The story flashes back to the late 60s but remains in Los Angeles. In Palace Estates, a community in upscale Brentwood, Stella Vignes is married to the businessman Blake Sanders. She met Blake when she began working for him as a secretary at the Maison Blanche in New Orleans. Stella, of course, is passing as white. No one, including her husband, has the slightest suspicion that she is Black. 

At a meeting of the Homeowners’ Association, the members are busy discussing the “problem” of the imminent move of an African-American family into their all-white neighborhood. Stella has become the ultimate hypocrite, standing up at the meeting and declaring that they must stop this thing from happening and saying, “If you don’t, there’ll be more and then what? Enough is enough!” Blake is surprised at her demonstrativeness, given that Stella is normally a mild-mannered person who doesn’t draw attention to herself. Stella’s fear is that a Black family living across the street from her might recognize her own non-whiteness. 

Stella and Blake have a daughter, seven years old at this time, named Kennedy. Kennedy has nightmares, just as Stella herself frequently had nightmares as a little girl. Kennedy questions her mother about where she grew up, and Stella repeats the lies she has told her husband: that she was an only child from rural Louisiana who moved to New Orleans when her parents died. Stella does everything to avoid contact with Black people, and she dreads the possibility that Kennedy might have to share a swimming pool with African-American children. Yet Stella’s own worst memory of childhood is of the time she was molested by Mr. Dupont, the white man for whom she and Desiree worked as house cleaners. This incident was the reason Stella convinced Desiree that they should proceed with their plan to escape from Mallard. 

The Homeowners’ Association has been unable to block the move to the Palace Estates by the Black family, who have threatened to sue. When they move in, Stella meets the wife. The woman “smiles and waves,” and Stella hesitates before lifting her hand. When she tells Blake about it, he insists that there is “nothing to worry about,” because the new family will keep to themselves. As they lie in bed together, Stella cannot help reflecting that in some sense Blake reminds her of the man who molested her years earlier, Mr. Dupont. 

Chapter 8

The surprise about the new neighbors is that the husband is a TV star, an actor named Reginald Walker who plays a policeman on a popular show called Frisk. Reginald and his wife, Loretta, drive a Cadillac and have a daughter about the same age as Kennedy. At first the tension or resistance in the neighborhood about having Black neighbors is defused, at least somewhat. One of the other white women, who is friendly with Stella, describes Loretta as “uppity,” simply because the Walkers want to enroll their daughter at “our” school instead of busing her to a school where there “are plenty of colored children.” 

The whites in Brentwood prove to be deeply bigoted, though their bigotry is somewhat hidden at first. Stella, hoping to dispel any potential suspicions about her own background, behaves with as much prejudice as any of them, marching across the street to prevent Kennedy from playing with the Walkers’ daughter. In a repetition of an incident in Mallard in which a white woman prevented her daughter from playing with Desiree and Stella, Stella explains to Kennedy that “we don’t play” with Black people. 

Stella avoids Loretta for three weeks. But...

(This entire section contains 1345 words.)

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after hearing that Loretta has written a letter to the school board threatening to sue if her daughter is’t allowed to attend the school, Stella decides on a kind of peace offering, bringing her a cake. Loretta tells Stella she didn’t want to move to Brentwood, but Reg had his heart set on it and wouldn’t change his mind. Stella asks questions in the way a typically ignorant and insensitive white person would do, implying it would have been easier for the Walkers not to have moved to Brentwood. When Loretta says, “You mean, stick to ‘my own kind’,” Stella says yes.

None of the other neighbors have offered even this basic gesture of welcoming to Loretta. In spite of her wish to keep up the pretences expected of her, Stella finds herself bonding with Loretta and taking Kennedy over to play with Loretta’s daughter. But she tells Kennedy not to tell her father about these visits to the Walkers. 

The white neighbors go into a semi-panic when they see other black women visiting Loretta. Stella joins Loretta and her friends for card-playing, and the women discuss the question of where Loretta’s daughter will go to school. It is obvious that Stella is caught between role-playing and wanting to show some degree of sympathy, but Loretta senses—and tells her—that she thinks Stella is merely trying to assuage her own guilty feelings by socializing with her. But as they become friendlier with each other, Stella reveals some portion of her past, saying she has a “lost” twin. She allows Loretta to read her palm, and Loretta pointedly says the lines of Stella’s palm reveal that her life has been “interrupted.”

Chapter 9

The narrative goes back in time to the period in which Stella recreated herself in New Orleans. When she applies for a job at the Maison Blanche, the pretence of being “white” is no more complicated than just acting as if she were white. Her future husband Blake Sanders is just her boss at first, and there is nothing remarkable about her secretarial work for him. She is now the white Miss Vignes who works for, and later marries, Mr. Sanders. 

At Christmas in the late 60s, Stella and Blake give a party, to which they do not invite the Walkers. When one of the women smirkingly asks Stella if her “new friend” is going to show up, Stella says Loretta is not her friend. The other woman, Cath Johansen, counters that “everybody is talking” about Stella’s visits to the Walker house. 

Things come to a head when Kennedy, playing with the Walkers’ daughter, Cindy, calls her the n-word. Any illusions Loretta might have had about Stella possibly being different from the usual bigoted whites are thus shattered. And Stella tells the other women that “something about the way Reg looks at her” makes her uncomfortable. Shortly after Christmas, a brick is thrown through the Walkers’ window. This is followed by someone leaving a burning sack of dog manure on their front porch. The Walkers move out of Brentwood.


Stella’s ongoing choice to pass as white is replete with hypocrisy and even cruelty. It seems, however, that her passing is largely a reflexive means of self-protection. Though out of apparent guilt she eventually befriends Loretta Walker, Stella’s lie about Reg—that he has made her feel “uncomfortable”—triggers the final harassment that drives the Walkers out of the neighborhood. And when Kennedy uses the n-word to the Walkers’ daughter, she is repeating Stella’s use of it to her when Stella had initially warned her not to be friendly with the Walkers.

This is 1968, well after the Civil Rights Movement has begun, and the desegregation process has started throughout America. But the white residents in Brentwood behave in a uniformly prejudicial way, even though the man who has moved into their neighborhood is a popular television star. When the Walkers are harrassed, even Blake, who is somewhat more refined and presumably less ignorant than the others, seems to think the harassment is wrong—not because it is unfair and cruel, but because it reminds him of something that poor whites in Mississippi would do. Altogether, the novel gives a grim picture of white hatred and prejudice, including that of Stella, who is merely acting out a role as “white.”


Part II: Maps (1978) Summary and Analysis


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