Loyola University Maryland

Messina

Common Text Study Guide

Each year, Loyola chooses a Common Text for all first-year students to read before arriving on campus. During Fall Welcome Week, the Class of 2026 will convene and you will discuss this text with your academic advisor and your fellow students in your Messina group. It is important that you read the text with care and come prepared to discuss the ideas presented in this study guide. The Common Text is considered “common reading” and may be included in Messina course discussions, tests, or assignments. Messina will also sponsor events throughout the year to address themes raised in the text.  

Introduction

The Loyola University Strategic Plan, 2017-2022 describes Ignatian citizens as people who "think of themselves as part of something larger, as responsible for the betterment of our shared world…. who think and act for the rights of others, especially the disadvantaged and the oppressed.” As people living and learning in Baltimore and the United States in 2022, we must explore and interrogate our interactions within our communities, with other communities, and with individual human beings in thoughtful ways. To better understand the complexities of racism, the LGBTQIA lived experience, and a rapidly changing culture, the Loyola University Maryland community chose The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett, as the 2022-2023 Loyola Common Text. 

Accessing Your Book:

Members of the Class of 2026 will receive a copy of The Vanishing Half at summer orientation.  Those not attending an in-person orientation session will receive a code to their Loyola e-mail to redeem an e-book in late June. 

Learn more about how to redeem an e-book on Google Play.

Before you read:

1. What does the phrase, “the vanishing half,” mean to you upon first encountering it?

2. The Vanishing Half addresses both racism and colorism. What is the relationship between those concepts and how do you define each of them? 

3. What do you know about the experiences of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender people in the United States?   What sources do you get your information from?  How (or was) the topic addressed in your schools, peer groups, communities, and families? 

While You Read:

1. In the book, the town of Mallard, Louisiana, was founded by Alfphonse Decuir who is an ancestor to the main characters. How does the town and its history shape the twins and their lives? How does it shape Jude and Early?

2. Intersectionality is a concept that explores how different aspects of a person’s identity and presentation in the world have an impact on how others treat and respond to them. Originally, it was a way to understand that Black women face both racism in the world and sexism, not just one or the other. Today, scholars also consider other aspects of identity as well. What are some of the intersectional aspects of how the world treats and responds to the Vigne twins? To Jude? To Reese? To Early? 
 
3. On p. 14, Desiree thinks to herself that, “the only difference between lying and acting was whether your audience was in on it, but it was all a performance just the same.” What kinds of performance are taking place in the book and how are different characters performing?
 
4. Compare and contrast the love relationships in The Vanishing Half, including Desiree and Early, Stella and Blake, and Reese and Jude. What is the role of truth in each of their separate relationships? How much does telling the truth or obscuring it play a part in the functionality of the relationships? How much does the past matter in each relationship?
 
5. Where and when do characters in The Vanishing Half experience colorism and what impact does it have on their self-image and their lives?

After You Read: 

1. The town of Mallard plays an important role in The Vanishing Half but, “All freshman year, Jude delighted in telling people that her hometown was impossible to find on a map.” Do you think the reader is supposed to believe that Mallard is a real place, or does it symbolize something and if so, what does it symbolize? 

2. What does it mean for Desiree to go back to Mallard and is it the same or different for Stella to go back? 

3. Kennedy and Jude are cousins but have lived in different places, unconnected to each other. Jude mostly lived in her mother’s hometown and knows quite a bit about her mother’s history. Kennedy knows almost nothing about her mother’s hometown or her mother’s history. Kennedy appears to have more privilege while Jude appears to be more driven and more curious about the world. Do you think either has had a better life? 

4. Desiree’s job as a fingerprint analyst in Washington DC is to use scientific methods to identify people through a physical detail that is essential to each individual person. Why do you think the author chose this as a profession for her character? What are other themes of identity and identification did you notice in the book?

5. Consider the various forces that shape the characters in The Vanishing Half into the people they become. In the creation of an individual identity or sense of self, what influence do you think comes from upbringing, geography, race, gender, class, education? 

Engage Further

  1. Passing, a book by Nella Larsen, originally published in 1929. Available at libraries and many bookstores, and on Amazon.
  2. “Passing,” a feature film version of the book, released on Netflix in 2021.
  3. “The Passing of Passing: A Peculiarly American Racial Tradition Approaches Irrelevance,” an article by Robert Fikes, on BlackPast.org. Read it here: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/passing-passing-peculiarly-american-racial-tradition-approaches-irrelevance/
  4. Frequently Asked Questions about Transgender People, with responses and information, prepared by the National Center for Transgender Equality. Read it here: https://transequality.org/issues/resources/frequently-asked-questions-about-transgender-people
  5. A Trans History: Time Marches Forward and So Do We, created by the American Civil Liberties Union, narrated by Laverne Cox. Watch the 4 minute video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-lhWEVByZo
  6. 50 Shades of Black: My Experiences with Colorism, a TEDxVanderbilt talk with then-Vanderbilt student Amaya Allen. Watch the 9 minute video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNNOrM41WyE
  7. “This is America: We Need to Talk about Colorism,” a column in USA Today by N’dea Yancy-Bragg. Scroll down after the first paragraph to continue reading after a bio on the author. Read it here: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2022/02/11/understanding-nuances-colorism-v-racism/6723384001/

Questions

Contact the Messina Office at 410-617-2669, messina@loyola.edu, or browse the website for a list of academic and support services available to Loyola students, including helping you make the transition to campus and college life.

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