In “We Cast A Shadow,” author Maurice Carlos Ruffin pens a cautionary, albeit satirical tale of hyperbolic racism.
The novel is written in the first-person perspective of a narrator on a never-ending quest to save his son from the real and perceived dangers of having melanin. The main character, who is black, loves his beloved red-haired wife Penny and their mixed-race son Nigel, but finds himself alienated from them both because of his desire to arrange for the “demelanization” of his son.
The novel is set in a Southern city sometime in the future where minorities — black people in particular — are fenced into ghettos, referred to as ‘savages,’ beaten or killed by police for no reason. But for the people of color who are rich enough, lucky enough, perhaps even desperate enough, there are options: a character named Dr. Nzinga offers plastic surgery to bleach one’s skin and change facial features to become white.
This is the main character’s hope for his son, who has a black birthmark on his face that spreads with age. It’s what spurs him on his own Sisyphus quest, causes him to continually humiliate himself at work and become the token face of his law firm in order to secure a bonus to pay for his son’s procedure.
He seems unable to distinguish his desire to save his son from his skin with his own internalized disdain for blackness. This is illustrated in the subtle way Ruffin demonstrates how little the main character thinks of himself — in all 320 pages, he never mentions his own name.
As the novel progresses, the narrator becomes an increasingly unlikable yet sympathetic character, a father doing everything in his power to ensure a better future for his son. His obsession with the procedure leads to arguments with his outspoken activist wife, and yet there are occasional glimpses of logic concerning the reality of being a black man in America.
“She knew the value of dismantling systematic injustice. But when it came to the basics of walking through life as prey, she had no idea,” the narrator writes of his fair-skinned partner.
We Cast A Shadow is a story about a terribly misguided man who loves his family. It’s a futuristic opus that outlines the lengths black Americans, people of color, human beings, can go to survive in a culture and climate that’s becoming increasingly hostile.
Maurice Carlos Ruffin will appear on the panel “Best Debut Novels of 2019” at 10:45 a.m. in room 113 of the Mississippi State Capitol. Other panelists include Julia Phillips, Juliet Grames, and Katy Simpson Smith.
Read our staff picks, which we’ll update throughout the week.